Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy United Nations ambassador, told a news conference in New York last week that the standoff between his country and the United States is “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war might break out at any moment.”
The scary thing is, he’s right.
Unlike the early-2000s showdown with Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction, and the tense 2013-15 U.S. talks with Iran, which had neither bombs nor a weapons program, North Korea actually has at least 10 to 16 atomic weapons, and Kim Jong-un’s one-man regime has been busy building more.
What makes the current moment particularly worrisome is that the leaders of both countries can be described almost identically: rampant narcissists and ultra-nationalists with bad haircuts who love to play with military toys. North Korea, an inward-looking military dictatorship, has for decades exercised a fondness for rattling its sabers. Now, the Trump administration is doing the same, mobilizing an “armada,” warning that “the era of strategic patience is over,” muttering darkly that “all options are on the table” and demanding that North Korea hand over its nuclear capabilities – or else.
Three previous administrations have faced the North Korea challenge, and those tensions rose and fell during the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama eras. But all three leaders to varying degrees were predictable and at least sat atop mature, expert-laden governments. In contrast, Trump is mercurial, wildly unpredictable, and is not only utterly inexperienced in the nuance of diplomacy, but ignorant of even the coarsest outlines of how the world works. He’s given the Pentagon free rein to use America’s vast arsenal with little or no White House oversight. And Trump has left the State Department in Foggy Bottom, led by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, as vacant as a ghost town.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a transition event since World War I when it was nearly April and you have no deputy secretary of State named, no undersecretaries, no assistant secretaries – the entire leadership roster is vacant,” said former State Department official Nicholas Burns in late March.
Not having diplomats in place, and giving the generals an extra-long leash, is an almost perfect formula for blundering into a war.
Trump himself, needless to say, lacks clues. For instance, going into his recent summit meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, Trump had issued a series of aggressive, blustery tweets demanding peremptorily that China snap to it and deal with its North Korea ally. One tweet read, “If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will! U.S.A.” Just days before meeting Xi, Trump told the Financial Times, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” His arrogance – North Korea’s “gotta behave,” he told CNN – ran into cold, hard reality when he mentioned to China’s president his thoughts on how to solve the crisis. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” a confused U.S. president said afterwards. “I felt very strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”
Not, at least, if you paid any attention at all to what your own intelligence agencies were probably telling you from day one. One can only imagine the shuddering and collective eye-rolling at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as Trump’s tweets piled up.
None of this inspires much confidence that there’s a strategy behind the White House’s bluster. And what little confidence there might have been wasn’t exactly given a boost when the White House lost track of an entire U.S. aircraft carrier battle group. On April 9th, The New York Times, citing the Trump administration, reported that the United States has “ordered an aircraft carrier and several other warships toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.”
Trump himself, in a televised interview with Fox Business News, couldn’t contain his almost childish glee:
“We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you. And we have the best military people on earth. And I will say this. [Kim] is doing the wrong thing.”
Asked if he might order those forces into action, Trump said, “You never know, do you? You never know. … I don’t want to talk about it.”
Meanwhile, on the matter of Trump’s “armada,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters, “She’s on her way up there.” Only she wasn’t.
In fact, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group was thousands of miles away, steaming in the opposite direction, to take part in a naval exercise. It was an event that instantly became the subject of worldwide ridicule. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good laugh over this one,” wrote a South Korean newspaper. Gail Collins, writing in The Times, headlined her piece “Paging the Trump Armada.” And the Wall Street Journal, it an editorial entitled “The ‘Armada’ That Wasn’t There,” concluded, “It’s dangerous for presidents to sell a military mirage.”
It’s dangerous because virtually every expert who’s ever dealt with or studied the problem on the Korean Peninsula knows that there’s simply no military solution. North Korea has a million-man army, a huge array of non-nuclear aircraft and artillery, and missiles that could likely devastate South Korea and its capital, Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the border with the north. The North Koreans, with or without their arsenal of nuclear bombs, would strike South Korean cities, air force bases, naval ports – and they night even try to bomb U.S. forces in Japan, including Okinawa. Many tens of thousands, perhaps millions, might die. Even Sen. John McCain, a hawk if there ever was one, told The Hill that a preemptive strike against North Korea is a nonstarter. “There are artillery on the border between North and South Korea that can reach Seoul, and we can’t take them all out before [they launch an attack].”
But McCain’s frequent national security partner, Sen. Lindsey Graham, isn’t deterred. Appearing on NBC’s Today, Graham was asked if the United States ought to consider a preemptive strike. “If that’s what it would take,” he replied. “It would be terrible, but the war would be over [there], not over here. It would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea. But what it would not do is hit America.”
Is there a solution? The Center for Arms Control suggests that the elements of a solution start with diplomacy; restarting the six-party talks among the United States, China, Russia, the two Koreas and Japan without preconditions; seeking a freeze on nuclear and missile tests by Pyongyang; and offering North Korea a package deal that could end its economic isolation. Eventually, the parties could move toward denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula. So far, there’s no sign that the White House is interested in negotiations. They’ve reached for the arsenal, even if they’ve deployed it ham-handedly, and it looks like the armada and the U.S. troop presence is the only tool they’ve got. Like the old saying goes: when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail.