It was a boffo week for Kim Jong-un and not a bad one for Donald Trump. But the time for both men to take a breath and put their political gains in the bank is now. Should either push their luck further, then, you know, really terrible things could happen. But they know that. Don’t they?
Tiny, isolated and impoverished though it may be, North Korea is sparring with the world’s last superpower as if it were an equal. It’s a strange kind of respect it has earned, to be sure. Yet, this is the sort of attention it has craved since the end of the Korean War. And with it comes a chance for leverage. What it needs most is economic help and the game-plan again is a familiar one: extract food aid and sanctions relief in return for some nuclear concessions.
Just as his agenda was crumbling, Trump, meanwhile, found the perfect foil in Kim to reinforce that one thing he wants us never to forget: he is strong. He is the John Wayne of US presidents. “Lock and load,” Wayne declared in the Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” Trump boasted from the golf links of New Jersey on Friday.
There is no evidence the US military is doing anything differently with respect to North Korea than it was before the current crisis blew up. There is no Pacific fleet steaming towards the divided peninsula. But in Trump’s mind, the message was what mattered. My predecessors let you get away with building up your nuclear arsenal. But I’m the new sheriff in town.
What he has a right to be pleased about, however, was the tough sanctions resolution steered through the UN Security Council last weekend – with crucial backing from both China and Russia – by his envoy there Nikki Haley. It was arguably the single biggest foreign policy success of his administration to date. The passage of the resolution, which threatens to cripple North Korean exports, didn’t get much notice though. Maybe it was a peeved Trump who then felt the need to unleash the “fire and fury” rhetoric that took even his closest aides by surprise.
On Friday, the Trump chundering still hadn’t stopped. Kim would “truly regret it” if he were to attack Guam or any other US territory, Trump, the bit still between his teeth, told reporters. “This man will not get away with what he’s doing, believe me.”
Earlier in the week, he had had help upping the stakes, spooking markets and frightening all of us, from Sebastian Gorka, a Deputy Assistant, who thought to spread the fear to Britain, taking to the BBC Radio 4 airwaves so he could disparage US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, one among a few in the administration who seem to be interested in pursuing a diplomatic solution to the crisis. “You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka said. He went on, apparently gleeful about the crisis at hand: “Woe betide anyone who militarily challenges the United States.”
And right on cue, Kim barged forward threatening if not to destroy the US Pacific territory of Guam, home to two sprawling military bases and 160,000 people, then at least to drop some his vaunted new medium-range ballistic missiles in waters a few stone-skips away from its shores.
The message to America to stop this provocative gabbing is coming from allies far and wide as well as from the occasional foe. The escalating threats are now “over the top” warned Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Angela Merkel of Germany likewise demanded a return to maturity. “I don’t see a military solution to this conflict,” she told reporters in Berlin. “I see the need for enduring work at the UN Security Council…as well as tight cooperation between the countries involved, especially the US and China”.
Yes, China. Trump himself has said Beijing holds the key. On Thursday, Beijing issued a chilling warning to both sides by way of the editorial pages of the Global Times, a loud-hailer for Chinese diplomacy. Were North Korea to act first, for instance with a missile attack on or near Guam, China would remain neutral; it would not come to the regime’s assistance. If the US or its allies moved to launch a first strike, China would take steps to “prevent them from doing so”.
That is a bold message that should give pause to both Pyongyang and Washington. But above all else, of course, it is the risk of unimaginable human loss – including potentially in North Korea itself, also known as the DPRK, as well as in the South – that should compel both sides to cool it. It goes without saying, noted Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “The tragedy of war is well enough known, it doesn’t need another characterisation beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic,” he noted. (Take note, Gorka on military matters Mattis is qualified to speak)
Dr Colin Alexander, an expert in East Asian political communications at Nottingham Trent University underscored the point. “Any strike by the DPRK…would result in the DPRK’s destruction as we know it. It would be the Darwin Award to win all Darwin Awards,” he said. “Nuclear weapons are designed to never be used and both sides understand that. No one wants to be accused of a nuclear genocide, not even Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump.”
Even a non-nuclear conflict is almost unthinkable, warned Harry Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC. “If, for example, North Korea were to launch a salvo of artillery shells into Seoul, South Korea’s capital – just a mere 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates north and south – the devastation could be catastrophic,” he wrote for Fox News. “Imagine countless skyscrapers and tall buildings collapsing to the earth, millions of people fleeing to mass transit and clogging all exits out of one of the world’s largest cities. It would be, in many respects, 9/11—but times a hundred.”
Which all means that diplomacy is in fact the only way forward to avert cataclysm, with an outcome that, in the end, is likely to include acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power, however distasteful that might be. “War is not necessary to achieve prevention, despite what some in the Trump administration seem to have concluded,” Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, wrote in the New York Times. “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea – the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War. It will require being pragmatic.”
“Nobody loves a peaceful solution more than President Trump,” Trump told reporters late in the day on Friday at his New Jersey golf club. Is that so? Personally, we might prefer he change his holiday venue to some place really, really far away, so cut off from the rest of the world that the press can’t follow him there. A place where his dangerous John Wayne posturing would vanish into the ether. A place like North Korea.