Despite taking two weeks off for a golfing holiday, Trump’s first summer in the White House has been far from sedate and has been notable for a further ratcheting up of tensions with North Korea. The most recent nuclear hubris, fiery language and bellicose rhetoric on both sides came after the last bout of tensions in April. Four months ago the North Korean question was merely one part of a triumvirate of international disputes hitting global headlines which also included the US military dropping a MOAB on Islamist targets in Afghanistan and giving Assad a metaphorical slap in the face following chemical weapons attacks on civilians in Syria. However the latest tensions have, perhaps for the first time since the Clinton administration faced off against Kim’s father (Kim Jong-Il) in 1994, prompted real concerns of a major conflagration between the Confucianist-Stalinist-absolutist regime and the US.
Given the current state of affairs, two questions come to mind. Firstly, are the present tensions Trump’s fault or are they a consequence of North Korea’s advancing nuclear programme? Secondly, and perhaps most pressingly, will the US current strategy of a mixture of threatening ‘fire and fury’ and more circuitously pressing further restrictive sanctions via the UN and looking to China actually achieve any tangible gains in the form of denuclearisation or at least lessen the tsunami of anti-American outpourings from the regime?
To address the first question, given the alarming progress that North Korea appears to be making in both constructing an ICBM capable of hitting the US mainland and also miniaturising a nuclear warhead to be fitted to such a device, any occupant of the White House would have felt compelled to act. The prospect of a uniquely peculiar state, whose founding philosophy ever-increasingly no longer appears to be mere Juche but instead undiluted anti-Americanism, having Weapons of Mass Destruction really is too much for the US establishment to swallow. Evidence of this claim has already been mentioned in relation to the events of 1994 when President Jimmy Carter played a notable intermediary role in brokering an agreement between the US and the DPRK, which involved the latter agreeing to halt its nuclear programme in return for US assistance in its desperate need for energy sources, at a time when the DPRK analogously appeared to be making rapid progress toward the fulfilment of its nuclear ambitions. Furthermore, it would be difficult to argue that President Trump could have taken any other course of action as the President’s approach has been multifaceted. Not only has Trump engaged in a game of military brinkmanship but he has also attempted to cajole China into putting greater pressure on Pyongyang, without whom the DPRK would be starved of their limited coal supplies, and it is difficult to imagine the regime would subsequently be able to survive. Therefore, it would appear that Trump can hardly be blamed for the origination of the current crisis.
Far more importantly however – is Trump biting off more than he can chew in thinking that the US can actually fashion some recognisable victory out of this seemingly kaleidoscopic melodrama? Essentially yes. For Trump and the US, North Korea is one fight too many for three key reasons. Only the first, and least important of which, is something that the Americans can actually control:
Firstly, a paradox at the centre of US strategy is the mismatch between Trump’s twitter pronouncements and US naval operations. More specifically, whilst Trump has claimed that the US is ‘locked and loaded’, American battleships and battlecruisers have been sailing away from the vicinity of the Korean peninsula. To counter any claims that this is all a part of a brilliantly self-contradictory grand strategy, the recent naval tragedy in which currently 10 American sailors are missing after the USS John S. McCain crashed into a cargo ship off of Singapore suggests that the US Navy is suffering operational difficulties. Clearly, any verbal action/threat against the North has to be matched by concrete action to stand any hope of being successful which, at least at the moment, is not the case.
Secondly, how would the US intervene if the decision was taken to launch a pre-emptive strike? If recent interventions in the Middle East teach us anything it is that there has to be both an entry and exit strategy. What both strategies would entail are about as clear as mud. Any US invasive action could prompt a nuclear attack on the East Coast if indeed Pyongyang now has deliverable weapons; or if not then the North could certainly devastate Seoul through conventional military means – look no further than the South Korean President’s appeals for peace as evidence of this. Furthermore, envisaging a scenario where the Kimist regime has been overthrown, what would replace it? Due to the economic chasm between the North and South of the peninsula, inevitably any reunification would not be Germany in 1989 but the inevitable mass migration from North to South, most likely accompanied with great loss of life.
Finally, both simultaneously the key to the crisis and the greatest complication is China. Just how would China react to any American intervention? Despite the passage of sixty-four years and a lot of political water under the bridge since the ceasefire of 1953, one constant since the Korean War must surely be that China is not likely to tolerate the presence of US or probably UN troops stationed along the Korean-Chinese border, which would make any limited war in Korea just about impossible.
So what are we left with? Overall, it appears as though in seeking to find a solution to the ‘North Korean question’, perhaps in reality the US has nothing to offer. So instead of being ‘a fighter’, a personality trait Trump so greatly admires, he should adopt his other self-adopted alter-ego – that of the expert dealmaker and look for a less direct approach to the North Korean question.