US President Donald Trump is certainly taking a different approach from his predecessor in tackling the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons. He has adopted the type of macho language used by George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who warned Pakistan in the aftermath of 9/11 that if it didn’t cooperate it would be bombed back “to the Stone Age”.
Pakistan ultimately complied with Bush’s ‘War on Terror” demands, but whether Trump’s bombastic rhetoric will persuade North Korea’s President Kim Jong-un to abandon his cherished nuclear deterrent is a long-shot — and that’s putting it mildly. Like his father, Kim was born believing his country was a US target for destruction.
From his perspective, nukes and long-range missiles are his insurance policy against regime change and they will never be on the negotiating table according to North Korean officials. No doubt Kim views President Obama’s military intervention in Libya as an example of why Washington’s commitments cannot be trusted.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi relinquished his nuclear programme in exchange for US security guarantees and the lifting of sanctions, yet Libya was attacked by a US-led coalition in 2011 with devastating consequences. Obama later admitted to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Libya was his worst mistake, adding “It didn’t work”.
Most defence experts agree that a military solution to Pyongyang’s rapidly advancing nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles capabilities will not only not work, it would be a catastrophic mistake. In the least case scenario, a pre-emptive strike would elicit retaliation causing the death of tens of thousands of South Koreans on the first day.
The governments of South Korea and Japan, which are reliant on the US for protection, are not surprisingly maintaining virtual silence on Trump’s military “locked and loaded” tweet and his “fire and fury” rhetoric.
That said the nationals of North Korea’s neighbouring countries are alarmed. Over the decades they’ve become immune to threats from the North Korean regime as meant largely for domestic consumption to bolster the leaders’ tough guy image, but this latest war of words have many seriously rattled.
North Korea’s latest statement that reads “If the Trump administration does not want the American empire to meet its tragic doom in its tenure, they had better talk and act properly,” might once have merited a few newspaper column inches, written off as bluster.
Now that the US is engaging in war games with South Korea and relocating US nuclear assets to the region, a major conflict, once unthinkable, has entered the realm of possibility.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken up against Trump’s “escalation of rhetoric”. Russia’s Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov has characterised the rhetoric as being “off the charts” and sees the risk of conflict as being very high.
China’s President Xi Jinping has urged both sides to show restraint and agree to dialogue. An article in the Chinese state-run Global Times confirms Beijing’s neutrality in the event Kim Jong-un launches a first strike.
Ominously, the paper also warns that “if the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime ... China will prevent them from doing so.”
China does not accept more US military bases within its sphere of influence and is rightly concerned that in the event of war, millions of North Koreans will be clamouring to enter its borders.
Trump holds that China is the key to bringing President Kim into line. When it comes to ensuring sanctions bite, he is correct. The problem is that China’s once close relationship with North Korea has been slowly fracturing.
Curiously, although the US needs China on board its efforts to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula, Trump has chosen the moment to launch a probe into the country’s intellectual property practices and is mulling slapping Chinese imports with high tariffs. “If China helps us [with North Korea] I feel a lot different toward trade,” Trump said.
This current standoff, which many pundits liken to the Cuban missile crisis, is particularly concerning for several reasons.
Firstly, Kim Jong-un is an unknown quantity. No one can predict how he will react with his back pressed against the wall. Secondly, Trump is no peacemaker. On the contrary, according to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, early in his candidacy he discussed nuclear weapons with an expert on foreign policy. “If we have them, why can’t we use them,” he allegedly asked on three occasions?
The question many ask is this. Does a US President require Congressional assent before he can declare war?
Congress is constitutionally empowered, but cannot prevent the president from acting in the event the US is faced with an imminent attack during an initial 60-day period. For instance, Obama ordered strikes on Libya without a rubber stamp from lawmakers. Moreover, the decision to press the nuclear button rests solely with the Commander in Chief.
The diplomatic route can only bear fruit once both sides in this verbal conflagration turn down the heat. Unless the muscle-flexing protagonists are willing to sacrifice millions of lives, they should heed the wise words of Sir Winston Churchill who once said “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”
— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East