“The Trump doctrine? Don’t do what Obama did”
—Chris Cillizza, writing for CNN
eople forget that we are technically still at war with North Korea. In July of 1953, fighting on the peninsula stopped due to the signing of an armistice agreement that was supposed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” There has been no “final” settlement and there have been plenty of “acts of armed force” since 1953.
In 1956, the old Soviet Union first introduced the North Koreans to nuclear technology, via training its scientists and engineers. The Soviets continued over the years to help nurse North Korea along in this and in other ways (along with the Chinese). In the late 1950s, under President Eisenhower, the U.S. introduced real nuclear missiles into the mix, which was a abrogation of part of the armistice agreement (click on this link for an interesting look at “How the Korean War Almost Went Nuclear” in 1950, under Truman; for a look at Ike’s mixed views on the use of nukes, read Chapter 12 from Ira Chernus’s “Faith and Fear in the Fifties“).
Since Eisenhower’s actions in the ’50s (George H. W. Bush unilaterally withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea in 1991), the biggest worry in the region has been the nuclear issue and whether the North Koreans would become a big-time nuclear power. With the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989, North Korea essentially lost one of its lifelines. It became poorer, more desperate, and more dangerous. The American Security Project put the situation in these terms:
This begins the rebalancing of power within the North-South Korean dyad later noted as one of the systemic factors driving North Korea’s nuclear program.
Since then, various attempts were made to curb the development of that nuclear program and the testing required. Threats were issued, deals were offered, joint statements were made. But all those things depended on the assumption that there are reliably rational actors on the North Korean side. There is little evidence of that, however. Early in 2013, the North conducted another nuclear test, causing the UN to issue a resolution, complete with sanctions, condemning the test. As the BBC reported back then,
South Korea’s ambassador to the UN, Kim Sook, said it was time for North Korea to “wake up from its delusion” of becoming a nuclear state.
“It can either take the right path toward a bright future and prosperity, or it can take a bad road toward further and deeper isolation and eventual self-destruction,” he said.
US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the sanctions would “further constrain” North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear programme.
She warned that the UN would “take further significant actions” if Pyongyang were to carry out another nuclear test.
These responses, the sanctions and the threat of more sanctions, is what people mean when they use the term “strategic patience” toward North Korea. After all, it is either patience or war, a war that would result not just in the deaths of American soldiers stationed in the region (and more soldiers that would be subsequently deployed there), but potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South Korean civilians living in places like Seoul, which sits about 30 miles away from the border with the North. The Seoul Capital Area, which includes the city of Seoul, is home to around 24 million people, making it the fourth largest metro area in the world. Resuming the war with North Korea would mean certain death for an uncertain number of civilians. Thus, strategic patience.
Since Tr-mp has no experience with patience, strategic or otherwise, the first time we officially heard from this administration on the matter was from a very inexperienced diplomat who also happens to be our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He issued a warning in March that our “policy of strategic patience” with North Korea “has ended.” Out came another middle-school tweet from Tr-mp:
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!
On April 9, we found out that an American Navy carrier strike group was headed for the waters near the Korean Peninsula. Tr-mp, sounding like Kim Jong-un, the dangerously wacky kleptocratic criminal running North Korea, told Fox Business Network:
We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.
“Armada?” Tr-mp was either displaying his extensive knowledge of 16th-century Spanish-English warfare, or he just thought the word “armada” sounded cool. Likely, it was the first time he had uttered the word in his life, unless he used it during his promotions for the History of European Conflicts and Their Affect on Real Estate Acquisitions, a little-known part of the extensive course offerings at Tr-mp University.
In any case, besides his strange use of Spanish words, there have been, of course, the stupid and dangerous Tr-mp tweets. He said on April 11:
I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!
North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.
Those two tweets sound like a teenage hacker got into Tr-mp’s Twitter account and, with Lee Greenwood’s godawful song playing in the background, decided to exercise juvenile notions of toughness, sort of like using the word armada to describe a U.S. carrier group. But, no, those were Tr-mp’s words. And they constitute threats, even if they are playground threats. The New York Times, being the New York Times, referred to this sort of dopey diction as “intemperate talk.” Well, okay. Whatever you want to call it, they are threats. The Times editorialized the obvious:
It would be risky for Mr. Trump to let overconfidence and bombast, expressed in tweets and public statements, box him into some kind of showdown with the North’s ruthless leader, Kim Jong-un, who has displayed similarly macho traits. South Korea, Japan and even Russia have urged both sides to avoid a devastating miscalculation.
Mike Pence, lapdog for the “broad-shouldered” testosteronic Tr-mp, is obviously not afraid of “devastating miscalculation.” Echoing Tillerson, he told the world, while standing on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone:
All options are on the table to achieve the objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country…There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.
But that wasn’t the scariest thing Pence said. This was:
Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.
I don’t know about you, but a man-crushed Pence using Tr-mp’s “strength and resolve” to challenge the crazy leader of North Korea doesn’t bring me much comfort that this thing will end well (even if we remember that Tr-mp ordered that cruise missile attack on Syria while having chocolate cake at Mar-A-Lago and he had nothing to do with the MOAB use in Afghanistan). So, we have the image, broadcast widely, of a tough Pence “staring down” the North Koreans at the demilitarized zone while offering tough Tr-mp talk, but then in comes our National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, who is supposed to be the adult in this administration. It was widely reported what he said on ABC on Sunday, during an interview with Martha Raddatz: “this problem is coming to a head.” Uh-oh. That short quote makes it sound like our strategic patience really has run out. War seems inevitable if North Korea doesn’t give up on its nuclear program, an issue that’s been around since the 1950s. Tr-mp’s recent statement that “North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of,” wasn’t just bluster.
Except here is what McMaster said in context:
RADDATZ: You know, you sound very confident. President Trump of course sounds very confident. But one final question on this: every president since Bill Clinton has said the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea, and North Korea has only grown stronger in their capabilities. So why do you think President Trump will have a different outcome?
MCMASTER: Well, as you mentioned, this is a problem that has been passed down from multiple administrations. But our president, I think, it’s really the consensus with the president, our key allies in the regions — Japan and South Korea in particular, but also the Chinese leadership — that this problem is coming to a head. And so it’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully.
And so we’re going to rely on our allies like we always do, but we’re also going to have to rely on Chinese leadership. I mean, North Korea is very vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese. Eighty percent of North Korea’s trade comes from China. All of their energy requirements are fulfilled by China.
So in the coming weeks, months, I think there’s a great opportunity for all of us — all of us who are really under the threat now of this unpredictable regime — to take action short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst.
Now, if you look back at the history of our relations with North Korea on the issue of their obtaining nuclear weapons that actually work, what McMaster said sounded very much like what everyone else has said. In other words, what he said sounded very much like strategic patience. Earlier in that interview he said about “Tr-mp’s aggressive tweets”:
MCMASTER: I think it should make clear to the North Korean regime that it is in their best interest to stop the development of these weapons, to stop the development of these missiles, and to denuclearize the peninsula. And so I think while it’s unclear — and we want to — do not want to telegraph in any way how we’ll respond to certain incidents, it’s clear that the president is determined not to allow this kind of capability to threaten the United States. And our president will take action that is in the best interest of the American people. […]
I mean, what Kim Jong-Un is doing is a threat to all people in the region and globally as well. I mean, this is someone who has said not only does he want to develop a nuclear weapon, but he wants to use it to coerce others. He’s said that he was willing to proliferate nuclear weapons once he develops them. And so this a grave threat to all people.
Again, those words could have come from George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama. All of them recognized that no matter which little freak is running North Korea that a nuclear North is “a grave threat to all people.” That is why there has been a lot of tough talk over the years but a lot tougher practice of strategic patience. McMaster seems to know the value of that patience. His boss, though, doesn’t. His boss, an unhinged tweeter, thinks he can tweet his way through this tough problem, perhaps break his adversary’s will with words like “armada” or threats like “North Korea is looking for trouble.” But on the other side, there is Kim Jong-Un, himself also clearly possessing a basketful of personality disorders. He just might read Tr-mp’s tweets both literally and seriously, not merely seeing them as the rantings of a seventh-grader going through a tough, late puberty. Calling the North Korean regime “unpredictable,” McMaster said of Kim:
This is someone who has demonstrated his brutality by murdering his own brother, by murdering others in his family, by imprisoning large numbers of people in horrible conditions for no reason, for political reasons.
Tweeting stupid comments aimed at playing a game with someone like Kim Jong-un, someone who does appear to do things “for no reason,” or at least no discernible rational reason, is a dangerous game. Conducting diplomacy around the North Korea nuclear problem is hard enough for the few professionals still around the State Department who are trying. It’s almost impossible to conduct such diplomacy when an amateurish, even childish, man in the White’s House has his finger on a keyboard that can provoke a military crisis in an instant.
Rather than act like they are fast running away from the doctrine of strategic patience, when there appears to be no better place to actually run to, perhaps the adults in this administration ought to demand of the “president” that he practice some strategic silence on Twitter.
Before someone, a lot of someones, get hurt, if the Korean peninsula catches fire.