No wonder President Donald Trump hankers after his old life. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier,” he told Reuters. For some reason he never imagined that holding the fate of the planet in his hands would be a tad harder than signing cheques, hosting a reality show and doing deals on the golf course.
He has also discovered that being Commander-in-Chief holds little sway with either Congress or the judiciary, which have been a major impediment to his policy goals. His famous wall cutting off Mexico may never be built. His travel bans may never be implemented. His replacement health care bill faces severe Congressional hurdles. And I am certain it’s beginning to dawn on the president that eradicating Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and mediating Middle East peace are almost Sisyphean tasks.
To cap it all he has inherited a serious dilemma. What to do about North Korea that poses an existential threat to America’s allies South Korea and Japan, not to mention the US mainland? This burgeoning crisis is not something that can be brushed under a rug. Trump’s predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush were well aware that North Korea was expanding its nuclear capabilities and attempting to produce long-range, nuclear-capable long-range missiles but kicked the ball down the road in the absence of clear-cut solutions.
However, a report published in the Japan Times based on a memo exposed by WikiLeaks, reveals that Bill Clinton travelled to Pyongyang in a private capacity to meet with the late Kim Jong-il in 2009 hoping to obtain the release of detained American journalists. Referred to by Kim as “a leader of etiquette, confidence and loyalty”, Clinton received a warm reception, so warm, in fact, that it looked as though the six-party talks might be reinstated. In the event, preconditions set by Seoul and Tokyo as well as Pyongyang’s subsequent test of a satellite test using missile technology knocked Clinton’s initiative on the head.
Most interesting of all is that the memo shows that the former North Korean leader was not only pragmatic, indicating chances at rapprochement were missed. The memo reveals that Kim Jong-il resented his country being placed in Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ and suggested that if the Democrats had won, “the United States would have had a new friend in north-east Asia in a complex world”.
Since 2009, relations between Washington and Pyongyang have gone from bad to worse. The 27-year-old North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, is no chip off the old block. He is far more ruthless, egotistic and unpredictable. He basks in the adoration of his people and brooks no criticism even from those closest to him.
His father may have been open to dismantling his nuclear capability provided sufficient carrots were proffered, but Kim Jr is not so disposed. His nation’s nuclear arsenal is his pride and joy as well as being an insurance policy against aggressors. He would rather his people starve than give up the nuclear notch in his belt. The world cannot turn a blind eye to a hostile nuclear-armed North Korea flexing its muscles while threatening to reduce the United States and its regional allies to ash, but let’s attempt to look at this from young Kim’s perspective. There are few persuasive precedents.
Method to Kim’s madness
Saddam Hussain had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction by the mid-1990s. Muammar Gaddafi agreed to eliminate his nuclear weapons programme in 2003 in return for an end to United Nations sanctions. Both former leaders were brutal, their countries remain in intensive care to this day. It is only natural that Kim would be highly mistrustful, wary of sharing a similar fate.
Kim has been judged by some as irrational, but there is a method in his madness. He murders his critics and potential rivals such as his uncle and half-brother. He keeps invaders at bay with a 1.3 million-strong standing army, an array of sophisticated ballistic missiles and the spectre of nuclear war.
It has finally hit home for Trump that China may not be the key to a happy ending after all. The Chinese leadership is taking a harder line with its unruly neighbour, but it has its own concerns. It does not wish to bring Pyongyang to its knees, fearing a massive influx of refugees and the empowerment of US interests in its neck of the woods. Secondly, subjecting North Korea to total isolation has inherent dangers. When cornered with little to lose, the unknowable Kim Jong-un could decide to strike first, taking down America’s allies along with him.
Trump’s threats to his adversary on Twitter and warnings from members of his team that a military option is on the table only serve to up the ante. “A major, major conflict” with North Korea “is possible”, Trump disclosed to Reuters. Translated that means a global nuclear war. As unlikely as that is at this juncture, to imagine the future of the planet rests with a murderous, unhinged fan of the Chicago Bulls and a former bankrupt casino owner who announced US missiles heading to Syria were targeting Iraq is enough to make anyone shudder.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.