During the past eight months of confrontation between the Trump administration and the Kim Jong Un government in Pyongyang, South Koreans have for the most part been going about their daily business with the thought that this crisis, like others before, will pass. But in the view of this American observer, that complacency should end after the speech Trump delivered today to the UN General Assembly, where he put the world on notice that, unless Kim (or “Rocket Man,” as he derisively calls him) gives up his nuclear weapons, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
This threat of inflicting genocide against a country with 25 million people, many of them with family and relatives in South Korea, has in recent weeks become conventional thinking in Washington. From H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the idea of a “military option” that could “annihilate” the North is now firmly entrenched within government and being echoed by the many war propagandists in the US media and cable news. I conclude that, unless the South Korean people and their government wake up to the fact that Trump and his gang are serious about their threats, they may face a crisis worse than the 1950-1953 war that took the lives of an untold number of Koreans.
Already, Trump’s speech today has angered and energized US peace groups. Hours after Trump’s belligerent appearance at the UN, three organizations condemned his threats and issued an urgent call for action. “We need to stop this slow roll toward a catastrophic war, and work towards defusing the North Korean crisis diplomatically,” said Credo Action, Win Without War and MoveOn. They warned that “war on the Korean peninsula would likely kill millions of Koreans, Japanese, and American troops stationed in the region” and “inflict a humanitarian crisis not seen since World War II.” Several groups plan to demonstrate at the UN on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, “Women Cross DMZ,” the global women’s peace organization that traveled across the North and South Korean border in 2015, is drafting a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging him to appoint a special envoy to Korea to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The group hopes to get North and South Korean women’s groups to endorse the letter, Christine Ahn, the organization’s founder, told Newstapa. “If there were ever a clarion call for us to get organized and mobilized, it is now,” she said. In a prepared statement, Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association, a prominent peace research group, criticized Trump as well. “It is naive to think that sanctions pressure and bellicose U.S. threats of nuclear attack can force North Korea to change course,” he said.
The shift in Trump’s focus from diplomacy to war began during the US-South Korean “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” war games in August. Shortly before they began, Kim Jong Un cancelled plans to shoot missiles towards the US military base on Guam (where the B1-B bombers that fly during the exercises are based) and declared that he would carefully watch the “Yankees” before making his next move. This elicited a positive response from Trump, who praised Kim’s “wise and well reasoned decision” in a tweet. Possibly in response, the Pentagon quietly reduced the number of US troops involved in the exercises, from 25,000 in 2016 to 17,500 this year.
But the key elements of the exercises, including training in “decapitation strikes” on the North Korean leadership, remained. That apparently triggered the North’s decisions to go ahead with another series of missile tests, including the two shots fired over the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Then, on September 2, it tested its sixth – and largest - nuclear bomb. With the situation escalating, McMaster, a retired general who became famous in 2007 for leading the US counterinsurgency war in Iraq, signaled a change in US policy by speaking openly of a “preventive war” aimed at stopping “North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon.”
The nuclear test, which experts on North Korea’s military had predicted for months, also seemed to push Trump over the edge. A few hours after he learned of the explosion, he insulted President Moon Jae-in by tweeting that South Korea’s “talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” and declaring that “talking is not the answer!” After meeting with Trump that day, Secretary of Defense Mattis escalated the rhetoric, saying that any “aggression” from North Korea would end with its “total annihilation.” Although the US is “not looking” for that, he added, “we have many options to do so.” North Korea’s only option in this scenario is giving up all of its nukes, period; or face US wrath.
Even past US negotiators with North Korea seem to agree that talks with North Korea are useless unless Pyongyang first agrees to denuclearize – a precondition it has rejected many times in the past. On Monday, Christopher Hill, who was the chief US negotiator during the Six Party Talks from 2005 to 2009, told a Washington forum organized by the corporate-funded US-Japan Research Institute that imposing that condition was only natural because it would return North Korea to the status quo it agreed to in 2005. In the declaration that year, Pyongyang “agreed to denuclearization with all five partners,” he said. Therefore, demanding North Korea repeat that pledge is “not a precondition, he said (in his only criticism of Trump, Hill stated that “it’s not very helpful to call South Koreans appeasers.”)
Also on Monday, Mattis increased the pressure on Pyongyang to force denuclearization when he told reporters that the Pentagon was considering military options that somehow would not “put South Korea at grave risk of counterattack” from the North. This marks a significant difference from his past statements, including his assertion last May that a war on the peninsula would be “catastrophic” and “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes.”
Last weekend, Barbara Starr of CNN, one of the Pentagon’s favorite correspondents, provided details from “current and former administration officials” about Mattis’ potential strike plan. She described a week-long air campaign that would not only target North Korean missile sites but the thousands of conventional artillery North Korea has placed just north of the DMZ.
“Internal Pentagon estimates calculate it could take a complex air bombing and cruise missile campaign a week or more to destroy whatever weapons can be found from satellite surveillance, although US officials believe they know where much of his weapons inventory is located,” she wrote. Many of the attacks, she said, would be carried out by US F-35 stealth fighter jets, which are based in the US Marine Base in Iwakuni, Japan. They often fly to Korea in formation with B1-B bombers from Guam as a show of force to Pyongyang.
Indeed, the Japanese connection to Trump may be another factor in the US tilt towards military force. Trump’s closest confidante on North Korea – and the man he inevitably calls first during every crisis – is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Frightened by the missile tests over their islands, Abe and his supporters have rallied behind Trump’s more militant posture towards Pyongyang and, as I observed this week in Washington, are making a strong, renewed effort behind the scenes to influence Washington’s policy on North Korea.
On Monday, one day before Trump’s speech, published an unusual op-ed in The New York Times tacitly endorsing the idea of a military attack if sanctions fail to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear program. “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table,” he wrote. Similar assertions were by Japanese speakers at the Monday forum where Mr. Hill spoke. Mitoji Yabunaka, the former Japanese negotiator at the Six Party Talks, noted that he has heard many Americans argue that it’s “not realistic” to think North Korea will denuclearize, and that the US should concentrate on managing North Korea’s arsenal.
That “might suffice US interests,” but is unacceptable to Japan, he said. “We are already being [threatened], so that doesn’t work for Japan.” “The objective” of any negotiations “must be clear – denuclearization,” Yabunaka said. “In that sense, I’m encouraged that Trump is sticking to that.” His presentation was organized by the Japanese organization but took place at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-established think tank.
If South Korea wants to avoid entanglement in a war, President Moon, in the opinion of this observer, may want to seize leadership of the crisis before Trump and Abe insist on a solution that could lead to a serious military confrontation with North Korea. Such a war can only lead to disaster for all Koreans, no matter which side of the DMZ they are on.