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Korea Crisis: Trump”losing control of his rhetoric” but without any plan for attack

Shortly after both the Chinese and the Russians expressed their growing exasperation at the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang – for which they are increasingly blaming Washington rather than Pyongyang – US President Trump and the Pentagon have cranked up the war of words further by making more threats against North Korea, some of which some are taking to mean that a US attack on North Korea is imminent

In reality the US military in the Pacific is always on stand-by to carry out a retaliatory strike on North Korea if North Korea launches an attack.  However as Malcolm Nance, a former US naval intelligence officer, has pointed out there are none of the normal indicators of heightened alert at US bases in the region, and the US military is in no position to launch a pre-emptive all-out war against a nuclear and missile armed North Korea at a moment’s notice that some are afraid of

US Defense Secretary General Mattis appears to be of the same view.  Hours before President Trump’s latest comments this is what he said to reporters in California

My portfolio, my mission, my responsibility is to have military options if you need it.  However, right now, Secretary Tillerson, Ambassador Haley, you can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results. And I want to stay right there right now. The tragedy of war is well enough known. It does not need another characterisation beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.

These are not the words of a general preparing his troops for battle.  On the contrary they show that General Mattis finds the prospect of war with North Korea horrifying, and has no plan for it.

In fact if President Trump’s words are parsed carefully it is clear that he has no plan for an immediate attack on North Korea either.  On the contrary both his tweet which I quoted above and his verbal comments to reporters show that his comments are not intended to prepare the ground for a US attack on North Korea but rather to deter a North Korean attack on the US, and specifically the North Korean threat to launch a missile demonstration against Guam

[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,” Mr Trump said. “It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. He’s not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States….

There were no mixed messages.  The people of our country are safe. Our allies are safe. And I will tell you this, North Korea better get their act together or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world……

A number of points however need to be made about all this.

Firstly, this is a war of words the President Trump himself has started.

The last North Korean action was the second Hwasong-14 ICBM test on 28th July 2017.  This was followed by the UN Security Council meeting which imposed further sanctions on North Korea on 4th August 2017.

Nothing has happened since then to justify President Trump’s sudden escalation of rhetoric, which began with his “fire and fury” comments of three days ago.  The North Korean threat to launch Hwasong-12 missiles in the direction of Guam was made in response to those comments.

If the rhetoric between the US and North Korea has escalated to unheard of levels over the last few days, the person responsible for that is President Trump.

Secondly, this war of words which President Trump has initiated is not deterring North Korea.  On the contrary it is giving North Korea the attention it wants.  Nothing suits North Koreans better than a rhetorical battle with the US, which not only emphasises North Korea’s importance but which serves to rally China’s and Russia’s support to North Korea’s side.

Thirdly, the war of words looks dangerously like a bluff even if it is actually intended to call North Korea’s bluff.

Just as President Trump lost face when he failed to act on the threats he seemed to be making against North Korea in April, so he risks losing further face if he fails to act now, even if his actual intention is to do no more than deter North Korea from launching its own attack.

Fourthly, the war of words is angering the Chinese and the Russians, and is forcing them to align themselves with North Korea in ways that they would probably not wish to do.  Already the latest verbal exchanges have forced China to say publicly that it will defend North Korea if it is attacked.

In other words instead of isolating North Korea President Trump’s rhetoric is rallying Chinese and Russian support for it.

Fifthly and lastly, President Trump’s rhetoric is causing alarm and dismay not just amongst the US’s friends – who are horrified by the prospect of a war between the US and a nuclear armed North Korea – but within the US itself.  Anyone who has watched the video of General Mattis making his comments to the reporters in California on Thursday (see the link above) can see how unhappy he is.

This is a bad situation for President Trump to position himself into, where more and more people are starting to blame him for the crisis than Kim Jong-un.

Moreover as the Chinese have said, this reckless game of chicken President Trump is playing with the North Koreans runs the real risk of someone doing something really dangerous and stupid in order to avoid losing face, in which case it is easy to see how the situation could spin catastrophically out of control

The real danger is that such a reckless game may lead to miscalculations and a strategic “war.” That is to say, neither Washington nor Pyongyang really wants war, but a war could break out anyway as they do not have the experience of putting such an extreme game under control.

My best guess is that what has triggered this sudden explosion of rhetoric is the shock of President Trump and his officials at being told by the Defense Intelligence Agency that the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons has progressed much further and much faster than expected, so that a scenario where North Korea can strike at the continental US with nuclear missiles – which most US officials thought would not happen for another 20 years – is one which they are facing now.

For President Trump this must be particularly humiliating given that at the start of his Presidency he said North Korea would never be allowed to achieve that sort of capability.

President Trump needs to put this sense of shock and humiliation to one side.

That North Korea now apparently has the continental US within range is not his fault.  It is the fault of his predecessors – most especially of President Obama – whose response to the gathering North Korean crisis was to kick the can down the road.

As for the supposed danger of a North Korean nuclear strike on the US, as I have said repeatedly unless the US attacks North Korea that danger does not exist.

What President Trump needs to do in this situation – which he is perfectly right to say he has inherited – is not crank up the rhetoric to its present dangerous levels.  That only risks war or humiliation and plays directly into Kim Jong-un’s hands.  It is to talk instead.  The recent sanctions resolution passed by the UN Security Council – over sold though it is – gives him the cover to do this.

He should do as the Chinese and Rex Tillerson his own Secretary of State are urging him to do, and start these talks without delay.

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