A nuclear bully with Korea in his crosshairs

David Whitehouse explains the backdrop to the latest escalation of military threats and counter-threats between the Trump administration and North Korea.

Donald Trump threatens North Korea from his golf club in New JerseyDonald Trump threatens North Korea from his golf club in New Jersey

DONALD TRUMP dramatically raised the danger of war last week by promising to respond to "any more threats" from North Korea by inflicting "fire and fury like the world has never seen." The remark set off a chain of escalating rhetoric between Trump and the North Korean regime that stunned regional allies and rivals alike.

The talk of turning to military action was especially jarring because Trump had just registered a diplomatic success in cranking up pressure against the regime a few days before, when China agreed to tighten United Nations sanctions against the North.

Trump's outburst came shortly after he received a Defense Intelligence report that the North "had cracked one of the final technological challenges in nuclear missile design by successfully producing a miniaturized warhead," according to the Financial Times.

North Korean officials replied to Trump that they would prepare to create an "enveloping fire" of their own by splashing four test missiles into international waters around the island of Guam later in August. One-third of Guam, a longtime island colony of the U.S. in the South Pacific, is home to an air base that houses nuclear-capable B-1B bombers.

Trump responded by doubling down against North Korea's Kim Jong-un, saying, "If he does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before, what will happen in North Korea."

Administration insiders told the press that Trump's "fire and fury" remark was improvised. The aggressive policy, however, is not new. Three days before Trump spoke out, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster explained Trump's endorsement of "preventive war" in an interview with MSNBC:

Well, what you're asking is, are we preparing plans for a preventive war, right? A war that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon? And the president's been very clear about it. He said he's not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States. Look at the nature of that regime. If they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States, it's intolerable from the president's perspective. So of course we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.

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THE WEEK of incendiary rhetoric--particularly the U.S. threat of military action--took U.S. regional allies South Korea and Japan by surprise. Both countries are likely targets of North Korean retaliatory strikes if the U.S. attacks, in part because both countries host U.S. military bases, including 32 on Japan's Okinawa island alone.

South Korean officials initially saw no way to step in while Trump and the North fought their war of words. But on August 14, the South's new president, Moon Jae-in, gave a major address where he took a strong stand against unilateral U.S. action:

Only the Republic of Korea [South Korea's official name] can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action. The Government will do all it can to prevent a war from breaking out.

China, which is North Korea's largest trading partner and closest ally, also weighed in a few days earlier. The semi-official online magazine Global Times issued a warning to both parties on August 10:

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

Although the statement may have been purposely vague, the words suggested that China might tolerate some proportionate U.S. military action in response to even a symbolic show of force against Guam. China was thus telling North Korea to back down on its latest threat.

But the more serious warning seemed to be targeted at Trump. Considering that any military confrontation could quickly escalate into a full-fledged war for control of the peninsula, China's statement declares that a U.S. attack could ignite a new Korean War--one that, like the war of 1950-53, would involve U.S. and Chinese troops in direct combat.

The statements from South Korea and China may calm the situation for a few days, but a new round of joint U.S.-South Korean war games is set to begin August 21 and last for 10 days. Tensions usually peak during these twice-annual military exercises, which involve an influx of U.S. and soldiers and sailors to rehearse the overthrow of the Northern regime. The war games are one of the reasons that the regime has given for pursuing a nuclear deterrent.

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SOUTH KOREA'S capital of Seoul is in the line of fire of about 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces and medium-range rockets. Tens of thousands of civilians, perhaps hundreds of thousands, could die in the first week of a real war.

The country's military is tightly coordinated with U.S. forces. In fact, the U.S. maintains operational command of joint actions in case of war. Yet Trump did not consult the South about raising new threats against the North. One sign of the disconnect with the U.S. and the South is that neither president has yet appointed an ambassador to the other country.

Many Koreans--whether in the North, the South or the United States--were outraged to realize that Trump's vision of "America first" means that Korean lives are expendable.

"My biggest worry is that the U.S. would plot a pre-emptive attack on North Korea and carry it out without consulting our government," Kim Ho-joon, a 40-year-old South Korean office worker, told the Korea Herald. "I think it may be a plausible option for the U.S., because the war would play out on the Korean Peninsula, not on their land."

That's exactly Trump's reasoning, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He told Today Show interviewers on August 2 that Trump is willing to sacrifice Korean lives to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. According to the Korea Times report of the interview:

Graham said that Trump won't allow the regime of Kim Jong-un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to "hit America."

"If there's going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face," Graham said.

"And that may be provocative, but not really. When you're president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States," the senator said.

Graham's exposé of Trump's thoughts provided an opening for Kim's regime to appeal to Korean nationalism, which is strong throughout the peninsula. The regime sponsored a rally that called "for achieving peace through the united efforts of the nation"--that is, without the U.S.

Even the fairly conservative Council of Korean Americans (CKA) raised a protest. The CKA president distributed an open protest letter to the group's members, who include prosperous second-generation immigrants to the U.S.: "This kind of rhetoric is unacceptable to Korean Americans, who came from 'over there' and who have family, relatives, and a shared history with the people from 'over there.'"

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THE SOUTH'S Moon Jae-in took office in May promising to pursue dialogue with the North, but his liberalism has not led him to take a pacifist tack. He initially campaigned in opposition to installing the U.S. anti-missile radar/rocket system known as THAAD, but his government indicated recently that that it may accelerate the system's deployment in the South.

After the North's successful test of a long-range missile on July 4, Moon declared that the South needs to build medium-range missiles of its own. They would be able to reach North Korean targets, but like THAAD, a new set of South Korean missiles would also likely have enough range to reach--and to antagonize--China.

South Korea's subordination to the U.S. means that Moon needs to ask permission to upgrade the missile arsenal. The Pentagon last week gave its own green light to changing the U.S.-South Korean treaty to allow the South to build the new weapons.

When Moon laid claim to South Korea's right to decide on war and peace on August 15, the occasion was a major ceremonial address. North and South both celebrate Liberation Day on August 15, which marks the departure of Japanese troops in 1945 after 35 years as colonial overlords. It is thus a moment to assert Korean sovereignty.

If he really wanted to make a bold stroke for independence from U.S. belligerence, however, Moon could have announced that the South would refuse to participate in the 10-day Ulchi-Freedom Guardian war games that begin next week. Instead, Moon took pains to stress South Korea's political and military connection to the U.S.

He had already signaled his intent to stay in the orbit of U.S. militarism last week after he met with his own top military commanders. Emphasizing the "urgent task of securing defense capabilities," Moon said, "I believe we might need a complete defense reform at the level of a rebirth instead of making some improvements or modifications."

Japan fell into line also. The chief cabinet minister endorsed Trump's right to threaten military action against North Korea. On the day of Trump's "fire and fury" tirade, a pair of Japanese jets joined U.S. B-1B strategic bombers in an exercise over the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, which lies closest to the Korean peninsula.

Itsonori Onodera, the new defense minister, said that Japan has the right to shoot down North Korean missiles if they are headed for Guam. Japan's armed forces are constitutionally restricted to self-defense, but a law enacted last year allows the Japanese military to act in "collective self-defense" of allies like the U.S. The Japanese have accordingly positioned anti-missile batteries in western positions that North Korean missiles might fly over on their way to Guam.

Onodera has also claimed that Japan could invoke "pre-emptive self-defense" to attack North Korean ballistic missiles at their launch sites, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on August 6 that he has "no plan" to consider enabling that option. "We are relying on the United States for [such] strike ability," Abe said.

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IF NORTH Korea is preparing for war, there isn't much sign of it. Robert Carlin, a former State Department specialist on North Korea, told the Financial Times on August 11 that the North has made no real changes on the ground, such as putting citizens on high alert or pulling workers out of factories.

That same day, the 38North blog posted satellite photos of a naval shipyard suggesting that North Korea may be preparing a launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), last tested a year ago in a 300-mile flight. If that is the North's plan for Guam, then missile-armed subs would need to get 1,800 miles closer to the island, which is 2,100 miles from North Korea.

Naval activity could be an instance of North Korean misdirection, but so could the whole threat to splash missiles near Guam. The Financial Times pointed out that KCNA's report attributed the planning for the missile test to advisors, not to decision-makers such as Kim Jong-un, who would have to sign off on any plan.

As the South's liberal Hankyoreh put it, this way of announcing the plan, due to be in Kim's hands right about now, allows "splitting the threat level up into stages"--which, of course, makes it possible for him walk the threat backward or discard it with no real harm to his credibility.

On August 15, Kim did exactly that. The North's official KCNA news outlet declared that Kim would wait and assess Trump's "foolish and stupid conduct" before deciding about missile launches.

For anybody in the Trump administration who thinks that cranking up the level of crisis to the point of crisis will convince the North to disarm, the regime already answered last week: "The strategic weapons that [North Korea] manufactured at the cost of blood and sweat, risking everything, are not a bargaining thing for getting acknowledgment from others." Over the years, U.S. threats have merely reinforced the regime's conviction that it needs a nuclear deterrent to ensure its survival.

The regime even rewrote the country's constitution in 2012 to affirm that North Korea is committed to being a nuclear-armed state.

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FOR THE moment, the Trump administration is tempering its threats of war. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on August 13 that called for negotiations with North Korea and declared that the U.S. "has no interest in regime change."

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is on a tour of East Asia, with stops in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul--where he assured Moon Jae-in that the U.S. regards military action against North Korea as a last resort.

There's some question whether Trump was really prepared for an attack when he made his threats last week. Clearly, he hadn't laid any groundwork with regional allies. What's more, he scheduled the nation's top military officer, Dunford, for his current talking tour right through the potential war zone, and troops were not moving into place for war.

Next week, though, things will be different. Extra U.S. troops will pour into South Korea for war games. If the past is any guide, both sides will re-intensify threats during these military exercises.

At times like these, there is a significant danger of war if either party miscalculates the other's intent.

There is, however, a basic conflict that makes the momentary risks keep emerging. Decades of threats from the U.S. have made the North Korean regime determined to build a nuclear deterrent to ensure its survival, while the U.S. has committed to use any means, including war, to prevent the North from acquiring that deterrent.

Trump's notoriously impulsive personality may make a war more likely, but it's not what drives him into conflict. The conflict is a matter of U.S. policy.

It's a policy, in fact, that he inherited from two previous presidents. Beginning with George W. Bush, U.S. presidents have proclaimed that any effective deterrent against U.S. military action would be treated as a threat to the U.S. Barack Obama affirmed the same stance in 2012. What's more, Obama told Trump that North Korea's weapons programs would be the most urgent problem he would face when he came into office.

Trump makes things more dangerous, but the bipartisan drive for imperial dominance is why the U.S. keeps steering a collision course with North Korea.