President Trump’s recent tweet claiming that the US has “no choice” but to accelerate its military build-up, has an unusually defensive and self-justifying tone, suggesting a certain level of awareness of the extent to which the situation in Korea is starting to spin out of his control, and may be sign of the pressure he is coming under.
Rumours of a possible nuclear test by North Korea have shifted from the Easter weekend to 25th April 2017, which is the anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s army. In truth it could happen at any time, with the North Koreans now in a position to play cat-and-mouse with the US for as long as they like, ratcheting up the tensions by threatening a nuclear test whenever they please.
The US has dampened speculation of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the test. That speculation was triggered by a report by NBC which gives every impression of having been intentionally planted by the Trump administration in anticipation of precisely such a strike. Talk of a pre-emptive strike however seems to have upset China and – even more importantly – the US’s own allies, Japan and South Korea, causing the US to backtrack so that the contents of the NBC report are now being denied.
The Trump administration is however still suggesting that it will launch a military strike on North Korea if it carries out another nuclear test. Moreover with the UN navy now in the East China Sea and steaming towards North Korea, and with talk of US nuclear submarines equipped with cruise missiles also in the area, the world cannot do other than take these warnings seriously.
The result is that if North Korea now carries out a test – whether on 25th April 2017 or at some later date – and the US fails to react, Donald Trump risks being humiliated, whereas if the US does react by launching a military attack on North Korea for the first time since the Korean war, it risks becoming trapped in a cycle of military situation over which it has no control with a nuclear power over which it knows almost nothing about.
At this point I should say that I strongly doubt speculation that North Korea would not respond militarily to a US strike on itself. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un seems to be still in the process of consolidating his authority, and both he and the whole North Korean leadership have made a fetish of their tough military posture. I cannot imagine that the loss of face involved in not responding to a US military strike is politically acceptable to them, and if the US attacked them it seems to me that they would be bound to respond militarily in some way.
It would be however be up to the North Koreans to decide how far that retaliation would go, and possibly they would initially try to keep their retaliation within certain limits if only to keep their own options for future escalation open.
However with Trump’s prestige now also increasingly bound up with his taking a tough line against North Korea, even if North Korea responded initially in only a limited way, the pressure would then be on him to respond forcefully, especially if South Korean civilians or US military personnel were killed. Again Trump would risk humiliation if he did not.
It is very easy to see how this situation could spiral out of control, with the initiative at all times held by Kim Jong-un, who is in a position to initiate action as and when he pleases.
No leader should ever manoeuvre himself into a situation where the initiative is held by his adversary and where he is at risk either of being either humiliated or of having to escalate in a situation which is not fully under his control. That however is precisely the situation this amateur and inexperienced US President has got himself into.
To compound the problem, in Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime the President is dealing with an adversary about whom he and the US knows virtually nothing about, and whose moves and counter-moves cannot be predicted with any confidence.
Already criticism is appearing within the US of the President’s actions, including this article in The New York Times, which looks to have been inspired by concerns from some officials within the US government, and which makes these telling points
As a candidate, Donald Trump seemed to pay no more attention to North Korea’s accelerating nuclear weapons program, which his predecessor has warned is America’s most urgent threat, than he did to other complex foreign policy issues. Now he is paying attention, but not in a helpful way. His intemperate talk is adding to regional tensions, unnerving allies and likely reinforcing North Korea’s longstanding fear that it could one day be attacked by America — the very reason North Korea invested in a nuclear arsenal in the first place.
It would be risky for Mr. Trump to let overconfidence and bombast, expressed in tweets and public statements, box him into some kind of showdown with the North’s ruthless leader, Kim Jong-un, who has displayed similarly macho traits. South Korea, Japan and even Russia have urged both sides to avoid a devastating miscalculation…..
What’s missing in the White House is a coherent strategy, something beyond statements and asking China for help. Mr. Trump needs to be firm, not reckless in his talk, ratchet up sanctions and find a way to engage the North in negotiations.
Almost certainly Chinese diplomats are working over-time behind the scenes to get Trump to draw back and to persuade Kim Jong-un to postpone whatever nuclear test he may have planned in order to give Trump room to retreat. Trump’s tweet about the US “having no choice” may be an indicator of the pressure he is now under from the Chinese and others.
Possibly if no North Korean nuclear test takes place on 25th April 2017 Trump will feel he can pull the Carl Vinson back without losing face. However in that case the test will almost certainly only be postponed until some later date this year.
In the meantime it is likely Kim Jong-un will have extracted concessions from Beijing in return for his agreement to postpone the test. If so then instead of China increasing its pressure on North Korea – as President Trump says he wants it to – it may actually reduce it.
The alternative is however for an uncontrolled escalation between the US and a nuclear armed power the US knows almost nothing about. The extent of US ignorance of North Korea is shown by US uncertainty even about the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, with some US reports guesstimating the number of nuclear bombs in North Korea’s possession at six, whilst others claiming it may already be as high as 30, and with no-one knowing for sure whether North Korea has managed to develop means to deliver these bombs or not.
That is a terrible situation for the US and for Donald Trump to be in, and it is to be earnestly hoped that they now find the wisdom and the courage to draw back before it is too late, and to learn something from this experience.