Defying Former President Obama’s peace-oriented diplomatic approach, President Trump and his war rhetoric with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have been riling the liberal media with hysteria ever since his administration began. This increasingly strained relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un has triggered not only the increase in the DPRK’s militarization and focus on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles but also an internal fracture between President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson regarding the means of approaching the DPRK. Such tension has manifested into stolen US-South Korea missile defense plans, increasingly frequent North Korean missile tests in the Pacific Ocean, and more publicly broadcast North Korean military marches. Meanwhile, shadowed beneath the DPRK’s reclusive nature are millions of North Koreans living in poverty and being robbed by their own state of their political and individual rights. This fragile situation between U.S. and North Korea brings the question of diplomacy into debate. Today, William Gu and Sofia Trigo shall examine and discuss the political nuances in Trump’s approach to DPRK and its state of warfare.
Appeasement in the twentieth century was seen as a mistake, a sign of weakness at a time when the free world needed strength.
Lack of action against North Korea—while not exactly appeasement—in this century is still a sign of weakness. However, it is now lauded, and President Donald Trump’s (seemingly) pro-intervention stance and bellicose attitude towards North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is often ridiculed.
Trump’s pro-interventionist stance, however, should not be ridiculed when American strength is sorely needed . A pro-intervention stance may actually be the best way to dismantle North Korea’s brutal regime
North Korea is a threat to world peace, not because it has nuclear weapons, but because it is a highly unpredictable rogue state with nuclear weapons that believes having nuclear capability is the only way to perpetuate the current regime’s survival . While Kim Jong-un is admittedly rational, his entire rationality is based on using his nuclear weapons in order to bargain for his regime’s survival.
The Kim regime’s survival, however, is inherently detrimental to peace in the Korean Peninsula and the world. This regime is one that plays brinksmanship with South Korea and the US in order to force its only major ally, China, into taking a softer and more favorable stance on the Kim regime .
By using nuclear weapons and the threat of war as bargaining chips, the North Korean regime constantly heightens tensions on the peninsula, and between two superpowers, the US and China. The firing of artillery into South Korea—which could easily cause escalation into a full-blown conflict . Having North Korea play with fire is an unacceptable risk. With tensions already high in the peninsula and between the world’s superpowers across the globe, having a powder-keg regime is undesirable, not to mention that this regime undisputably creates horrible living conditions for its own citizens. Causing internal regime change through intervention would not only diffuse situations between major world powers but also improve living standards for the North Korean people—any regime would be better than the current one.
While President Trump may call for “fire and fury,” and de facto declares war on Twitter, realistic military options are more limited . While “fire and fury” would almost definitely bring about intervention on behalf of the Kim regime from China and possibly Russia, a limited, surgical strike that is just enough to take out North Korea’s offensive military capability, nuclear arsenal, and its regime is the best option. Such a military option also has minimal risks.
While many believe that any military strike into North Korea would put Seoul at risk of being “flattened” by North Korean artillery, and put Japan at risk of nuclear attack, those two risks—which seem to be the main concerns—are largely myths . On the issue of Seoul being flattened by North Korea’s “large” arsenal, actual figures of North Korea’s artillery capabilities prove that Seoul is actually under minimal threat, especially if the United States launches a preemptive strike at North Korea’s artillery placements around the demilitarized zone. While North Korea does have 13,000 artillery pieces placed near Seoul, artillery is relatively non-lethal, as it could not produce the densities of fire capable of creating mass destruction beyond terror and harassment, especially with North Korea’s inaccurate and aging artillery designs . Besides this limitation, only 700 of North Korea’s guns have the range to strike Seoul, and those weapons are limited to a maximum calibre of 170mm—light compared to naval artillery designs of over 400mm that caused so much destruction during the Korean War and the preceding world war . A preemptive strike could take out most, if not all, of North Korea’s 700 artillery pieces capable of hitting Seoul, therefore minimizing this risk.
"A preemptive strike could take out most, if not all, of North Korea’s 700 artillery pieces capable of hitting Seoul, therefore minimizing this risk."
As for threat towards Japan, South Korea, and other US allies from North Korea missiles, this risk is again minimal. While conventional South Korean, Japanese, and American anti-missile defenses could easily mitigate any North Korean missile strike, as unsophisticated North Korean missiles have few countermeasures that normally would pose problems for those systems, many anti-interventionalists have voiced concerns about North Korea’s ballistic missiles, which could be armed theoretically with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads. These concerns are again largely exaggerated. The United States has sixteen naval warships equipped with anti-ballistic missile capabilities in the Pacific, and more onshore facilities that are perfectly capable of dealing with unsophisticated North Korean ballistic missiles or conventional missiles . The lower success rates of intercepting ballistic missiles are usually under the assumption that those missiles are launched from America’s peer adversary countries, like China and Russia, who possess much more sophisticated ballistic missiles and cruise missiles designed specifically to counter American defenses.
With the missile threat from North Korea mitigated, any action the regime takes would undermine itself. If Kim Jong-Un decides to not invade South Korea, he would lose credibility, which severely limits his options for future. If Kim Jong-Un does invade, he faces loss of legitimacy and regime change, according experts who believe that North Korea does not have the logistical base to supply its troops for more than 3 days in an invasion of South Korea .
Finally, the big “if” question—whether China, or possibly Russia, would intervene on North Korea’s behalf—is not as scary as the media plays it to be. Despite seeing North Korea as a buffer state between itself and what it sees as the US puppet of South Korea, relations have soured between the two nations. The execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle and the arrest and conviction of former Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang—the latter of corruption and “treason”—over a Chinese-involved coup plot to overthrow Kim Jong-Un and replace him with Kim Jong-Nam (who was assassinated later) demonstrates this strain . Unless if Trump wanted to make North Korea a part of the Republic of Korea, China would have few objections to a regime that would replace the Kim regime amid a military strike by the United States. As long as North Korea stays a buffer state between China and South Korea, China has little reason to oppose the United States—a major trade partner—in a conflict that could lead to another world war.
Any intervention by China would not be directed at the United States, but rather to make sure North Korea stays as a state. Germany’s unification, which pushed NATO’s borders a thousand kilometers closer to Russia, has taught China the consequences of a unified Korea .
Military intervention in North Korea, or even a pro-interventionist posture, is good for peace in the region and the world, and also could provide the North Korean people for a better life, as any regime after Kim’s would probably be better for living standards. Risk is minimal, and nations such as China would be unlikely to oppose US military intervention, as long as Trump does not push for a unified Korea.
If it does come down to military strikes, as the world, we must hope that Trump would not echo General MacArthur’s sentiments about a full-out invasion of North Korea, which would certainly escalate the conflict. However, except in that very unlikely scenario, military intervention, or even a pro-interventionist stance, might be a stroke of foreign policy genius for Trump.
Taking a stance on foreign policy inherently requires identifying the policy to take a stance on. But this notion proves difficult - impossible even - when considering Trump’s interaction with North Korea. In fact, we have little concrete ‘policy’ to go off of. Instead, in an all too fittingly ‘Trump’ fashion, we must rely on disturbing tweets and haphazard conversations with reporters to any form kind of coherent understanding of Trump’s foreign policy regarding North Korea.
Just last week President Trump published a series of revealing tweets writing, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done !”
Soon after posting, “Rocket Man” went viral, perfectly embodying the phenomenon that is the Trump presidency: Attention. What are we to make of this? How does the President of the United States think it remotely acceptable to demean a dangerous dictator on a public social-media platform? How, too, does the President justify publicly undermining his Secretary of State’s legitimacy and authority?
Dissecting Trump’s tweet for concrete policy regarding North Korea may sound absurd, but is the only viable option we have been given. Pushing aside its medium, the tweet re-directs our attention towards the possibility of nuclear action. President Trump clearly dismisses ‘negotiation’ or diplomatic relations with North Korea, and instead endorses ‘doing what has to be done.’ For the Trump Administration, this is looking more and more like waging nuclear war.
The consequences of this action would be utterly catastrophic. In an interview with Newsweek, Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif) and outspoken Trump critic said "That is an unbelievably bloody scenario...North Korea is an absolute danger and threat, and we need to take its ability to kill a lot of people seriously .” Issuing tweets as the only means of foreign policy strategy completely disregards the calamity that is a nuclear crisis.
"Issuing tweets as the only means of foreign policy strategy completely disregards the calamity that is nuclear crisis."
To make matters worse, President Trump made another disturbingly ambiguous statement. Standing amid top military commanders at a White House gathering, Trump told reporters: "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it's the calm before the storm .” Calm before what storm you might ask? Again, there is no concrete answer nor particular policy response at hand. This is yet another exemplification of the ‘attention phenomena’ that dominates Trump’s non-existent foreign policy and the administration on the whole.
If we look to tweets and interactions with reporters, Trump appears ready – eager even -- to wage nuclear war and action against North Korea. We know that Kim Jong Un has conducted numerous missile tests and is serious about using nuclear power as leverage against other counties. Trump, however, can’t seem to grasp the severity of the current situation.
What should be proposed by his immediate advisors and pushed by Congress is drafting a legitimate foreign policy plan. The President must be accountable. This is no novel notion. It is a built-in prerogative of the job--the paramount obligation of the executive– to maintain the security and safety of the nation. Yet, in his tweets and one-off comments, Trump proves to think otherwise. If foreign policy experts don’t begin to apply more pressure on the administration to draft legitimate military policy regarding North Korea, we are left not only in the hands of an unprepared government but also, entirely exposed and vulnerable to the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea.
On the other side of the aisle there is Ronald Reagan, one of the most beloved Republican presidents in modern American politics. Many seem to forget, however, that he too was an outsider candidate when he ran for Governor of California in 1966 and for President in 1976. Reagan gained exposure through a successful television career that allowed him to break into politics. One key component of the Reagan campaign was breaking the Republican establishment platform. The result was the creation of the foundation of the Republican party we know today. Fewer taxes, increased military spending, and more conservative trade and foreign affairs agreements . Reagan may not stand as high as Truman in presidential rankings, but he remains a major source of inspiration for current Republican leaders.
Reagan and Truman show that regardless of party affiliation, outsider candidates are capable of effecting meaningful change in the country. Though there are some dangers to populism if it is left unchecked, it is important to remember that the American people often demonstrate good judgment of character, even when the political pundits and establishment politicians tell them otherwise.
REBUTTAL - AGAINST
Often times, it can be tempting to equate reactionary policy with justified policy. That is, to consider policy enacted immediately as warranted because of the current circumstance at hand. When regarded in retrospect, however, reactionary policy is often deemed far too extreme and in need of much revision in order to endure.
Writer William Gu, makes precisely this mistake in his piece praising Trumps military stance on North Korea. He seems to argue that because there is no other viable option, waging nuclear war is the ‘lesser evil’ of policy routes. To clarify: nuclear war and foreign policy plans strike at two fundamentally different executive actions. Drafting concrete policy that provides for both defense and potential attack plans sits drastically apart from engaging in nuclear war and confronting its catastrophic consequences.
Gu doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two. If we equate Trump's foreign policy on North Korea to waging nuclear war, then we have utterly lost sight of the primary value and purpose of foreign policy in the first place. Justified foreign policy requires an in depth understanding of the current situation, a nuanced evaluation of the consequences of action, and numerous consultations with policy advisors and experts. The Trump administration has engaged with none of these three components regarding North Korea. Thus, it becomes obvious that Trump has proposed no ‘real’ foreign policy but instead used the looming threat of nuclear war as a facade for such.
Gu also fails to acknowledge the irony that the very President who sells himself as ‘the world’s greatest dealmaker’ has entirely dismissed any sort of negotiation or diplomatic relation with North Korea or, even, the surrounding peninsula . In other words, we are confronted with a deal-maker incapable of making deals. Perhaps if more emphasis were to be placed on active, diplomatic discussion with North Korea, ‘waging nuclear war’ wouldn’t appear to be the ‘lesser-evil’ of foreign policy options.
"‘waging nuclear war’ wouldn’t appear to be the ‘lesser-evil’ of foreign policy options."
Moreover, we should not have to filter or refine the President of the United States’ foreign policy stance for concrete meaning. Gu, nevertheless, struggles to do so when he sifts through Trump's’ tweets for rational and deems the President's social media stance “innocent.”
Simply because it might be difficult for the Trump administration to act on the President's declaration of “fire and fury”, does not mean the possibility is non-existent. We should be cautious before relying so heavily on the structure of our government and its ability to separate and check executive power in today's day and age.
Likewise, we should not have to “hope that Trump would not echo General MacArthur’s sentiments”, as Gu put it, but rather have a concrete foreign policy at hand, in order to truly evaluate -- not simply assume -- the Trump administration's stance on North Korea.
REBUTTAL - FOR
If President Trump were judged by his tweets, people would think America is in the midst of a civil war. However, what matters more are his actions. And his actions have been, quoting Trump, “tremendous”; even Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse his actual policies on North Korea, although she did blast Trump’s aggressive tweets .
Ms. Trigo argues that Trump’s aggressive stance on North Korea is a bad decision and that Trump “can’t seem to grasp the severity of the current situation”; however, history shows that of all the recent presidents, Trump has come the closest to ending the Korean crisis with an interventionist stance that echoes the late President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy.
"Trump has come the closest to ending the Korean crisis with an interventionist stance that echoes the late President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy."
Trump’s aggressiveness, whether he realizes it or not, is a stroke of foreign policy genius. No previous president has managed to convince China and Russia—the Kim regime’s only “allies”—to sanction and isolate North Korea as much as Trump has . A strong America commands respect in the world, while a weak, indecisive America only brings disrespect and boldness of its potential adversaries, as Russia has demonstrated through its own aggressive intervention in Syria.
Trump’s tweets might indicate insanity, but these 240-character long thoughts are only part of his strategy of “unpredictability,” a trait America sorely needs in order to keep up with a more complex and smarter world. If Hillary Clinton could separate policy from Twitter, so can the rest of the world.
Trump’s strong, interventionist stance will once again bring “peace through strength,” and turn potential adversaries into partners in containing a rogue state that constantly launches missiles to send a message to adversaries—far more reckless than innocent tweets.
Sources and Notes
Featured Image Source: "North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)" by (Stephan)— Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://flic.kr/p/2yRkCU