For a moment, it looked like the world was heading straight to the brink of nuclear war. But somehow, over the last few days, and with neither the United States president nor the North Korean dictator losing face, tensions have cooled, or been allowed to cool. We can breathe a sigh of collective relief, until the next act of brinkmanship.
US President Donald Trump’s throw away threat to retaliate against North Korean rhetoric with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was both jejune and horrifying.
Essentially, the man in charge of the world’s largest military with enough nuclear weapons to end life on earth warned the man in charge of the world’s most secretive society developing both nuclear weapons and the delivery system to launch them to stop making threats.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said.
An American president threatening a nuclear strike against an enemy for mere (and indeed all-too-familiar) rhetoric — this was something new, and it spooked many capitals around the world.
Trump had spoken without notes, without any preparation, without the message discipline required when speaking of the possible use of nuclear weapons.
An American senator who served in the military, endured years as a prisoner of war, and retains generally hawkish views on the use of American military power voiced concern about Trump’s language.
“I take exception to the President’s comments because you’ve got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do,” Sen. John McCain said. “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act.”
Shortly after Trump’s fire and fury comment, the Kim Jong-un regime responded by saying it was preparing to target the US territory of Guam.
Whether Pyongyang does have the capability to reach Guam with a nuclear-armed missile is still a matter of conjecture, but it is becoming clearer that, under a ruthless dictatorship determined to go nuclear at all costs, North Korea has effectively neutered all attempts to include it in a nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
But in the last few days, the following took place:
China, North Korea’s principal (and perhaps only) ally, signed on to the new round of economic sanctions levied on Pyongyang by the United Nations Security Council. It also put out the word that, if North Korea made the mistake of striking the United States first, Beijing would stay neutral—essentially, a declaration of a future withdrawal of support.
Taking a deliberate, calibrated approach markedly different from Trump’s “tweetstorms,” two of his most senior Cabinet members published a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. While holding Kim to account, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave public assurances that Washington was not interested in ousting him.
On Tuesday (August 15), the Korean Central News Agency ran an unusual story. Pyongyang published an account of the visit its supreme leader paid to the “Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army,” only days after the North Korean military was said to be “seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam.”
In his August 14 visit, Kim listened to a presentation of the plan—and then did not approve it. The KCNA story reported: [Kim] “said that the US imperialists caught the noose around their necks due to their reckless military confrontation racket, adding that he would watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees spending a hard time of every minute of their miserable lot.”
This intention to “watch a little more” may well be a signal of de-escalation. As the analyst Ankit Panda noted, the KCNA story also included the phrase “to defuse the tensions and prevent the dangerous (sic) military conflict on the Korean peninsula”—which can be taken to mean a readiness to open the door to new negotiations. As it is, Pyongyang has already achieved a milestone; its status as a nuclear-armed power has gone beyond the point where it can be questioned.
Astonishingly, the greater uncertainty involves Trump. As the investigative noose tightens around his family and his inner circle, for alleged collusion with the Russian government and, now, for a possible criminal conspiracy, the temptation to distract attention or display raw power may prove too strong for an undisciplined man to resist. He may yet decide to run to the brink again, to get away from it all.
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