Trump's threat to rain fire on North Korean plays directly into the regime’s survival story. There is no victory for anybody hereby Isabel Hilton / August 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is unlikely that Donald Trump is fully aware of it, but his threat to rain fire on North Korean plays directly into the regime’s survival story. North Korea was born in a sea of fire: between 1950 and 1953 the US dropped one bomb on Pyongyang for every inhabitant of the city. By the end, three-quarters of the North Korean capital was destroyed and three million people were dead.
Memory of that trauma is carefully preserved in the Kim dynasty’s mythology. North Korean schoolchildren sing songs about the sea of fire, and of the central role played by the current leader’s grandfather, Kim il-song, as the nation’s saviour. North Korea, in turn, regularly threatens to rain fire on its neighbours. The more Donald Trump boasts that his sea of fire will be bigger than Kim Jung-un’s, the more credibility Kim Jung-un’s defiance gains at home.
North Korea is a source of instability and tension. Its policy, however, as viewed from Pyongyang, is not irrational. North Korea can no longer count on the unconditional support or either China or Russia, as it could in the Cold War. It was listed in George W Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech; since then, the US has been instrumental in the overthrow of the regimes in Libya and Iraq, and has advocated regime change in Syria. The message Pyongyang takes from those events is that a nuclear capability is the best defence. It was, after all, the principle of deterrence that is credited with avoiding nuclear war between 1945 and 1989.
North Korea’s possession of nuclear capability is not the same as the intention to use them preemptively. North Korea’s provocations may be destabilising, but they have not, so far, been suicidal. Pyongyang has taken part in negotiations in the past and in more recent times has offered to talk to the US. Its demands are fairly clear: a formal end to the Korean war and recognition of the regime.
US objectives remain less clear—beyond the demand that North Korea renounce its nuclear programme as a pre-condition for talks. But since the North Korean regime has demonstrated an uncanny skill in playing a weak hand in the past, it is beyond improbable that it would surrender its strongest card before even entering the game.
The US objective ought to be to create conditions in which North Korea felt safe from attack and might be open to a more constructive, or at least less destructive, set of relationships. That is clearly not the case today.
This latest episode in the long and festering crisis on the Korean peninsula is rendered the more uncertain by Donald Trump’s incompetence and unpredictability. That ceased to be a private problem on his election as US president which—we hardly need reminding at moments like this—put him in charge of the world’s largest and most lethal war machine.
Trump apologists seek consolation in the hope that robust US institutions can limit the potential damage. Perhaps—but the risks remain huge, if only because Trump continues to undermine the few working parts of the US government machine with his compulsion to bluster and threaten.
If nothing else, his timing is unhelpful.
For the last several weeks, Rex Tillerson, the hapless US secretary of State, has been building the diplomatic alliances that resulted in the enhanced UN sanctions voted last Sunday, with the support of both Russia and China. Neither Russia or China are enthusiastic about the Kim regime, but they do see a strategic opportunity to push the US out of Asia, helped by Trump’s sabotage of the US diplomatic machine and its diplomatic alliances, and his apparent inability to understand or enact consistent policy. Pressure is only the first step. Without a forward plan, it is pointless.
No doubt efforts are being made to explain to the president that a war with North Korea would kill hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea, potentially including US personnel stationed there—before we even begin to count the other US bases within reach of North Korean artillery or missiles, and, of course, Japan. There is no victory there for anybody.
Rex Tillerson is performing a notable public service by insisting, including to the White House, that the North Korean threat has not significantly changed, even as Trump threatens a sea of fire that few believe the US would be rash enough to deliver. Threats with no follow-through simply weaken the US position further. The danger is that Trump might bluster his way into a corner so tight that he begins to believe that his Twitter feed should, indeed, dictate US policy.