Day: September 3, 2017

Tweeter-in-chief meets defiance

Locked and loaded for fire and fury, President Trump now confronts a defiant Kim Jong-un, who has conducted a big (whether thermonuclear is not yet clear) nuclear test, following quickly on a successful missile launch over Japan. Trump had promised none of this would happen. Now that it has, what are his options?

  1. A conventional military attack, presumably targeting North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities. It won’t destroy them all (they are increasingly mobile and hard to find), but it could do some serious damage. The trouble is Pyongyang is likely to respond with a devastating conventional military attack on Seoul. That could escalate quickly to a land war or nuclear exchange. That’s not where we should want to go.
  2. Tightening sanctions. Trump has talked of preventing all trade with North Korea. He hasn’t got anything like the Chinese, Russian and other backing required for that. Unilateral sanctions tightening is near the limit of what can be achieved.
  3. Cyber attacks. I’d be surprised if we haven’t already exhausted their potential. The North Koreans, adept at the cyber game, will retaliate. We’d better be sure we are not more vulnerable than they are. Escalation dominance is vital if you are going to escalate.
  4. More bluster, including UN Security Council denunciation. Trump settled for this last time around. He likely will again. It obviously makes little difference to the North Koreans, who argue they are within their rights, since they have withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to develop nuclear weapons as well as missiles of any range they think necessary to defend themselves. The UNSC has no means to enforce its decisions to the contrary.
  5. Negotiation. Trump once upon a time suggested he would want to negotiate with Kim Jong-un, presumably offering a formal end to the Korean War (until now there has just been an armistice) and diplomatic relations as well as other guarantees that we would not seek an end the North Korean regime, in exchange for some sort of nuclear and missile restraint on Pyongyang’s part. But it is hard to see why  Pyongyang would sign on to that rather than just continue its so far successful nuclear and missile programs until they can credibly threaten the US?

Where does that leave us? Nowhere good.

It essentially means we are going to need to learn to live with North Korea as a nuclear-armed power, one bent on decoupling the US from its allies in Northeast Asia by threatening nuclear attack on the American homeland. The North Korean long-range, potentially nuclear, missiles raise the difficult question of whether the US will risk Los Angeles to save Tokyo or Seoul.

It will be vital in that scenario to maintain as close an alliance as possible with South Korea and Japan, which need to be confident of US support if they are to continue to refrain from developing nuclear weapons of their own. Certainly Trump’s tweeted threat to withdraw from the US/South Korea free trade agreement is the worst possible kind of thing to contemplate, as it would undermine South Korean (and Japanese) confidence in the US as a reliable ally and give them real reasons to think about arming themselves with nuclear weapons.

Trump during his campaign suggested he would be all right with that. He should by now understand how damaging to US interests a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia could be. He should also be having second thoughts about tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, which has so far prevented a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

But second thoughts, or even first thoughts, are not his strong point. His bluster has already contributed to Kim Jong-un’s successful defiance. How many more stupid tweets before Trump precipitates a crisis that irreversibly damages US interests?

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