In yet another depressing sign of the times that we live in, U.S. President-Elect (sigh) Donald Trump said in the first week of the year in a tweet (sigh) that “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
Being limited to 140 characters, Twitter is not exactly an appropriate platform for nuanced policy announcements. So it is not entirely clear what Trump meant when he said: “it won’t happen.”
Did he mean that he doubts North Korea possesses the technical capability to develop an ICBM? Or did he mean that even if North Korea could develop such a weapon, missile defense would be capable of defending the U.S. from a North Korean attack? Or did he mean that he would make sure to pursue policies that would prevent North Korea from developing an ICBM? If so, what policies would he pursue?
The fact of the matter is that no one can be certain. In fact, it is not at all clear if Trump himself knows for certain what he means. All one can do in regards to whatever Donald Trump says is to project their own wishes.
This is exactly what the South Korean government did when it interpreted the tweet to mean that it was a “clear warning” to North Korea that shows he is “aware of the urgency of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and will not waver from a policy of sanctions against” the DPRK.
In the final days of the Obama administration and under the temporary stewardship of Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, both the U.S. and South Korea have attempted to speak with a united voice in regards to North Korea.
For his part, Prime Minister Hwang said that THAAD, which has once again come into contention with President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and the rising possibility of its opponents occupying the Blue House after the next election, ought to be deployed as soon as possible.
It is not at all clear if Trump himself knows for certain what he means
As for President Obama, despite having done little about North Korea during his eight years in office, at least told the incoming Trump administration that he thinks that North Korea should become its “top national security priority.”
However, all of this amounts to nothing more than one final roar; and a feeble one at that. In a matter of days, it may as well as have never happened.
Donald Trump is a blustering intellectual lightweight whose greatest political feat so far has been tweeting his way into the White House while making nice with some of the world’s most pugnacious autocrats and shaking the very foundations of the world’s liberal order.
But some of his confirmed incoming cabinet members – especially Flynn, Mattis, and Navarro – are clearly his betters and will hopefully have a stronger impact on Trump’s presidency.
However, the problem with his incoming team is that they are all foreign policy hawks. Considering that sanctions have been the preferred go-to weapon of choice for the hawkish doves in the Obama administration, there is a growing sense of dread that the hawks in the Trump administration may attempt to escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Talk of surgical air strikes against North Korean targets has slowly been on the uptick since two years ago. With every new missile and nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang, the idea that sanctions are ineffective will take deeper hold among the hawks in Washington. Should North Korea successfully manage to test an ICBM, it would significantly alter the U.S.’s threat perception and it would guarantee talks about sanctions would become quaint.
The problem with his incoming team is that they are all foreign policy hawks
PROGRESSIVES IN SEOUL
Meanwhile, in Korea, President Park Geun-hye may have shown herself to be inept and possibly corrupt, but her policy towards North Korea, especially since its fourth nuclear test, has been nothing less than admirable.
Shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex may have been a mere token gesture to stop the flow of foreign money into the North Korean regime, but her government’s attempts to sever North Korea from its trade partners and push to impose U.N. and secondary sanctions were applaudable. It was a great pity that the U.S. State Department never matched the Park administration’s enthusiasm to contain North Korea.
Even in the unlikely event that South Korea’s Constitutional Court overturns her impeachment and reinstates President Park in office, she is now toxic and politically finished. Furthermore, seeing how fragmented the country’s conservatives are, it is increasingly becoming likely that South Korea’s next ruling government is going to be headed by a political party that has radically different views about how to deal with North Korea.
Positions vary among the progressive presidential candidates, but not by much. From reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, to pursuing Sunshine 2.0, to meeting face-to-face with Kim Jong Un, there is already a growing sense that within a few months, Seoul and Washington are headed for a clash.
THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
However, this prediction does not seriously take the possibility of U.S.-led military strikes against North Korea. If the perception that the Trump administration has given up on a diplomatic approach continues to grow, South Korea’s threat perception will also change.
After all, should a conflict break out on the Korean Peninsula, the Seoul Capital Area, the beating heart of the entire peninsula that is home to more than 25 million people, would be reduced to rubble. To be sure, American casualties would also be significant but would be dwarfed by the number of Korean dead.
There is already a growing sense that within a few months, Seoul and Washington are headed for a clash
Whether or not the ROK-U.S. alliance and the post-armistice peace remain intact will depend heavily on how well these radically different leaders in Seoul and Washington manage to communicate with each other.
Will Washington be tempted to bomb North Korea? Will it bother to consult with Seoul? Will Seoul ignore Washington and pursue appeasement with North Korea? Will Seoul give in to Beijing’s demands and scrap its decision on THAAD? How would Washington react to that?
Under the best case scenario, the unbridgeable gap between the way Trump thinks is the best way to deal with North Korea and the future South Korean President’s view all but guarantees that the ROK-U.S. alliance will be less cordial at least over the next four years. Under the worst case scenario, however, the alliance itself may, over time, become history.
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Featured Image: Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 [Image 9 of 14] by DVIDSHUB on 2014-02-13 11:37:43