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Donald Trump

Trump’s threats at UN to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea demonstrate little relationship with reality

Donald Kirk writes that Trump’s over-the-top declaration can’t hide the fact that military action against the North would be deeply unpopular at home, costly and opposed by North Korea’s neighbours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 10:30am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 10:35am

It wasn’t exactly a declaration of war, but it did come close. What else to make of US President Donald Trump’s remark that the US might “totally destroy North Korea?” It was one thing to belittle Kim Jong-un as “rocket man” but quite another to threaten annihilation of a country torn apart by US warplanes in the first Korean war.

If nothing else, Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly will be remembered as one of those classic moments at which a head of state spoke for shock effect to a more or less captive audience. His words were reminiscent of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 banging a shoe in protest against a speech, or Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat in 1974 wearing a pistol belt, saying he carried “an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other”.

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Just as such words rang hollow, bearing little relationship to the ability of those loud-talking figures to carry out their rhetorical threats, so Trump’s remarks also seem a little removed from reality. Is he really ready to order “massive retaliation” needed to destroy an impoverished country of 25 million? Might he order air strikes on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities, many hidden in caves and tunnel complexes? How carefully has he thought through the consequences?

For Trump, the gulf between rhetoric and reality is often quite wide

For Trump, the gulf between rhetoric and reality is often quite wide. He’s encountered tremendous difficulties doing away with Obamacare, the affordable health care plan instituted under president Barack Obama, and he’s far from fulfilling his vows to keep out a flood of immigrants. His presidency could fall apart on whatever decisions he makes on North Korea.

Let’s imagine, hypothetically, the consequences of a pre-emptive strike on a missile facility. Would North Korean artillery really open up on Seoul and Incheon, as forecast? Might Kim Jong-un order missile shots aimed at the US military base at Pyongtaek? Would the North Koreans launch mid-range missiles in the general direction of the US air and naval bases on Guam?

It’s possible, of course, the North Koreans would not respond so decisively. For North Korea, the risk of still greater counter-strikes might be too high to do much other than escalate the rhetoric as thousands massed on Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, shouting hateful promises to “destroy” the United States – all quite harmless.

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Who, however, needs this game of dare and double-dare? In fact, Trump has little support for waging a second Korean war while immersed in never-ending conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan. China and Russia, having given tepid support to UN sanctions against North Korea, would strongly oppose military intervention against their old Korean war ally.

A campaign against North Korea of the sort that Trump has suggested would also trigger opposition in both the US and South Korea. The United States is in no mood for war. Kim Jong-un has been the target of outrage, of satire, of denunciations for both his nuclear programme and human rights abuses, but not many Americans are so upset as to be willing to sacrifice lives fighting his regime.

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Anti-war sentiment may be still stronger in South Korea. President Moon Jae-in is all for maintaining the alliance with the US, and he has also coordinated with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on mutual defence against North Korea. They met with Trump in a trilateral summit at the UN at which presumably they came to an understanding on what to do were Kim Jong-un to order a strike against any of their bases.

They also had to have ignored the proposal of retired Yonsei professor Moon Chung-in for a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a freeze on US and South Korean war games. Professor Moon, an “adviser” to President Moon, has been spouting the same line for years. Obviously North Korea would not be cutting out its own war games while going on about fabricating missiles and nukes.

Can Moon Jae-in find a path to reconciliation with North Korea?

For President Moon, the answer still lies in persuading the North of dialogue on some level. He may not be fulfilling the demands of leftists anxious to disavow the US alliance, but he’s not going along with all of Trump’s notions either.

After the storm over Trump’s words dies down, where do we go from here? Trump did say the US would destroy North Korea in “defence”. Kim Jong-un has often said he needs nukes for “defence”. At least that’s one word on which they both agree.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea