America’s traditional Pacific allies watched with increasing consternation earlier this month as President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged a series of blustery threats. These included allusions to “fire and fury” from Washington and promises of a “sea of fire” from Pyongyang.
These front-line states, including South Korea and Japan, who have served as the foundation for the alliance structure which has brought peace and unprecedented prosperity to the Pacific in the decades following the Vietnam War, are keenly aware that they would pay the ultimate price for any nuclear showdown with North Korea. They apparently yearn for the days when America’s leaders followed the famous axiom of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
The Trump Administration would be well advised to look to the playbook of former President George H.W. Bush in his handling of the first Gulf War in seeking constructive means to deal with the growing North Korean threat. President George W. Bush, in his book “41: A Portrait of My Father” records how the elder President Bush, the most foreign policy savvy president in modern American history, sought to both assure jittery allies’ concerns and to build an international coalition to confront Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
There is no clear indication, however, that either Seoul or Tokyo was consulted before the recent series of public Presidential statements and tweets threatening North Korea…
That invasion had global economic consequences nearly as dire as any current nuclear adventurism on the part of North Korea. The fossil fuel which came out of the Middle East served as the economic engine for the global economy in 1990 just as the thriving economies of East Asia do so for the world today. Thus both threats appeared global in nature and required a measured, international response.
George W. Bush records how his father used diplomatic skill and coalition-building, not jingoistic unilateralism, to address a major foreign policy crisis. He spoke directly with the King of Saudi Arabia, the American ally most directly affected: “Dad had spoken to King Fahd about the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to his kingdom to deter an Iraqi invasion and provide a base for the liberation of Kuwait. As the keeper of the two holiest Islamic sites, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia had a zealous aversion to foreign troops on its soil. The king agreed to consider the matter.”
There is no clear indication, however, that either Seoul or Tokyo was consulted before the recent series of public Presidential statements and tweets threatening North Korea with retaliation.
Bush’s book spells out directly his father’s approach during Operation Desert Shield:
“Dad’s strategy was to rally a coalition of nations to pressure Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. Thanks to years of personal diplomacy, George Bush had earned the trust of many world leaders…Arab leaders across the Middle East agreed to denounce the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait…European allies like Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Helmut Kohl of West Germany offered their strong support. So did Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu…In the most striking development, the Soviet Union joined with the United States to condemn Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait…Their agreement marked the most significant strategic cooperation between American and Soviet leaders since FDR and Stalin.
In an address to a joint session of Congress in September 1990, Dad laid out his vision for a ‘new world order’ in which all civilized nations, including the Soviet Union, worked together to deter aggression and promote peace.”
It would seem judicious, drawing upon President Bush’s example of coalition building, if President Trump were to confer with the leadership of the four other former Six-Party partners in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow before issuing unilateralist threats to carry out a surgical military strike against North Korea.
As these other four partners in the stalled North Korea nuclear disarmament talks either share a land border with North Korea or, in the case of Japan, are in close proximity across a narrow body of water, they are certainly stakeholders who would be adversely affected if military hostilities suddenly broke out between the United States and North Korea.
Veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius in an August 10 op-ed piece titled “In dealing with North Korea, Trump needs allies – not bombast,” addressed similar concerns.
Noting that “President Trump has decided to confront what’s probably the most reckless, risk-taking regime on the planet,” Ignatius observed that President Trump’s hopes for a diplomatic solution “depends on convincing North Korea and China that he’s ready for the fire and fury of nuclear war should negotiations fail.” But, he added, “The United States can’t go it alone in Korea, in either war or peace. The danger is Trump’s rhetoric could destabilize partners more than adversaries.”
And potential adversaries could include China, the world’s third most powerful nuclear power.
The Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial on August 10 which stated that “the U.S. and North Korea have both ramped up their threatening rhetoric.” It then spelled out what China’s policy should be in the event conflict breaks out on the Korean peninsula (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has concluded a mutual defense treaty with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)):
“China should make it clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern on the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
This seems to clearly indicate, as Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai did to Indian Ambassador Panikkar in October 1950, that “if American troops entered North Korea, China would intervene in the war.” Secretary of State Dean Acheson, when told of this, reportedly said that Zhou Enlai was “not an authoritative spokesperson.” History proved otherwise.
And history could soon repeat itself. Among the first victims of any potential conflict on the Korean peninsula would be the estimated over 20 million people of the Seoul Capital Area, including an estimated 300,000 U.S. citizens, including military dependents, business people, missionaries, scholars and students, journalists, tourists and returning U.S. citizens, who reside there on any given day.
Before putting these persons at great personal risk, President Trump may wish to look to President George H.W. Bush’s example. It might also be wise to heed the words of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer’s mother: “think before you speak.”
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