It seems that within the mainstream media, the White House, the Department of Defense, and now The Republican Gun, the current nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea is dominating the conversation. It’s unfortunate, as both your previous piece and several books I’m currently reading have caused me to ponder some large issues that deserve lengthy discussions. And, with the beginning of the 2017 Fall Semester quickly approaching at the time of this writing, the urge to converse philosophically is surging through me.
But the call of nuclear conflict is sounding loudly, as is the geopolitical version of a Twitter feud between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. In recent days, the “Lukewarm War” between Washington and Pyongyang has been escalating to a boiling point. The decades-long North Korean tendency to strut and fret upon the world stage is now backed by nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” putt us ever closer to military action as he enjoys his seventeen-day golf retreat in New Jersey.
Maybe Trump’s planning to settle this impasse over an intense round of eighteen holes. If that’s the case, I look forward to the forthcoming “Caddy Shack Accords.”
There’s a thick nimbus of uncertainty surrounding the world right now. In previous discussions, I’ve mentioned the profound nervousness that was felt by non-Trump supporters immediately following President Trump’s election. Our current situation, or one similar to it, was a focal point of that nervousness. Those, like me, who doubted – and continue to doubt – Trump’s competence, temperament, and ability to effectively lead, feared that such a delicate situation might be left in Trump’s tiny hands.
However, I want to be clear that I don’t blame Trump for our North Korean problem entirely. I don’t even blame him for the majority of what’s currently transpiring. I only charge him with the perpetuation and ineffective handling of the grave circumstance that was thrust upon him and his administration. I’m instead casting the majority of my ire and disappointment upon the almost seventy years of failed U.S foreign policy in relation to the Korean Peninsula. Presidents of both parties are culpable in allowing the Kim Dynasty to fulfill its nuclear ambitions.
So, what do I mean exactly when I reference our failed foreign policy? What entrenched beliefs about North Korea lead us to this game of radioactive chicken? In a broad sense, our policy on the matter has been equitable to waiting out a coming storm, and it’s now up to President Trump to decide whether we can afford to wait any longer. In order to speak more specifically about the problem, we must go back to the 1950s and the Korean War.
The United States’ first failure in the case of North Korea came at the hands of General Douglas McArthur, who we’ve mused about during previous discussions. McArthur contributed to North Korea’s current ascension by losing an objectively winnable war. He was even in the process of winning it. However, the cardinal sin of him taking a step too far toward the China-Korea border caused a Communist avalanche of Chinese troops to rush southward into Korea. With the backing of China and the Soviet Union, the northern forces uprooted the American foothold in the region, and pushed the front line back to the 38th Parallel from which it came. With that string of humiliating events, North Korea was established as both a country and as a resentful enemy of the West – the United States in particular.
With the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, and the development of a specifically Korean Cold War between the North and the South, the United States shifted its focus toward the wider global conflict between Capitalism and Communism. This shift included the eventual commitment to deploying American forces in Vietnam. The Kim Dynasty, specifically its founding patriarch Kim Il-Sung, was left to slowly develop North Korea into the dystopia we’re currently saddled with. Even after the economic implosion, and subsequent collapse, of the Soviet Union, the so-called Hermit Kingdom was looked upon with contempt as the triumphant West awaited North Korea’s seemingly inevitable self-inflicted downfall.
Here’s where the titular concept of nuclear negligence comes into play, and where I actually give the Trump administration a modicum of praise. Since the United States ceased its military action in the Korean conflict in 1953, the issue of North Korean nuclear development has been the sixth or the seventh or the tenth issue on any given presidential administrations’ to-take-care-of list. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has moved this issue right to the top of their national security concerns. Whether it was the Cold War, the War on Terror, or a possible U.S-China trade war, something has always superseded American concern of North Korea’s global ambitions.
Now, to be fair to previous administrations, the close ties between China and North Korea have continued to muddy this matter following the end of the Cold War. However, I still remain critical of previous administrations’ actions, because whenever the North Korean issue would dominate the conversation it’d only do so for a brief and insufficient amount of time.
This is also why I only give Trump slight praise, because, although this is rightly his number one concern at the moment, it’s only because the situation was thrust upon him by failed foreign policy norms. Barack Obama knew Ballistic Kim – as you amusingly call him – would occupy most of Trump’s time in terms of national security, which is why he extensively discussed the matter with then-President-Elect Trump during their famous Oval Office meeting. Perhaps Obama did this to make up for his unfortunate failure to resolve the situation, as his plan of “strategic patience” did nothing to diffuse North Korean aggression.
The United States is not only to blame because of its inability to act, but also because of its ability to take impetuous actions in other parts of the world. It would seem that throughout the latter part of the 20th century, as well as the early 21st century, the United States inadvertently drove up the value of possessing nuclear weapons and reminded countries across the world how to deter American military action within their borders. The United States did this by continuing the Cold War practice of openly challenging militarily conventional and denuclearized adversaries, while contentiously negotiating with nuclearized ones. There’s several citable examples, of which I will explore some recent examples.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq – an invasion which was largely justified by the belief that Iraq was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. At the time, unbeknownst to the American people, both the federal government and the United Nations knew that Saddam Hussein didn’t have any completed WMDs. The fact that we knew that there was no nuclear threat granted the U.S. military the go ahead to safely invade an objectively weaker power. However, before 2003, there were serious questions as to whether Iraq was in possession of powerful weapons – chemical or nuclear. During that time of uncertainty, the U.S and its allies were hesitant to take overt military action in the region. It wasn’t until we were practically 100% sure that Saddam didn’t have WMDs that the Iraq War was initiated, and Saddam was deposed.
Fast-forward to 2011, when the world found itself amidst a massive Middle Eastern demonstration of democratic fervor – the Arab Spring. This call to arms across the Middle East resulted in several national conflicts throughout the Middle East, including the Libyan Civil War. While the war was initially contained to Libya, it eventually involved the intervention of the United States military through our deployment of targeted airstrikes. U.S. intervention in foreign wars may not initially mean much, but the fact that Muammar Gaddafi ceased all Libyan nuclear development in 2003 at the behest of the United States greatly relates the conflict to our current conversation. One couldn’t be blamed for making the logical leap that if Gaddafi had kept a firm grip on his covert nuclear program then the likelihood of his overthrow would have decreased significantly. However, he – like Saddam before him – was deposed for his lack of nuclear insurance.
Everything I’ve observed and have been told about North Korea makes me draw two conclusions about it: they have a long political memory and they’re sticklers for detail. So, when they see the immense vulnerability of non-nuclear nations in the Atomic Age, they draw a straight line to their best option for maintaining the stability of the Kim regime. It may seem like I’m being overly critical of the United States, which I suppose – in a certain sense – I am. However, with the harshness of my criticism being acknowledged, I’d also like to acknowledge that some of these outcomes were both unforeseeable and unavoidable. The United States only has so much attention and geopolitical capital, which must be spent sparingly and in the most pressing places.
It’s also important to point out that the United States isn’t alone in its culpability for the world’s current debacle. As fellow, but arguably lesser, superpowers, China and Russia deserve some blame for North Korea. They shouldn’t be blamed exclusively for their Cold War exploits in relation to the Korean Peninsula, but also for their post-Cold War relation to North Korea.
China has been propping up the Kim regime for years, and capitalizing on the North’s ability to act as a buffer state between China and the West. It seems clear to me as to why China has been hesitant to put pressure on the Kims, and do everything in their power to avoid an implosion of North Korea. If North Korea were to either collapse or be overthrown, a united Korea would place the powerful influence of Capitalism and the West at China’s front door, as well as set off a humanitarian crisis on the China-Korea border. Droves of brainwashed, malnourished, and uneducated Koreans would attempt to swarm China. In that case, China’s first – and perhaps best – option would be to forcefully resist their entry, but that would certainly draw ire from the global community. So, as of right now, China’s best option – in their eyes, anyway – is to continue their own form of strategic patience when handling their ward to the south.
In the same vein as the United States’ military actions promoting the obtainment of nuclear weapons, Russia has also done so in their own little way. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further shadow invasion of Ukraine in 2014 shocked the world, but it seems to have also fallen into the pattern of denuclearized countries being relegated to the toybox of global superpowers. Ukraine destroyed the entirety of its nuclear stock in 1994, which preempted its future beckoning and acceptance by the West. However, it did nothing to prevent a pseudo-Soviet modern Russia from attempting to reclaim the former Soviet satellite. It would seem that Ballistic Kim is learning from both the Russian and American playbooks of military aggression and global domination.
I feel like that’s an overall assessment of the “how’d we get here” question, even though I’m sure I’ve missed some events and nuances related to our strained relationship with North Korea. But now, let’s move on to where we are today and my thoughts on Trump’s response.
Let’s start with Trump and his rhetoric. While giving a press conference on the topic of the Opioid Crisis, the unrelated, but crucial, subjects of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and inflammatory comments were brought up by an attending reporter, which prompted the President to respond. What followed is now famously – or infamously, depending on who you talk to – referred to as the “Fire and Fury Speech.” I’m split on the topic of Trump’s speech, but only slightly.
In my view, it’s important that the United States reasserts itself as a world power that is to be both feared and respected. It seems that we’ve lost that important quality over the past half-century, which has caused the American brand to take an incredible blow. So, I’m in favor of taking a rigid stance and projecting power when it’s necessary, which it currently is. Many political actors and pundits have criticized Trump’s tough talk toward North Korea, but I could probably come up with more incendiary rhetoric than fire and fury. Threatening to drive the North Korean civilization into the sea comes to mind, as does salting the Earth in which it rests. Now that’s incendiary!
Although, even if I support the idea of framing the situation in our favor, I don’t agree with how Trump went about it. As with most of his statements, Trump’s verbal posturing in New Jersey was off the cuff and ineffective in really doing anything productive. After the Fire and Fury Speech was released, reports came out that Trump hadn’t consulted with Secretary of Defense Mattis, the Department of Defense, or any military officials before making his statements. Now, this isn’t to say that a president shouldn’t have some level of autonomy over his speech, but that particular privilege should be left to an individual who understands the importance of well-thought-out diplomacy.
Almost immediately after Trump’s comments, Ballistic Kim released a statement that threatened to fire a missile 25-miles off the coast of Guam – a U.S. territory. The 25-miles part of that threat seems to be getting lost on both the media and the American people, but it’s indeed very important. As to why it’s important, and the validity of that threat, I’ll address that later on in my piece. The fact that Kim made such an overly aggressive statement is no surprise, as such tough talk has been North Korean policy for nearly its entire tenure as a country. In any case, the war of words between these two world leaders has lead us to our current stand-off. Tensions are relatively high, but not as high as most believe them to be – I’ll get to that a little later as well.
The topic of whether one might support or resist Trump in this hour of uncertainty has become a topic in and of itself. It’s an issue pulled directly out of late-2001 America, which I refer to as – as my title suggests – supportive silence. The resurfacing of this patriotic question, and the right wing’s current call for supportive silence, is anything but silent.
Supportive silence is the idea that, in a time of American crisis, all overt objections to and criticism of the president cease until the norms of American life and global stability are restored. It’s posed as a call of unity in times of great strife. A similar call of unity was sent out after the fall of the World Trade Center. For a significant length of time after the September 11th terror attacks, any scrutiny of then-President George W. Bush was considered unwelcome and un-American. And now, in the wake of possible nuclear war – before anything has even happened, I might add – the same corner of the American political arena is calling for yet another bout of supportive silence.
My resistance to this sort of patriot test comes in the form of a Winston Churchill quote: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Whenever tragedy strikes or a nation’s in crisis, that’s when citizens are most receptive to the idea of granting the government unprecedented power and control. We’ve seen such occurrences take place throughout our own history – 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Civil War, as well as others – and they always result in either the suspension or erosion of American liberties. I reject the idea of withholding criticism of governmental power, even in a time of crisis. It’s often up to the American citizenry to be the moral compass for a governing apparatus that’s imbued with too much power, and consistently prone to overreach.
Nevertheless, let’s get back to the topic at hand. Are we all still alive? Great! Let’s continue.
The million-dollar Cold War question of, “are we all gonna die?” is an important one right now. I think the mass-asking of such a question, whether privately or publicly, tells us a lot about how people perceive our conflict with North Korea. I caught myself in a thought not too long before starting to write this. The thought was something akin to, “Wow. This is what people who lived during the Cold War must have felt like. It could all really kick off at any moment.” I immediately caught myself, and deconstructed that train of consciousness.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between our current situation and the Cold War. As you can tell from above, I nearly fell into believing that narrative myself. Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump, equated the U.S-North Korea feud to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, I think that’s an ill-advised move for several reasons, but I won’t dive into that too deeply. The main point is that even Trump’s surrogates are blowing this way out of proportion. The United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down for half of the 20th century, and one little squint could have literally destroyed the planet. While we may find ourselves in a dire position, we are nowhere near the same level of danger as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Citizens of Guam, South Korea, and Japan seem to recognize this, as reports indicate that they’re keeping calm and moving along. Meanwhile, suburban America is sliding comfortably into the role of Chicken Little, and prophesizing the sky’s forthcoming downfall.
Any exchange of firepower between our current nuclear combatants wouldn’t destroy the world – not entirely, anyway – but it would be an incredibly bloody affair. The immense number of causalities that would result from an open war between the United States and North Korea is the only reason we’re at a standstill. The outcome of such a war is not open for debate. The U.S and its allies would win an overwhelming victory, but the question is, and has always been: what are we willing to sacrifice for that victory? And I don’t mean “we” as in just the United States, but also Japan and South Korea, who would face the brunt of the ensuing damage and death in such as war.
And it’s not only in the United States’ best interest not to go to war, but also North Korea’s. However dangerous a nuclearized Kim regime is, they’re not on the same level as an Islamist group obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is due to the fact that, unlike Islamist terrorists like ISIS, North Korea is not built upon a doctrine of martyrdom – quite the opposite in fact. The North wants nothing more than to conserve itself and the current power structure in Pyongyang. Kim knows he would lose hard if he dared to fully commit to war with the United States, but he’s willing to take as many Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese down with him if he’s forced into an open conflict.
“If Kim doesn’t really want to be annihilated,” the readers might be asking, “then why is he being so hostile toward the United States?” All of his actions and rhetoric since he assumed leadership of North Korea can be rationalized by his desperate want to be accepted by the greater political community, and allowed a seat at the geopolitical table. This is why I doubt the validity of his threat to nearly hit Guam. He doesn’t want war at the end of the day, and firing missiles off the coast of Guam does nothing to avoid it. Indeed, it would be a provocative move that would send his desired message of strength and seriousness. However, there’s a hidden factor that leaves some things open to interpretation and inquiry.
Due to the United States and North Korea having absolutely no direct political contact, we are mostly left in the dark when it comes to the extent and effectiveness of their nuclear arsenal. While we know from recent tests that North Korean missiles are capable of reaching international locations, there’s still the question of how accurate the missiles are. We may not know how accurate they are, but Kim and his officials do. So, either they’re inaccurate, and a near-miss at Guam could quickly turn into a hit – which would lead to war – or they’re perfectly accurate in which case Kim would prove to be a bigger threat than we realize – which could also lead to war. So, similar to the case with China that I touched on earlier, the best thing for North Korea to do right now may be to do nothing.