There was something oddly fitting about a President who prizes spontaneity abruptly deciding to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base and his April announcement that an “armada” was making its way into Korean waters to confront the North over a sanctioned weapons program. Noted critics like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were full of praise when they issued a joint statement urging Trump to “take Assad’s air force…completely out of the fight.” Cable news figures like Brian Williams were almost poetic in their praise — Fareed Zakaria said Trump “became president that night.” White House ally Ann Coulter and Capitol Hill skeptics like Rand Paul and Tulsi Gabbard were not convinced; the Kentucky Senator rightly pointed out that the White House had no authorization to use force because the United States was not attacked.
When two of President Trump’s top aides were interviewed about the strike they offered competing messages about the administration’s priorities. Dissent between a UN envoy and Secretary of State is nothing new, but the decision to publicly broadcast their differences is. What’s worth noting? Supposedly, appearing on cable news is the easiest way to get Trump’s attention and influence his decisions: in this case what would follow a hasty reaction to a chemical attack the president said “choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children” and met his momentary definition of America’s “vital national security interest.” Despite his advisor’s efforts, it’s doubtful the billionaire developer has any interest in overthrowing Syria’s government or grounding its air force; together they would require a greater commitment than any Capitol Hill hawks would be willing to accept.
The decades-old duel on the Korean peninsula is different — it could be dangerous if the White House does not tread lightly. There is more to consider than the so-called Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear program and its advancing ballistic missile capability: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted a live-fire exercise with over 300 artillery pieces that could hit Seoul and has missiles capable of reaching Japan. Their simulated barrage could have been a response by unstable leadership to provocations by US “imperialists” eager to overthrow the Kim regime and sent the USS Carl Vinson carrier group as a threat, but there is another possibility. A cursory review of DPRK parades and threats to launch a “super-mighty preemptive strike” reveals a Communist state that is not suicidal, but is addicted to theatrics because it has little else.
North Korea has suffered famine at home and witnessed regime change abroad, yet the Kim family has remained in power by keeping their military leaders loyal, which requires a delicate balancing act. In that netherworld the state of their nation has no connection to corruption or cronyism that favors the military; it is the fault of foreigners hostile to the Kim government and their philosophy of juche. Ironically, the same weapons programs that are its proudest achievement and supposedly have saved North Korea from the fate suffered by Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya are also drawing attention from the Trump administration. It hasn’t helped that the White House has broadcast the end of “strategic patience,” sent a ballistic missile submarine into the region and arranged joint exercises with South Korean and Japanese forces. By publicly airing out every step in this process they’re playing into DPRK propaganda.
President Trump was right when he said the status quo in North Korea is unacceptable — he could say the same about Venezuela or Iran — but the means available to make the Korean peninsula safe for democracy are limited and risky. It’s likely Beijing has more influence than Xi Jinping is willing to admit, but doubtful that the Chinese president could convince Kim’s government to abandon its nuclear program. Even if the alleged currency manipulators were willing to commit, it’s unlikely the US has enough leverage to persuade the Chinese to abandon a strategic asset. New sanctions? Only if Chinese businesses that deal with the DPRK military are included, which is the best option available but opens the door to retaliation aimed at American businesses.
The rhetoric from Washington resembles what President Obama said about another WMD-armed regime in 2013; after a public threat of “unbelievably small” airstrikes he backed off and lost credibility. The problem wasn’t Obama’s methods, but the mixed messages his administration was sending. In today’s Capitol they’re taking a similar approach: the president has suggested a diplomatic solution can be found if China will cooperate, but in the same interview said a “major, major conflict with North Korea” is possible. Rex Tillerson echoed Trump when he held out the potential for “catastrophic consequences” if Kim’s government does not freeze its weapons programs. The unfortunate reality of a hostile DPRK ruled by the Kim family is likely to persist…using force to bring change demands a greater commitment than anyone on Pennsylvania Avenue would be willing to make.
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