by John Feffer
The rhetoric has been intemperate to say the least. President Trump has called the leader of North Korea “little rocket man.” In his recent speech before the National Assembly in Seoul, Trump called North Korea a “prison state.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has retaliated by calling Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.”
The question on everyone’s mind: will the war of words turn into a real war?
The optimists argue that war is very unlikely. After all, North Korea knows that if it were to attack the United States – or South Korea or Japan – it would suffer massive retaliation. A first strike by North Korea, in other words, would be suicidal. Since Kim Jong Un wants above all to maintain his own rule and the continuity of the regime, a war with his infinitely more powerful adversaries must be very low on his to-do list.
Okay, then what about Donald Trump? Is he crazy enough to attack North Korea?
When it took office earlier this year, the Trump administration conducted a strategic review of North Korea policy. The review produced two recommendations: maximum pressure and diplomatic engagement. It did not recommend regime change. Nor did it recommend war.
The Pentagon is well aware that North Korea, though outgunned militarily, can still wreak considerable damage. Its artillery, positioned within firing distance of Seoul, can cause thousands and thousands of deaths. It also has chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. military does not want to put at risk all the people who live within the range of North Korean weapons – and that includes tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers.
Another reason why the optimists remain optimistic is that neither side has made any serious preparations to launch an attack. Yes, the United States has conducted military exercises in the region, most recently a naval exercise including three nuclear aircraft carriers. And the United States certainly has contingency plans for a war with North Korea. But so far these don’t add up to preparations for an actual attack. The same holds true on the North Korean side.
The pessimists are not so sure. They are worried because wars often don’t happen as the result of a specific plan. Wars happen because of mistakes, miscalculations, or misinterpretations. The United States might think that a North Korean missile test is actually a missile attack. North Korea might interpret a naval exercise involving U.S., Japanese, and South Korea forces as the first move in a full-scale assault.
Also, at some point, the North Korean leadership may feel as if it is backed up against the wall and has no choices. It doesn’t want to give up its nuclear weapons. It is being squeezed by sanctions. Its putative allies are keeping their distance. It might think that war is its only option.
Meanwhile, Trump might actually believe that U.S. missile defense systems are effective. Even though the Pentagon knows that the tests have been effectively rigged to prove that these systems can hit a bullet with a bullet, it has proudly trumpeted these “successes” to ensure a continued flow of funding from Congress and boost sales to allies. If Trump believes that missile defense actually works, however, he might order a first strike against North Korea thinking that the United States and its allies can knock down any possible retaliation from Pyongyang.
Pundits in Washington are getting increasingly worried about the risk of war. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the probability of war at 50/50. Some members of Congress are so concerned that they’ve introduced legislation to prevent the president from ordering a first strike on North Korea without getting congressional approval beforehand.
There’s still a chance that Trump will negotiate with Kim Jong Un. Also on his visit to Seoul, the U.S. president called on Pyongyang to “come to the table and make a deal.” Unlike with Iran and Cuba, Trump has no Obama-era agreement to tear up. The best way to prove that he’s better than Obama is to negotiate a deal that eluded the previous administration.
So, war or peace?
There’s also a third option: continuation of the status quo. Here’s a story from Donald Trump’s own history as a businessman that illustrates what may well be the most likely scenario.
In the early 1990s, when he was expanding his Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City into a lot owned by another unfinished casino, Trump wanted to buy up a nearby house owned by Vera Coking. The widow had already fended off attempts by the owner of the unfinished casino, forcing the construction company to begin building around her house. Now Donald Trump wanted to buy her place, tear it down, and turn the space into a parking lot.
Vera Coking again said no.
Trump tried to persuade her into selling. He offered a lot of money. She still said no.
Then Trump tried to pressure her. He enlisted the city government to threaten her as well. They went to court.
Vera Coking called Donald Trump “a maggot, a cockroach, and a crumb.” And she refused to concede defeat. She fought Trump and the city government in court. And she won.
She lived in the house for another decade, in the shadow of the tall casino. Eventually Trump Plaza closed in 2014. And Trump sued to have his name removed from the now decrepit building.
North Korea is another Vera Coking. It has said no to Donald Trump. It has insulted Donald Trump. And it has resisted an enormous amount of pressure.
Vera Coking had the law on her side. North Korea has nuclear weapons. The stand-off will probably continue just as it did around Trump’s casino. Eventually, Trump will leave office after nearly bankrupting the United States.
North Korea, meanwhile, hopes to have the same success as Vera Coking. It wants to have the last laugh. But the stakes are much higher on the Korean peninsula than they were in Atlantic City. So, Pyongyang should consider making a deal with Trump. Even if the next person in the White House is less insulting, he or she will not necessarily be more interested in negotiations.
Reprinted, with permission, from Hankyoreh. Photo: Graffiti in Vienna (Wikimedia Commons).