TRUMP’S “FIRE AND FURY” RESPONSE TO NORTH KOREA: HOW CAN IT END?

By

Harry C. Blaney III

Donald Trump at press event today in while on vacation in NJ: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.” “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

This is an very scary preview of Trump’s view of how to “deal” with a contending and critical conflict situation that may escalate the trajectory towards catastrophic destruction rather than moving toward de-escalation. Words matter on both sides as do threats especially by those that have the power of nuclear weapons.

The background is of a long history of negotiations by the U.S. with North Korea whose formal name is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Past negotiations and short lived agreements failing, have resulted with a dangerous stalemate created by both sides. Past administrations trying to open new talks with North Korea rejecting the pre-condition of stopping building and testing of these weapons.

Recent intelligence reports indicate North Korea is more advanced in both nuclear weapons and ICBM’s than assessed earlier. Thus indicating that North Korea was getting close to having its long range intercontinental missiles reaching mainland U.S. Most recently after a series of missile tests and threatening statements from North Korea President Kim Jong Un Kim, the United Nations Security Council acted this last weekend with new sanctions after North Korea carried out recently two intercontinental ballistic missile tests. The new sanctions it is predicted would reduce North Korea’s annual export revenue by about a third and hopefully hindering its ability to raise resources for added developing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Just after the threatening statement by Trump, North Korea President Kim replied by threatening the ability to strike the U.S. territory of Guam. What each side needs is to avoid being drawn into a very stupid tit-for-tat escalation – the last thing anyone with sense would want to see. We now have late tonight an added threat by President Kim.

Almost all experts, who are not dire war hawks on this issue, are saying this is an unnecessary escalation now which would be best approached by intensive diplomacy. Not by bluster and threats on either side. This means the need by top leaders to work to tone down that harsh rhetoric by all sides. For America, if neither the White House Chief-of-Staff General Kelly or the head of the NSC General McMaster, can tone down Trump. If on China’s side, they can’t accomplish that end, our already fragile world will be in even deeper perilous trouble. The last thing China wants is a war on their borders.

We need to work closely with South Korea as they have the most to lose with total destruction, given the alignment of North Korea forces on their border. This is not often understood by Trump.

What then are the paths forward? Alternative options include a preemptive strike, a response second strike….all of these would be catastrophic given any normal fairly known scenario for all sides and even for the world. It would be reckless beyond imagination. We can again try direct contact and direct negotiations which would be our first likely option if both sides were sane.

That is sadly not a sure thing. North Korea has said they will not give up their nuclear weapons of missiles under any conditions. We have said we would not talk unless they stood down on their nuclear and missile program. Thus our existing stalemate. Their goal is to get American forces out of South Korea. We are committed to staying and defending South Korea – and for that matter Japan. Yet there have been innovative diplomacy ideas, like we have worked on in the Middle East, to find some way to decelerate the conflict and create a more stable situation. Whatever outcome, both sides would need to see that this diplomacy would achieve better security and peace than the status quo.

My own thought should these options not work, is we try what is called close “indirect mediation or negotiations”close in the same hotel or city, via a third neutral but very able person(s) that both sides can trust. We have used this mechanism, as have others in talks, for example between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Henry Kissinger also has used a version of this approach. There is also the more clumsy long distant bilateral mediation or “good offices” where a mediator would fly from one capital to another back and forth trying different solutions, seeking common ground and some level of agreement. One other related inducement for both sides may be for North Korea to offer to temporarily “stand down” on any new work on weapons and the other interested parties to temporarily to not enforce the new sanctions that were recently imposed. We need perhaps also a “sticks and carrots” approach.

In any case, the sad part is that the first truly existential challenge Trump has faced has shown a level of recklessness, stupidity, and created greater danger to peace. All in a critical region that requires the greatest attention, patience, deep knowledge and expertise Trump is wholly lacking and unwilling to consult and use. Sad for us!

We welcome your comments!

 

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More On North Korea – More Kabuki or Is it Serious?

The on going, made for TV, North Korean crisis rattles on and there are now two main camps of thought. One is that Kim Jong-un is mostly “blister and threat,” but seeks some advantage from the allies rather than full out war. The other is that Kim is irrational and may just blunder into a real “war” by miscalculation. Some are arguing that stern and harsh responses are the way to deal with the North – a view of some South Korean officials and politicians and of our home grown American “war hawks.” The other is a view that we should “stand down” and do nothing that might provoke Kim Jong-un to commit foolish acts.

My own reading is that the Obama administration and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have what I will call a “precautionary and preparedness” strategy. Namely, to do what is necessary to put in place our military assets that are largely defensive and to not act in a preemptive and overly aggressive stance that might lead to unnecessary and dangerous escalation. Not a bad combination.

My hope in the meanwhile is that they are working the diplomatic tract with China, as I have suggested earlier, to clamp down the “upward trajectory of conflict.”  Again, here China is the key as they can’t be anything but alarmed that a major conflict in the Korean peninsula would be a total disaster for them in strategic, economic, and political terms.

Right now my judgment is “just right” in terms of American moves and words……and hope that back channel intensive work is being done on all fronts.  Here our allies in Japan, South Korea, and, yes, China on this issue, need to be using the same playbook.  In time, with the right moves, the immediate round of escalation might ratchet down, but in the long-term we need to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat and we need to find some modus vivendi. This might take many years of work and lots of creative constructs to put this danger back into a safe bottle.