It’s been a hectic two weeks of dick-measuring and saber rattling between the leaders of two countries with nuclear arsenals.
Whether they’ve been playing a complicated game of multi-dimensional chess, talking tough for domestic consumption, or merely making up for small stature or small… hands… it’s hard for the world to ignore the brinkmanship. The classically Nixon-ian diplomatic art of pushing opposing actors to act aggressively- essentially a geopolitical game of chicken.
Given the rapid pace of escalation, a quick run-down might be necessary.
Two weeks ago today, North Korea performed their second ICBM test of the month, over 600 miles into the sea of Japan. The next day, analysts pointed out that the high arc it flew in was tall enough that had it been a standard flight trajectory, it could have had a range of upwards of 6,500 miles. Meaning, rather than just concerns about the North’s ability to reach Alaska or Hawaii or even the California cost, the range of this missile includes Chicago and on the far end possibly even New York.
The next day, after the US flew B-1 bombers over South Korea in a show of force to the North, Vice President Pence declared that “the era of strategic patience is over”, understating the words to come from our commander in chief. The day after that, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered North Korea a dialogue if they would abandon their nuclear weapons program.
Saturday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously on extremely tough, US drafted, sanctions targeting the regime. This was incredible, not just because of how intense these sanctions are, but because China sits on the council. For decades, they have protected North Korea and feared what a massive refugee crisis could mean across their border in the event that the country were to go to war or collapse. On Sunday, their foreign minister warned them not to conduct any more missile launches or nuclear tests. China’s trade with North Korea is tantamount to subsidization. Without China North Korea’s economy is untenable. These two days probably represented the greatest amount of rational hope in years that North Korea might finally be brought to bear in time, given how essential China’s cooperation would be to any final solution short of internal revolution.
Or not. The very next day, North Korea called the sanctions a “heinous plot” and a “violent violation of our sovereignty”, and vowed they would respond by the “righteous action” of launching a “thousands-fold revenge” on the U.S. The day after, came Trump’s statement which finally focused the attention of average disinterested American on the international crisis…
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been very threatening beyond a normal statement. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” – President Donald Trump
As this publication has pointed out, one of the reason a statement like that from Trump may be even more worrisome, is that he could argue that he doesn’t even need authorization to resume war with North Korea. The Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 was a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Technically, Korea is still in a state of war 64 years later.
The implications about what that could be interpreted to mean as it relates to whether or not Trump needs Congressional approval or authorizations to give fire and fury is pretty terrifying.
Thankfully, we’re told that it wasn’t and isn’t a war, it was (and is?) a “police action”.
If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is- and intentionally so. Congress has abdicated it’s responsibility as the branch of government tasked with declaring a state of war in every actual war since WW2, and has engaged in various levels of verbal gymnastics in order to justify the expansion of Presidential War Powers. The original constitutional view of war-making power can be summed up by the “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison–
“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.”
In any case, such a strong, unequivocal statement from the man whose little fingers can access the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons… surely this could be an effective deterrent against a small hermit kingdom with a starving populace, little functional electricity, who just lost their last powerful ally in China and now stands nearly completely alone?
A matter of hours after Trump’s fire and fury statement about the response the North could expect if they threatened the US again, came the response from North Korea. They threatened a missile strike against Guam, a US territory with nearly 7,000 US servicemen stationed on their two military bases, not to mention 160,000 American civilians.
This left Trump only two realistic options.
1. Military action that equated to “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen”, when the world has seen the US drop two nuclear weapons on a nation in the same region.
2. Repeat Obama’s “red line” blow to the credibility of US Presidents who threaten military action but don’t follow through.
I don’t see a third option that doesn’t require a time machine, a quiet assassination, or an agreement with both China and Russia to act on our behalf.
Since then, Trump has doubled down on rhetoric, without acting how his first statement warned he would. He’s suggested that maybe “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” may not have been a “tough enough statement”, despite his lack of follow through, and said our military was “locked and loaded”.
General Mattis said, hours after the fire and fury threat, that war with the North would be “catastrophic”. He has attempted to make the case that it would be North Korean actions, rather than words, that would prompt fire and fury, in an apparent attempt to relieve Trump of his obligation to respond to threats alone. Mattis has also made the statement, today, that diplomatic efforts were working.
Internationally, Japan has vowed to try and shoot down any North Korean missiles meant for Guam if they can. China has specifically stated that the North would be “on their own” if they tried to follow through. Russia’s foreign minister has announced the introduction of a Russian-Chinese plan aimed at defusing the growing US/North Korean conflict. Part of the plan is an agreement offered for the North to freeze it’s missile tests in exchange for a freeze in large-scale military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea.
An interesting caveat to China’s seeming compliance is that they have re-stated their commitment to defend the DPRK in the event of a US attack. This puts Trump in a difficult position and negates his ability to use preemptive military measures to silence the Korean dictatorship, or risk massive global conflict that could only be called World War III.
What will happen from here? Will North Korea bomb Guam, and be destroyed in return? If they did fire such missiles, what are the odds that either our THAAD or Aegis missile defense systems around South Korea and Japan would actually be functional enough to work when needed? Will the US resume the Korean War/police action/whatever with preemptive strikes? Will everyone back down and avoid nuclear confrontation? Will our President and Korea’s “Supreme Leader” simply talk smack for the next few years without ever acting on their threats? Will Dennis Rodman save us all with his unexpectedly advanced diplomatic skills?
My guess is that talk is bluster and actual war is not imminent, but I could easily be wrong. After all, few people would label either leader at the heart of this brinkmanship as a “rational actor”.
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