In confronting North Korea, Trump risks disaster

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President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday was heavy on misleading claims and nationalist vitriol, yet rather light on foreign-policy chat. What Trump did discuss about global affairs, though, has already raised alarms.

The president lobbed more rhetorical broadsides at North Korea, a country whose perceived nuclear threat has loomed over the first year of Trump’s presidency. “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.”

Trump pointed to Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector seated in the gallery of the House chamber, describing him as a “witness to the ominous nature” of the regime. The president relayed Ji’s story — one of crushing hunger, lost limbs and dangerous escape — as further proof of North Korean perfidy.

He used the moment, as he has in the past, to bemoan the “complacency and concessions” that supposedly defined his predecessors’ dealings with North Korea — as well as perhaps the dovish disposition of South Korea’s left-leaning government. Now, Trump warned, he was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure” on Pyongyang as part of a tougher global posture.

“Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy and our values,” Trump said. “In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense.”

Observers were quick to point out that “unmatched” American power has done little to end protracted conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. And Trump’s bluster exacerbated fears in South Korea that the White House is seriously considering some sort of strike on North Korean targets, a move that would instantly put millions of Korean lives at risk.

The spotlight will fall on the peninsula next week: On Feb. 9, the Winter Olympics get underway in South Korea; a day earlier, the North will stage a huge military parade — likely bristling with displays of armaments that carry coded warnings to the wider world. And while South Korean President Moon Jae-in is trying to use the moment to engage Pyongyang, Trump’s own persistent saber rattling makes things trickier.

“This puts Moon Jae-in between a rock and a hard place,” said Lee Chung-min, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, to my colleague Anna Fifield.

The sense of apprehension in Seoul only deepened after my colleagues broke the news that the name of Victor Cha, Trump’s widely respected candidate for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, had stunningly been withdrawn from consideration for the post.

Cha, an academic who served in the George W. Bush administration, is known for his hawkishness, but he apparently found the White House too hawkish for even his taste. According to reports, he disagreed with the desire among some in the White House to launch what’s known as a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea — a theoretically limited assault intended to send a message rather than trigger a war.

On Tuesday, just hours after his removal from the nomination process was made public, Cha published an op-ed in The Washington Post outlining his concerns. He acknowledged that some within the Trump administration are seriously considering a “preventative military strike” in the hopes of forcing Kim Jong Un’s regime to the table to negotiate an end to its nuclear program.

Indeed, Trump administration officials have invoked the threat of force against North Korea as an alternative to the now-maligned “strategic patience” of the Obama administration, believing that violence is the only language that the Kim dictatorship truly understands. White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster appears to be the leading proponent of this argument, suggesting in public remarks that North Korea can’t be simply “deterred.”

But Cha believes a preventive strike would be far too risky.

“Some may argue that U.S. casualties and even a wider war on the Korean Peninsula are risks worth taking, given what is at stake,” he wrote. “But a strike (even a large one) would only delay North Korea’s missile-building and nuclear programs, which are buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs. A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, turning what might be a North Korean moneymaking endeavor into a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.”

He also took aim at McMaster’s theory of deterrence. “If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” he wrote. “And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?”

Simply put, a strike on North Korea could easily spin out of control. 

“A U.S. operation may not achieve its objectives, and even if it does, it would still leave the decision of whether or not to retaliate up to Kim,” wrote Mira Rapp-Hooper, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “The North Korean leader would make that decision based on his own beliefs about the strike once it took place, not based on American wishes for his response. If he did decide to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.”

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