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The Clown and the Rock

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Trump’s incompetence and posturing threaten US credibility, with potentially dire consequences.

By Tim Beal | December 21, 2017

“Back home, we have a saying: The dog barks, but the caravan continues,” Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told reporters in New York on Wednesday when he was asked about Mr. Trump’s comment. “If he thought he could scare us with the noise of a dog barking, well, he should be daydreaming.”  Mr. Ri arrived in New York on Wednesday to attend the United Nations General Assembly, where Mr. Trump gave a speech on Tuesday in which he called North Korea a “band of criminals” and its leader, Kim Jong-un, a “Rocket Man” on “a suicide mission.” “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Mr. Trump said. When asked about Mr. Trump’s Rocket Man comment, Mr. Ri said: “I am sorry for his aides.”

Sang-Hun Choe, New York Times, 21 September 2017[1]

Oh, The grand old Duke of York, He had ten thousand men; He marched them up to the top of the hill, And he marched them down again.

English nursery rhyme[2]

“In my position, it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”

Abraham Lincoln, 18 November 1863[3]

What happens when you replace the president with a clown?

Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post, 13 November 2017[4]

The Clown, the Rock, and Geopolitical Struggle

North Korea may well be the rock on which the Trump administration, enfeebled and destabilised at home by Russiagate, shatters. Any geopolitical situation presents an interplay between underlying historical forces and strategic imperatives, on the one level, and the decisions, rhetoric and policies of the actors involved, on another. Sometimes the actors are wise, sometimes foolish. Donald Trump brings in an unusual degree of incompetence, bluster and something to which various labels are attached but which might be conveniently called clownishness. If the basis of humour, as Aristotle and others have suggested, is incongruity then “clown,” with its connotations of slapstick, sadness and inadequacy, is perhaps the best fit. Trump plays at being president as a spoiled child might, oblivious to, or ignoring the sniggers of the adults in the room. Trump did not originate the North Korea issue—that is the result of deeper historical processes—but he has exacerbated it to a degree that might have dire consequences. By contrast North Korea is, for reasons of geography and history, a rock against which US hegemony beats, so far, in vain. The Korean peninsula is where most of the world’s major powers meet and contest – the United States, Japan, China and Russia. Possession, or denial of possession by competitors, is of utmost strategic importance. By a historical process, complex in detail but simple in theme, North Korea has ended up as an independent country beholden to none and hosting no foreign military presence. In this, it is similar to China but in contrast to South Korea and Japan. Its deterrent, initially conventional but now moving to nuclear, is the guarantee of that independence. The Kim family has been central to that historical development but what we have is the interaction of nation-states, influenced by individuals but driven by geopolitical imperatives.

North Korea poses no security threat to the United States – the huge disparity in power ensures that – but its successful defence of its independence does present a long-term challenge to US global hegemony. The decline of US status in the Middle East might be more pressing, yet it is against Korea that the United States threatens war despite the fact that North Korea, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, possesses the ability to retaliate. The United States possesses overwhelming power and can, as Trump threatened, “totally destroy” the small Asian country, long a thorn in American hegemonic pride because of its independence and resilience, but its deterrence-based defence strategy presents a dilemma to Washington. Today its deterrence is primarily local and conventional, with the nuclear component as yet uncertain in its efficacy. But there seems little doubt that its nuclear capability, both in terms of explosive power and reach of its missiles is growing fast as exemplified by the 29 November test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM. At some stage—some say already, others say soon—it will be able to retaliate against the US mainland. Yet America’s dilemma is longstanding, predating Trump. If George W. Bush had not torn up Clinton’s Agreed Framework then North Korea would not now be nuclear weapons state. As time passes, military action becomes more hazardous and a negotiated settlement becomes more difficult for the United States to accept. It is one thing to give up the development of nuclear weapons before you have a functioning deterrent but another matter when that is achieved. So any settlement will involve North Korean retaining a minimal nuclear deterrent, with subsequent damage to US prestige. Faced with an existential threat from the United States and South Korea, with Washington refusing to engage in meaningful negotiation, North Korea has little choice but to press ahead with developing its deterrent. However this not merely might trigger precipitate military action by the United States (although the likelihood is small), it also exacerbates relations with China, which is also caught in a dilemma between the fear of giving the United States an excuse to obstruct its ‘peaceful rise’ and allowing an encroachment on its strategic glacis.

While the challenge to US statecraft is increasing, its ability to cope is decreasing. Trump’s foreign policy is widely considered by the US elite to be the most inept in recent history. But it goes beyond that. Trump shows no ability to ‘solve’ the North Korea issue, but then neither did Barack Obama. However he greatly exacerbates the problem, undermining America’s status and credibility.

On the face of it mid-2017 was a time of crisis when the world came close to nuclear war over the Korean peninsula. In reality, there was fortunately far less danger of that than media hysteria suggested. North Korea was clearly in no position to initiate war against the United States. It had neither the means nor the motive and the idea that it might attack was bred of a combination of self-serving US propaganda and the common misunderstanding of the difference between the rhetoric of deterrence and that of belligerence.[5] The United States, which just as clearly had both means and motive, did not in fact move to a war footing, despite President Trump’s threats.[6] South Korea, despite President Moon Jae-in’s claim that it had been agreed that his administration would play ‘the leading role’ in relations with North Korea, and that he had a veto over military action, was left on the side-lines, watching impotently. [7]

This gap between rhetoric and the course of events confirmed the political vitiation of Trump, not absolute of course – even the weakest presidents always have residual power – but with his authority seriously diminished. Trump is the focus of this article for obvious reasons; the United States is the global hegemon, but the other main countries involved, and their leaders, must also be taken into account. Nevertheless, the most consequential outcome of mid-2017 has been the shackling of Trump. He is like a dog barking as the caravan continues and events move on outside his control. Events suggest that his ability to bite is severely constrained by his minders, especially the military. For all the sound and fury, he does not seem, so far, to have the ability to carry out threats, particularly against North Korea. A dog that barks loudly and constantly but does not bite loses credibility and this poses a challenge to the American state that power holders cannot ignore.

Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Abe Shinzo: from Peace Proposal to Remilitarisation

The United States is the global hegemon, but the other main countries involved, and their leaders, must also be taken into account. Other leaders have been drawn into the maelstrom. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, whose joint peace proposal was predictably spurned by the United States, were as a consequence somewhat side-lined on peninsula issues.[8] Xi Jinping, if we are to believe the Washington Post, was much embarrassed by his failure to reduce tension and his political standing impaired.[9] However the Western media has its own reasons for such opinions, which may not accord with reality, or Chinese perceptions. Indeed, although the West deems China not to have been tough enough with North Korea, the failure can be more plausibly seen as China not being firm enough with the United States, for fear of having its ‘peaceful rise’ derailed. The elevation of Xi Jinping Thought at the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October suggests that the Washington Post was a bit premature about Xi’s political demise.[10]  On the contrary it is likely that, as the Hankyoreh noted, ‘China is changing’ in a way that may have profound implications:

Attention should also be paid to the fact that China is changing. “The Xi Jinping Thought that was introduced during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the beginning of Xi’s second term represents the complete revocation of ‘tao guang yang hui’ [韜光養晦, a strategy of avoiding the spotlight and keeping a low profile]. While Trump has failed in his ambition to ‘make America great again,’ Xi could succeed at making China great again,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

This means that China’s willingness to participate in UN Security Council sanctions on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles in order to avoid a conflict with the US could change in the future. “China’s foreign policy approach could shift toward a confident and aggressive foreign policy that regards competition with the US as ‘growing pains’ rather than something to be avoided,” Lee predicted.[11]

China may well be becoming more resistant to US policy over Korea, as well as the South China Sea and a host of other issues, and this increased assertiveness will be mirrored in Russia.[12]

For Abe Shinzo, the crisis was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it demonstrated his, and Japan’s, impotence to affect the course of events in the region. This was exemplified in particular by the overflight of Japan by North Korea’s Hwasong-123 IRBM test flight on 29 August and the subsequent one on 15 September, with presumably more to come. On the one hand, the tests posed little real danger to Japan – the trajectory took them across the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu and well above Japanese airspace – so it is unlikely that an inflight malfunction would have caused any damage to Japan. On the other, it gave Abe good occasion to beat the drum for remilitarisation, and to divert attention from domestic corruption scandals.[13] His strategy paid off with his victory in the snap election that he called to capitalise on events.[14]

However there may be seismic shifts under the surface. The US foreign policy establishment breathed a sigh of relief after Trump’s Asia visit in November not because things had gone well—they hadn’t—but because they were not as disastrous as they had been expecting.[15] Japan was the first, and easiest stop. Abe had played “the role of Trump’s loyal sidekick,” gushed the Washington Post, and “found himself in an undeniably better position than South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has not bonded with Trump.”[16] And yet, careful reading of this article and others makes clear that under the apparent bonhomie, there are less friendly undercurrents as exemplified by the vignette from their press conference on 5 November:

“The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant, and you’ve built one of the world’s most powerful economies,” Trump said, before looking up from his prepared remarks. Turning his head to face Abe next to him, Trump ad-libbed: “I don’t know if it’s as good as ours. I think not, okay?” He emphasized the “okay” by drawing it out leadingly as a parent might with a child.

“And we’re going to try to keep it that way,” Trump added, for good measure. “But you’ll be second.”

Abe, listening to an interpreter through an earpiece, smiled and remained silent. But his face betrayed a touch of uncertainty as the U.S. leader returned to his script.

Abe will presumably put up with a lot in order to advance Japanese remilitarisation and his dream of making Japan a ‘normal country’ again and that, for the moment, depends on American approval. Japanese prime ministers have been playing the role of ‘loyal sidekicks’ since the defeat of 1945. However Trump adds another dimension to the mix and it is likely that Abe, and other Asian leaders, for cultural reasons if for no others, find Trump’s crassness extremely distasteful. Personal feelings will not usually override political expediency but combined with diminished US stature in Asia, much accelerated by Trump, they may lead to a greater willingness to consider alternatives. As we know, here are no permanent friends and enemies, only permanent interests. Gavan McCormack has recently suggested that Abe might be attracted by the economic inducements of a peaceful East Asia suggested at the Vladivostok conference by Putin (and endorsed by Xi) and willing to move away from the US-Japan alliance, the strategy of subjugating North Korea and containing China and Russia.

“Plan B” might be under active consideration in Tokyo, and that Vladivostok might mark a first step towards a comprehensive, long overdue, post-Cold War re-think of regional relationships.[17]

At the moment, Plan B unfortunately looks highly unlikely but there may be movement in the tectonic plates that will bring surprising realignments before too long

Kim Jong Un: the Challenge of Moving from Deterrence to Peaceful Coexistence

On the face of it, Kim Jong Un might be considered to have come off the best. Fareed Zakaria has grudgingly called him “smart and strategic.”[18] The feint towards Guam and then testing the Hwasong-12 into the North Pacific on 29 August was adroit.[19] It raised tension with the US (in response to American threats, it should be remembered) and produced the predictable tweets from Trump (‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’) but when the test took place elsewhere, the United States was left floundering.[20] At the same time the test did demonstrate that Guam was within reach.[21] Guam is hugely important in both military and symbolic terms. It is the main forward base on US territory in the Western Pacific, and the place from which attacks on Asian enemies would largely be launched and coordinated. China is the main target of course, and the main threat –its IRBMs are known colloquially in China as “Guam killers” but it also threatens North Korea.[22]

On the global stage, China and Russia are the main challenges to American hegemony. US policy towards North Korea has its own dynamics borne of American frustration at its inability to subjugate, or at the very least discipline, North Korea and that has implications for US hegemony over minor powers more generally. If the Trump administration abrogates the Iran deal, will Tehran follow Pyongyang’s example?[23] China and Russia are inevitably linked by geography and history to North Korea. The United States divided Korea in 1945, thus in effect creating the two Koreas as part of its containment strategy towards the then Soviet Union. Today an attack on North Korea would almost certainly embroil the United States in a war with China, since the South Korean conservative elite (which now seems to include or to have incorporated Moon Jae-in) would insist on attempting to gobble up the North. That, for legal and technical reasons, could only be done under US operational control, and it is unlikely that China would tolerate the violent extension of US power to its border. An American war with China, something which is frequently discussed especially in the ‘security community’ would probably involve an attack on North Korea because that would be the most feasible way of being able to utilise the substantial South Korean military machine. The deployment of THAAD in South Korea, ostensibly to defend South Korea against the North, is an expression of these strategic ramifications. Yet THAAD’s primary purpose is to provide an early-warning of ICBM launches from China and Russia and is part of US first-strike capability.[24]

Given these inextricable linkages between China, Russia, and North Korea within American strategic imperatives, why is there not more coordination between them? It can be seen as a seemingly unexplored version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which cooperation would provide better outcomes for all but which they are prevented from achieving from mutual mistrust and their own specific relationship with the United States, in a sense the jailer of them all. The role of Kim Jong Un in this failure of coordination is unclear. Certainly relations between North Korea and Russia, and particularly China, are worse than they were during his father’s period. The 19th Congress of the CCP may well been seen, in retrospect, as the turning point if it does lead to a greater Chinese assertiveness against the United States and a readiness to cooperate with North Korea.

On the North Korean domestic front, the economy is doing well, despite US-led sanctions, and the nuclear test of 3 September and recent missiles tests have been successful.[25] It is likely that Kim Jong Un’s popular standing has never been higher though since there is no direct evidence that remains conjecture. However some of this is due to luck – rockets are notoriously prone to failure, and visible failure at that, and some previous nuclear tests have been, according to Western assessments, not entirely successful. Indeed, since the United States has conducted over 1000 nuclear tests (against North Korea’s 6), we can presume it is a risky business. Moreover, although the rapid development of a nuclear deterrent may well be close to putting North Korea beyond the danger of an American attack, the danger is still there and there are great challenges ahead. North Korea has to somehow force or persuade the United States into accepting peaceful coexistence which would entail to some degree the acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, abandonment of the hostility policy, the lifting of sanctions, the removal of the military threat and the establishment of normal diplomatic and economic relations. This still seems a distant dream and it is unclear how it can be achieved, not least because of Trump’s erratic, weak and incoherent presidency. That is a discussion for another time. In the meantime it should be noted that a US deal with North Korea would have complex regional and global implications for American power.

Moon Jae-in: the Tragedy of the President Who Couldn’t Say ‘No’

One thing seems clear. If the United States is to be brought to accept peaceful coexistence with North Korea, some sort of face-saving device needs to be found and here Moon Jae-in could have played a pivotal role. It would have required great skill and, as always, a bit of luck. He would have had to distance himself from the United States, gently, slowly but firmly. He would have had to extricate South Korea from the nuclear stand-off, making clear that it was primarily a matter between the United States and North Korea and that it was the product of hostility, not the cause of it. The solution then would not be nuclear disarmament, which neither side will do, but a change in relationship which may be possible. He would need to repair relations with China and Russia soured by THAAD by promising, probably through back channels, that South Korea would remove itself from the US missile defense system.[26] He would have had to have gone some way to mending relations with the North, for instance by reopening Kaesong and Kumgangsan joint ventures and affirming that his administration would honour the agreement made by Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Again a lot of this could be done privately. Moon Jae-in could have attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the Candlelight Revolution to refashion the client relationship with the United States into something more to South Korea’s benefit. Instead he loudly proclaimed his loyalty to the US-ROK alliance and the subordination that entailed.

The difficulties and dangers of challenging the existing relationship with the United States should, of course, not be underestimated. On the formal level, Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea (Minjoo) does not have a majority in the National Assembly.[27] On the more important informal level, the forces arraigned against reform of the client relationship to the United States are formidable. Conservatives forces in the media, bureaucracy, business, and crucially the military are very strong. The relationship with the United States has been built up over generations. The military, in particular, has a formal, intimate and ongoing subordinate relationship with the United States exemplified by, but not limited to US Operational Command (OPCON). There have been high-profile incidents in the short period of the Moon administration when the military establishment has displayed its independence of presidential authority, including the rushed deployment of THAAD and the statements of the Minister of Defense, Song Young-moo, advocating the re-introduction of US tactical nuclear weapons.[28] President Moon has come out against tactical nuclear weapons, and nuclearisation of the ROK military – stances which annoy the conservatives but are in line with official US policy. [29] However he has not disciplined the military establishment; the Defense Minister has been ‘warned’ but not fired.[30] On the contrary, he has berated the military for a ‘lack of confidence’ that they could ‘overwhelm’ North Korea on their own ironically striking a more aggressive policy towards the North than Park Geun-hye.[31] Meanwhile the South Korea media is replete with articles about the military strengthening its subordination to the United States, increasing its offensive capabilities and ratcheting up tension with the North.[32]

Instead of trying to guide the Trump administration into peaceful coexistence with North Korea, Moon has exacerbated American intransigence, declaring that ‘dialogue is impossible.’[33] It is not than he has been blindsided by events. It has long been clear that North Korea will continue developing and testing its nuclear deterrent as long as the United States does not enter into meaningful negotiations. The timing and nature of the tests are unpredictable; the course of development is not. The issue extends far beyond North Korea itself. The United States is an empire in decline and under threat, attempting to preserve its global hegemony in particular against rising China and resurgent Russia. If South Korea cannot break free of the American embrace, it will be ground up in the struggle against North Korean resistance and beyond that, as THAAD illustrates, against China and Russia.

It is this element of inevitability, an ineluctable fate following from Moon’s decision not to challenge the US relationship, but rather to embrace it that led me to call this, in an earlier article, a “Korean tragedy.[34] There is also the element of betrayal of the aspirations of the Candlelight Revolution and the promises made by candidate Moon. As Geoffrey Fattig put it:

Despite campaigning for the presidency with a pledge to “say no to the Americans,” South Korean leader Moon Jae-in lately seems like a man who can’t stop saying “yes.”[35]

Moon’s response to Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 19 September threatening “to totally destroy North Korea” was truly astounding.[36] Apart from possibly killing up to 25 million North Koreans – whom Seoul claims as its citizens – any such action would also cause huge devastation to South Korea.[37] He applauded Tump’s “firm” stand and described his speech as “very powerful.”[38] He was, the Hankyoreh noted “dancing to the beat of Trump’s drum.”[39]

The Problems of Donald Trump

Since Trump’s winning of the election in November 2016, his administration has been beset with often interrelated domestic and foreign difficulties. Some of the foreign issues, including North Korea, the Middle East, and the confrontation with China have been inherited from predecessors; Trump may have exacerbated American problems but did not create them. On other matters, such as climate change, the liberal economic order as exemplified by free-trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and issues with South Korea over KORUS FTA, payment for THAAD and US troops, he has oscillated between his campaign promises and the advice of his minders. The one area where as candidate he offered a better alternative to the past policies of Barack Obama and the proposed policies of Hillary Clinton was a less adversarial relationship with Russia. Yet he has had to back track and US relations with Russia are as bad as they have been under Obama, or even worse.[40] None of this has helped Trump. Russiagate overshadows everything else because it joins those forces who oppose any detente with Russia with those who oppose Trump. These are, of course, often the same people, but still separate strands in the political firmament; for those opposed to Trump, it could have been Chinagate, Mafiagate, or whatever would best achieve their objective. Opposition to Trump ranges from the personal – Hillary Clinton and grandees in both parties who were shunted aside in his drive to office – and the more general objection, identified with what is often called the “deep state,” that he is incompetent, narcissistic, unpredictable and unfit to be president.

What is known in shorthand as the military-industrial complex, that vast array of people and organisations which thrives on perceived threat to national security, has a particular role to play in this. Apart from the military establishment itself and the armaments industry, the military-industrial complex includes extensive swathes of the civilian bureaucracy, from the CIA to Homeland Security, much of the media, the security think tanks and, of course, politicians anxious both to drape themselves in the flag of patriotism and to attract lucrative military spending to their electorates. Inclusion and ranking in the perceived threat list varies over time and includes near-peer competitors such as China and Russia, small independent states such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran and the amorphous threat of terrorism, in practice usually Islamic. The military-industrial complex is an economic animal and from its point of view, perception matters, and the further that is from reality the better. North Korea fits the bill nicely, China is problematic because of its economic importance to the United States, whilst Russia as threat has the advantage of building on a hostility nurtured over generations, to the Soviet period and earlier. At the same time Russia, no more than the others, actually poses a real threat to US security. The military budgets of the United States and its allies account for some 70% of the world total, exceeding that of Russia 23 times. It should also be noted that the alliance outspends China seven times, and Iran 66 times.[41] With North Korea the ratio moves into the stratosphere, between 300 and up to over a thousand times.[42]

The military industrial complex presumably has ambivalent feelings towards Trump. On the one hand, he loves the military, is overawed by generals, with whom he now surrounds himself. He has raised the military budget to new heights. On the other hand, he is incompetent, precipitate and must be restrained.

Coping with Trump – Removalists and Shacklers

We can divide the deep state into two overlapping groups – the ‘removalists’ who want to get rid of Trump entirely, through impeachment or some other device, and the ‘shacklers’ who are willing to tolerate him as long as he is under restraint. The latter group is probably small, not extending far beyond those such as McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly whose personal fortunes are tied to Trump remaining in office. Some might survive a transfer to Pence or another post-Trump administration but essentially the shacklers are themselves shackled, much as guards are to handcuffed prisoners.

A 15 September article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘GOP Congressman Sought Trump Deal on WikiLeaks, Russia’ presents an illuminating example of shackling at work.[43] The article recounts how Congressman Rohrabacher had tried to approach Trump with an offer from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks in exchange for a pardon:

Mr. Assange would probably present a computer drive or other data-storage device that Mr. Rohrabacher said would exonerate Russia in the long-running controversy about who was the source of hacked and stolen material aimed at embarrassing the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Kelly told the congressman that the proposal “was best directed to the intelligence community,” the official said. Mr. Kelly didn’t make the president aware of Mr. Rohrabacher’s message, and Mr. Trump doesn’t know the details of the proposed deal, the official said.[44]

Since the “intelligence community” is behind the Russiagate accusations, it is no surprise that the matter was not taken further. Rohrabacher subsequently complained that Kelly was preventing him from having access to Trump.[45]

This is a telling story because Russiagate is the dagger aimed at the heart of the Trump administration. The basic problem facing the US elite is that Trump’s incompetence is not grounds for removing him constitutionally from office. Invoking the 25th Amendment – removing the president on grounds of “incapacity” – seems at the moment infeasible despite the fantasies of its advocates.[46] Impeachment, whatever its political hurdles, requires “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors,” hence Russiagate.[47] The allegations may be fraudulent – they almost certainly are – and dangerous in that they fuel anti-Russian hysteria probably with dire long-term consequences, but they offer the best hope for a legal removal of Trump from office, and that is being worked on assiduously.[48] It is curious that President Trump did not meet with Congressman Rohrabacher to hear what he had to say because the Democratic National Committee incident – WikiLeaks said it was a leak whereas the intelligence community claims it was Russian hacking – is central to Russiagate.[49]

The Mad Emperor in the Tower with Only Tweets for Solace

Trump is like a mad emperor locked in a castle tower by his courtiers. He is allowed the trappings of office but denied free access to power. He is allowed out on state occasions, such as attending the United Nations to deliver a speech written by someone else. He would have endorsed the speech, especially the tough guy bits – we will totally destroy North Korea – and he and the speechwriters (Stephen Miller, assisted, it is claimed, by Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka[50]), would no doubt have considered it a masterpiece of presidential eloquence, even though few others shared that opinion. He can still do many things, such as destroying the TPP or the Iran deal but his freedom of action is severely constrained, and nowhere is this more evident than in the case of North Korea policy.

The big difference between Trump and the mythical emperor is that he can makes speeches and in particular he can tweet, and that is both his solace and his scourge. His tweets are a constant source of consternation and embarrassment to his officials, frustration and humiliation to the American elite, and to US allies. It would be too simple to say that they delight America’s adversaries because although they demonstrate the incompetence and dysfunction of the Trump administration they are a reminder of the danger he poses. It is more likely that Xi, Rouhani and Kim Jong Un would prefer a more coherent and less erratic US president than Trump even though his very incompetence presents advantages. It may well be that Putin would prefer the virulently anti-Russian, but calculating, Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. It should be remembered that all countries, not least North Korea, seek to have a good non-confrontational and working relationship with the United States, which is far too important economically and politically for them to want otherwise. Dealing with the unstable and fantasising Trump seems to be a nightmare for all concerned whether adversaries, domestic and international allies, and courtiers.[51]

Nevertheless it is the courtiers that form a barrier between Trump and the real exercise of power. Trump may make a speech, or post a tweet threatening North Korea with fire and fury but it is the generals who would have to implement those threats and the indications so far is that they have no intention of doing so. If there was a serious intention of going to war there would be a mobilisation of US forces in the Pacific and, crucially, a move to evacuate US civilians from South Korea, neither of which has happened although plans for exercises are reported.[52] Another good indicator of imminent danger, like the canary in the coal mine, is the financial sector and the reaction of ratings agencies such Fitch and Moody’s, discounting fares of war, is telling.[53]

North Korea’s Retaliatory Power

The reasons for the reluctance are obvious. Bannon, in his famous American Prospect interview in August touched on it in a more forthright manner than is usual in public:

Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”[54]

Bannon only scratched the surface. There are some 75,000 US troops in South Korea and Japan. [55] According to the Korea People’s Army (KPA), all US bases in South Korea are within range of its artillery alone, leaving aside missiles. There are some 200,000 American civilians in South Korea, and another 50,000 in Japan. Because North Korea is so much weaker than the United States and its allies nuclear deterrence offers the best form of defence. As a consequence it would probably retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked and although the range and efficacy of its weapons are uncertain, the results would certainly be calamitous. Leaving aside the problem of retaliation what would happen in in the event of a US-led invasion of the North? It is likely that there would be fierce resistance from the KPA, and militia, with a people’s war being unleashed. A study in 2011 calculated then even if there were no resistance from the KPA they would still require 400,000 troops to pacify the country.[56] Since the United States has not succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan after 16 years, it might be considered that a similar enterprise in North Koreas would be hazardous. And then there is China. Many ‘experts’ have argued that China could be persuaded to acquiesce in an American occupation of North Korea, perhaps even joining in, as long as there is some buffer zone left along the Yalu, or the Americans promise to leave the peninsula at some future date. Since the underlying reason for the US interest in the Korean peninsula is the containment of China (and the Soviet Union/Russia), such dreams are clearly fanciful. Moreover China has recently warned yet again, via an editorial in the authoritative Global Times, that it will not tolerate an invasion and will intervene:

If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.[57]

So an attack on North Korea, the fire and fury, the attempt to ‘totally destroy’ it threatened by President Trump, would almost certainly involve war with China. While such a war has been widely discussed, and may well come to pass, it seems unlikely that the generals would be willing to embark on what would surely be the most consequential war in America’s history with Donald Trump as Commander in Chief.[58]

However there remain the dangers of what is euphemistically called ‘miscalculation,’ and what might be termed strategic inexorability, which is discussed below. The possibility of an accidental stumbling into war – Armageddon by Accident[59]  – are probably exaggerated but there are indications that elements of the US, and ROK, military might be trying to provoke conflict. In September US B-1B bombers, accompanied not merely by aircraft from South Korea but also Japan, dumped lived bombs “a few dozen miles from the demilitarized zone.”[60] It would not take a B-1B long to travel a few dozen miles. Then a couple of weeks later B-1Bs were reported to have crossed the North Limit Line (NLL).[61] The NLL does not have the same legal standing as the DMZ, since it was unilaterally established by the United States (to keep Syngman Rhee from reigniting hostilities in 1953[62]) but since the US/ROK claim it is the de facto boundary, crossing it is clearly provocative. However even though North Korea claims that it will retaliate “if the U.S. dares to invade our sacred territory by even an inch,’ that should be seen as a necessary component of deterrence strategy, and it seems that it is well aware of the danger of being provoked into giving the United States an excuse for hostilities and as a consequence is very restrained and disciplined in its response to such actions.[63] Effective deterrence, especially for a country such as North Korea faced with an invincible enemy hundreds of times more powerful, has to be a judicious mix of determination, courage and restraint wrapped in an envelope of ambiguity and bluff.[64]

A further possible restraint on Trump’s freedom of action is provided by President Moon and the government of South Korea. Moon has claimed on a number of occasions that the United States cannot go to war with North Korea without South Korea’s permission, and this has been reiterated recently by Defense Minister Song Young-moo.[65]  American commentators tend to be sceptical about the veto and certainly Trump’s tweets and his UN speech gave no indication that he thinks he has to ask Moon’s permission. One possible scenario is that the United States would launch an attack on North Korea using ‘offshore assets,’ rather than anything stationed in South Korea. The North would retaliate, including against US forces in the South, the United States would assume ‘wartime operational control’ over the ROK military and go marching merrily in the direction of Pyongyang. However since the United States would need the South Korean military for a gruelling land war in North Korea, and probably against China, they would need to make sure that the generals were fully cooperative. So it might be a matter of discussing things with the generals rather than with President Moon. This ‘militarisation’ of decision making in respect of war with North Korea might be considered complementary to what is already happening in Washington.

Curious Consequences of the Militarisation of the Trump Administration

One of the characteristics of the Trump administration has been an unprecedented role for the military, something which has been commented upon with vary degrees of approval and disapproval across the political spectrum.[66]. It is not for nothing that the most successful and enduring polities have tended to extol civilian leadership and the importance of keeping generals in their place; in Clemenceau’s phrase, “war is too serious a matter to leave to soldiers.” Certainly this seems to have been the prevailing opinion amongst the Founding Fathers.[67] Moreover it could be argued that it is civilians who have been unsuccessful in the military – Corporal Adolf Hitler comes to mind – in power tend to be most prone to military adventures.

Nevertheless it is claimed, plausibly, that generals tend to be more cautious about going to war because they are aware of the possible consequences. Eisenhower is a case in point.[68] The consequences may be minor – the unpleasant duty of writing to relatives of dead soldiers.[69] However the consequences can but much more serious because war is a risky and uncertain business – “Give me lucky generals,” Napoleon said – and the basic trick of the trade is to muster overwhelming force against an inferior enemy. As Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command put it:

If we have to fight tonight, I don’t want it to be a fair fight. If it’s a knife fight, I want to bring a gun. If it’s a gun fight, I want to bring in the artillery ― and all of our partners with their artillery.[70]

The United States has not fought a war against a substantial adversary for decades – the Korean War (China) and World War II (Germany and Japan) and even these could not project power to the US mainland. American wars during this period have been wars of choice and the chosen have been countries with no capacity to retaliate against the US, or its soldiers and civilians, except on their own soil. North Korea introduces a very new situation and one which may well be the harbinger of things to come, which is why it is so significant. North Korea can retaliate against Americans in its neighbourhood, and before long it will, it is widely presumed, be able to hit the US mainland; some argue that it can do that already.[71] Missile technology gives it reach and nuclear technology, power to inflict great damage. Admiral Harry Harris may have many more guns than Kim Jong Un, and far more powerful ones, but for the first time the victim also has a gun. Not a fair fight, but not the turkey shoot of the past. American officials famously, and foolishly, thought the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be a “cakewalk”; few would be so sanguine today about an attack on North Korea.[72] This is not to say that there will be no war but if it does happen it will be a result of calculated and contested decision making amongst the generals and not on the whim of President Trump, whatever the experts might say about his theoretical legal powers. Congress may or may not be able to constrain him, but the real power lies with Mattis and his fellows.[73]

Slim Prospects for Peace Negotiations

If Trump cannot wage war neither can he, for rather different reasons, make peace. The American political system militates against peace negotiations, especially with far weaker counterparts. As the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, commenting on US attempts to extract more concessions without yielding anything:

“By definition, a deal is not perfect, because in any deal you have to give and take. Otherwise you won’t have a deal.”[74]

Many Americans, conscious of their county’s dominant position in the world, fail to realise this and this misunderstanding appears to extend into the highest levels of the governance structure. Certainly, given the formal adversarial nature of that structure any concessions tend to be labelled as unpatriotic betrayal by the opposition. This means that only a strong president can negotiate peace. Trump is too weak, both psychologically and politically, to negotiate a deal with North Korea. The problem is compounded as times passes and North Korea’s development of a nuclear deterrent progresses; what was on the table in past is no longer there.

Bill Clinton was psychologically strong and confident, and was able to negotiate the Agreed Framework back in 1994. He was not politically strong enough to comply with US commitments, especially after the Republicans won the 1994 midterm elections.[75] The agreement faltered, then died under his successor, George W. Bush. Even so, Clinton had a much easier time of it than Trump would have. North Korea did not then have a nuclear deterrent and was willing to make concessions that of course it would not contemplate now. To achieve a settlement, Trump would have to accept North Korea retaining a minimal nuclear deterrent.[76] Whatever problems Clinton had with the Republicans, they do not compare with Trump’s political isolation, at odds with Republicans and Democrats alike and under attack from the ‘deep state,’ however defined. On top of all this, Trump is narcissistic and insecure and not the sort of person who has the strength to make concessions, however useful they might be in achieving broader aims.

The hapless Tillerson and his public ‘castration’ by Trump is a red herring.[77] Tillerson was not negotiating with North Korea or even approaching it, although ‘backchannel’ contact might have been useful in defusing the situation.[78] The Secretary of State might carry out negotiations but cannot initiate them – that is a decision for the President. At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that Trump will have the strength to make that decision, and as time passes it becomes less likely because the required concessions will become larger.

Policy Poverty: Neither War Nor Peace, Only Ineffectual Sanctions

Trump is stuck and cannot go in the direction of either war or peace. However, despite all the talk about the ‘adults in the room,’ it should not be thought that anyone else in the elite – politicians, generals, officials, commentators and sundry experts – has much idea either.[79] There is the dishonest (“The U.S. has no interest in regime change”) , unilateralist (we will negotiate if there is an “immediate cessation … of weapons tests”) and threatening approach of Mattis and Tillerson in an article in the Wall Street Journal, “We’re Holding Pyongyang to Account.” And then there is the risible, as exemplified in an article in the PacNet Newsletter, a publication of what is claimed to be the world’s leading security think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which suggested:

President Trump could send a signed copy of his book, The Art of the Deal, to Kim Jong Un. Sending a book on negotiations written by the leader of the United States is a reminder that Trump values his skills as a deal-maker.[80]

Meaningful negotiations might offer a way out but the word “diplomacy,” as used by officials and the media in the present context freighted with the implication that it is peaceful and benign, is nothing of the sort. “Diplomacy” does not mean real negotiations involving give and take but using instruments of coercion that are not direct military action in an attempt to force submission. It involves threats of military action, diplomatic pressure and economic warfare, conventionally abbreviated as sanctions rather than kinetic actions which provoke retaliation. The objectives are the same, only the means varying. Sanctions, if fully implemented by China, would result in mass starvation, which is commonly considered a war crime.[81] Apparently such laws do not apply to the United States in its effort to disarm North Korea for, as an editorial in the Wall Street Journal assures us, “withholding food aid to bring down a government would normally be unethical, but North Korea is an exceptional case.”[82] Exceptionalism has its privileges.

However, ethics aside, whatever damage sanctions might do to the North Korean people, they are unlikely to be effective in changing the policy of the government because, in the absence of meaningful negotiations, surrender would inflict even worse damage. Indeed, the lifting of sanctions, at least partially, would probably be a necessary precursor of genuine negotiations.

What a US deal with North Korea might involve is a subject in its own right but the starting point would be the awareness, even if not publically admitted, that North Korea with its deterrence-based defence strategy, does not pose a threat to US security but rather a challenge to US hegemony. If North Korea’s deterrence works in forcing the United States to accept peaceful coexistence than that has global implications. There may be ways to tackle that underlying challenge to hegemony though the Trump administration is an unlikely font of deep strategic thinking.[83] But this goes beyond the administration itself – there is little indication in the torrent of articles and speeches published daily that this crucial reality is grasped by the elite generally.

Strategic Inexorability and the Challenge to US Hegemony

Trump, it seems, can neither go to war, nor formulate a strategy to defuse the situation in a way that helps to preserve US hegemony and might be presented as a victory. He is not alone in in this, but he is president and whilst he is shackled he can do certain things, such as ordering carrier groups to sail around the Western Pacific (sometimes in the wrong direction,[84] making speeches and, his own speciality, tweeting. Twitter is a new phenomenon and whilst other public figures have come to grief using it, no one does it so exuberantly and foolishly as Trump.[85] And therein lies a problem for the adults. Trump hasn’t got the ability to solve America’s North Korea predicament, but he can exacerbate it, and does. Trump’s addiction to Twitter is well known, and widely derided.[86] Twitter offers the toxic combination of the sloppiness of informal, private chat with the permanence and rapid global dissemination of the Internet. Sometimes public figures are discomforted when an ill-considered comment becomes public when a microphone is inadvertently left switched on. With Trump and Twitter neither the comment nor the microphone are inadvertent. Tweets are public and documented; the Los Angeles Times has a webpage claiming to record “Everything President Trump has tweeted”; two countries have sections to themselves, Russia and North Korea.[87]

Trump has tweeted on a number of occasions, threatening that he will take action against North Koreas, fire and fury no less, if it does not desist in developing its deterrent, but has not carried through, resulting as many have pointed out, in a lack of credibility.[88] This behaviour has not been confined to North Korea. He backed down significantly in the beginning of his presidency in respect of China, but it has become such a characteristic, in both foreign and domestic affairs, that a columnist in the Washington Post dubbing him the ‘Backdown President.’[89]

Credibility is the key aspect of any exercise of authority, be it by a teacher, a parent, or the leader of a global empire. Incompetence is bad enough but Trump’s continuing demolition of US credibility is another matter. Credibility goes in two directions, peace and war – it can be lost by the failure to honour an agreement, such as the Iran deal, or by not carrying out repeated military threats against North Korea.

Eliot A. Cohen, the military historian, put it bluntly, if rather disingenuously:

[Trump] has now repeatedly insisted that he will resolve the problem that has bedeviled three of his predecessors, and has made it clear that diplomacy is not the way. That leaves either North Korea’s surrender, which will not happen, or war, or another broken promise.

The incalculable costs of war could include the loss of hundreds of thousands of Korean lives, and the loss of many thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilians, including military dependents in Korea. It could well bring about a Chinese intervention and direct confrontation with Beijing. It would shatter what remaining confidence America’s allies have in Washington’s good judgment.

A climb down, however, will be far worse than Obama’s abortive red line in Syria, as bad as that was. Trump will have shown, once and forever, that he is a blowhard tapping out empty threats on Twitter. On his watch the United States can and will be defied with impunity. And again, what remains of American credibility pretty much anywhere will vanish.[90]

The article is disingenuous because its title (“Rex Tillerson Must Go”) suggests that Tillerson’s resignation would somehow solve the conundrum. Eliot is a leading neocon thinker, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, and a strong advocate of war against Iraq, Iran and Syria. The title of his latest book makes no secret of where he stands: The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.[91] He is somewhat confused about East Asian geography – he thinks that Korea is on China’s southern border – but that may be a Freudian slip about Vietnam; he does not regret the war, only the US defeat.[92]

Cohen is too astute to fuss about the nonsense of a “threat from North Korea,” seeing this as essentially a choice between war and the further, and potentially disastrous, erosion of US credibility; peace is not in his lexicon. He does not explicitly advocate war but he implies it: “A climb down, however, will be far worse.” Cohen is surely not the only person in the US elite wrestling with this problem.

He does not discuss another possibility, one not to be mentioned in public, but no doubt exercising many minds. War with North Korea means war with China. Some would go for that but it is a big decision, fraught with danger. No war but Trump’ s incompetence and his empty bluster risks a precipitous decline in American credibility that extends far beyond the Korean issue. If Russiagate does not succeed in removing Trump from power, will thoughts turns to other, non-constitutional means?

There was a two-and-a-half month pause in public deterrent testing after the 15 September launch of the Hwasong-12. No doubt technical reasons were part of the reason but there was speculation that this was a message from Pyongyang to Washington.[93] If so, it was a unilateral freeze that complemented the Chinese/Russia freeze-for-freeze peace proposals.[94] Since there are back-channel communications in place, the Trump administration would have been well aware of the overture. In any case, the administration rejected the overture. It put North Korea back on the terrorism list on 20 November and made it clear that it was going ahead with massive airstrike drills in coordination with the South Korean air force.[95]

On 29 September North Korea launched its biggest ICBM yet, the Hwasong-15.[96]

The rock holds firm and the caravan moves on, ignoring the barking dog.

Retired New Zealand-based academic Tim Beal has written two books and numerous articles on Korean issues and US global policy. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal contributing editor and writes for NK News and Zoom in Korea amongst others. He maintains the website Asian Geopolitics.

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