On North Korea, Trump’s people sound just like Obama. Is this reassuring?

Photo: North Korean missiles via Independent

President Trump recently bused all 100 U.S. senators to the White House for a briefing on North Korea. His position on Korea now matches the Obama administration’s, in a shift similar to his reversals on NATO, NAFTA, and chemical weapons in Syria. Has he gone sane? Let’s look at the statement.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has nukes, missiles (although they keep misfiring), and a propensity for statements threatening the United States. Ignoring a threat like this is unwise. We could bomb him, but that could start a nuclear war and doom million of South Koreans. We could apply additional economic sanctions, but sanctions have little effect on a nation as isolated as North Korea. We could persuade China to pressure him, but that would take skillful diplomacy and concessions in other areas.

This strategic blind alley is where we now sit. Except for the urgency that comes from more test explosions and missile launches, it’s pretty much where we were during the Obama years as well.

But where Obama was thoughtful and deliberate, Trump tends toward impulsive, intuitive shows of force (like raining down cruise missiles on Syria). So what’s he going to do?

Bringing the senators to the White House for a briefing was unprecedented. The contents of the briefing were classified, but the reaction of most senators was confusion — they heard about the threat, followed by options that seemed a lot like what they’d heard before. (The Washington Post said “frustrated lawmakers want details.”)

The Tillerson-Mattis statement on North Korea is content-free

To clarify its position, the Trump administration issued a straightforward statement from its top officials. It’s free of jargon and passive voice and has only a few weasel words. This is remarkable, since it doesn’t even hide the fact that Trump’s officials have said nothing all. Statement below with weasel words highlighted and my translation.

Joint Statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats

Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
April 26, 2017

Past efforts have failed to halt North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs and nuclear and ballistic missile tests. With each provocation, North Korea jeopardizes stability in Northeast Asia and poses a growing threat to our Allies and the U.S. homeland.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority. Upon assuming office, President Trump ordered a thorough review of U.S. policy pertaining to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.).

Translation: North Korea is scary. We haven’t stopped them. We’re trying to figure out if Obama missed something.

Today, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, we briefed Members of Congress on the review. The President’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our Allies and regional partners.

Translation: Best thing we could figure out is sanctions and pressuring China. Yes, that’s what Obama did, but it’s all we’ve got.

We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on the D.P.R.K. in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue. We will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with our Allies, especially the Republic of Korea and Japan, as we work together to preserve stability and prosperity in the region.

Translation: We have diplomats. We made phone calls to the countries closest to North Korea. We would prefer not to have a war.

The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Allies.

Translation: We have no idea what to do next. Could be anything.

If you’re comfortable about what happens next, you’re crazy

Trump has failed to undo Obamacare, define a clear path on tax reform, undermine NATO, start building a wall, or pass an executive order on immigration that would withstand judicial review. He’s been ineffective so far. But with North Korea, his decisions will matter. So let’s take a look at what might happen next:

  • War. After North Korea finally launches a successful test missile, the US starts raining down bombs on North Korean facilities. They’re buried deep, so some of them remain workable. Kim Jong-un sends armies and bombs into South Korea. America and its allies respond, leading to a widespread war. North Korea attempts to launch a missile at California.
  • Diplomacy. China pressures North Korea into talks. It promises to halt missile development in exchange for lifting of sanctions. China insists on US concessions on trade. North Korea violates its promises and continues to build weapons. In other words, we end up right where we are now, except with China and North Korea stronger.
  • Proliferation. Diplomatic efforts fail. North Korea continues to build and arm missiles and aim them at the U.S. Iran, Syria, Russia, and central Asian former Soviet Republics start to build up their arsenals as well, some buying technology from North Korea’s nuclear program. The world balances on a hair-trigger.

These are terrible options. You can blame Obama for letting it get to this point, but that’s irrelevant now. We have a president who might do anything at any moment. While this might deter irrational actors, it might also lead to nuclear armageddon.

The fact that Trump officials sound just like Obama on North Korea is not reassuring me.

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One Comment

  1. The simplest explanation for what’s going on is that NK wants nukes to guarantee against ‘regime change.’ Given the fate of folks like Saddam and Ghadafi this is quite rational.

    Despite NK’s rhetorical excess, there is little evidence that NK would launch a first strike of any kind against the US, SK or Japan. Doing so would be suicidal and would work against the entire point of the nickers program, which is regime preservation. North. Korea hasn’t invaded anybody in more than 69 years, a record the USA can’t match. Having nukes may possibly embolden NK acts of terrorism, but obviously that would be less damaging than a major war.

    Yes, it would be nice to stop NK from developing deliverable nukes. Maybe the first step towards accomplishing that goal would be to ratchet back the threats a little.