After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared at the beginning of the year that preparations for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States had reached final stages, Donald Trump tweeted emphatically “It won’t happen!” Exactly six months later, on America’s Independence Day, it happened. Pyongyang launched an ICBM dubbed Hwasong-14 that experts say can hit Alaska, and, in the not too distant future, California as well. The North Koreans humiliated Trump and made him look like a fool as they sparked a dangerous crisis that now threatens East Asia and the world economy.
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The first element, which is Trump’s reckless arrogance, heightens the menace of the second, which is Kim Jong Un’s belligerent brinkmanship. Presidents before Trump, from Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama were also unable to neutralize the complex North Korean danger. But the threat is now compounded by the fact that the United States is headed by a novice president who is prone to shooting first and asking questions later, who is known for wildly tweeting out against friends and foes alike and whose ability to navigate treacherous affairs of state is being questioned throughout the world, with the possible exceptions of Russia and Israel.
Trump has already caused unnecessary damage to efforts to contain Kim Jong Un. After discussing the North Korean nuclear challenge with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar a Lago estate in Florida in April, Trump tweeted a series of veiled threats in which he warned China that if did not restrain Pyongyang, the U.S. would deal with North Korea on its own. The tweets embarrassed Xi and made it harder for him to take a hard line against his North Korean neighbor.
Now Trump is angry with China and needs to increase pressure on Beijing to act, but he is in a worse position than he was a few months ago and could actually make things even worse.
Experts believe that Trump’s initial confidence that Beijing would forcefully challenge Kim Jong Un at his behest was misplaced. He may have been unaware that political instability in Pyongyang, which could spark a mass movement of millions of refugees to China’s borders, has always seemed more dangerous to Beijing than North Korean nuclearization.
Trump is certainly ignorant of the prominent role that China’s intervention on behalf of the North in the Korean War 65 years ago played in cementing its standing as a superpower to be reckoned with. There is also an overarching concern that Trump lacks the experience or the intellectual skills necessary to contend with wily world statesmen such as Xi. It was only last month, you will remember, that Saudi royals played Trump by feting him in Riyadh, only to launch a regional assault on their long standing rival Qatar, ostensibly with his approval. The Middle East is still reeling from the crisis that ensued.
The apprehension is only increasing in advance of Wednesday’s scheduled Security Council meeting in New York, and more importantly the G20 summit that convenes on Friday in Hamburg. Trump will try to repair his relations with European leaders that he ruined during his last visit to NATO headquarters, but with Trump being Trump he is just as likely to make matters worse.
Trump is also slated to sit down for the first time tete-a-tete with Vladimir Putin, who many Americans suspect helped get Trump elected in the first place or, even worse, can actually blackmail him with embarrassing material allegedly collected by Russian spies. But even if all of these suspicions are groundless, the clueless and impetuous U.S. president who seems to coast from embarrassment to fiasco seems to be no match for his devious and ruthless Russian counterpart, especially at a time when the two are facing off the most complicated crises in the world, in Syria and in North Korea.
The launching of a North Korean ICBM that can threaten the U.S. mainland also increases domestic pressure on Trump to get tough toward Beijing and if that doesn’t work, to consider the use of force against North Korea. The problem is that there are no quick fixes in North Korea and no potential military strike that does not create clear and present dangers for America’s allies in Seoul and Tokyo, for its relations with China and for the world’s economic well-being.
Even if U.S. bombers and missiles could miraculously take out North Korea’s missile capabilities in a first strike, Kim will still control a million-man army that has chemical and biological weapons and, no less importantly, 20,000 artillery pieces that could wreak havoc on Seoul, one of the most crucial economic capitals in the world, and which lies only 35 miles away from the North Korean border. Never mind the potential for an actual nuclear war.
Any American action against North Korea would spark fears and concerns in world capitals even in normal times, which these clearly are not. Trump’s demented tweets against the media, for example, raise doubts about his overall mental capacities. The lack of confidence in Trump’s abilities to handle his country’s foreign affairs is clear-cut even among the countries that would be most affected by a confrontation with North Korea.
According to the survey released by Pew Research late last month, only 17 percent of South Koreans trust Trump, compared to 88 percent who trusted Obama. Only 24 percent of Japanese have confidence in Trump, compared to 78 percent with Obama. In Australia, whose economy is completely dependent on East Asian stability, the figures are more or less the same: 29 percent trust Trump compared to 84 percent who trusted Obama. Before it gets really great, Trump is causing America to deflate, at least in the eyes of others.
It’s quite possible that the only realistic solution to the North Korean crisis is a diplomatic deal, possibly brokered by Russia and China, which would stop any further development of North Korea’s nuclear program that could threaten the United States, but would leave its current capabilities in place. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already described such a solution as unacceptable, and if Obama had contemplated something similar, the American right would have burned him in effigy in front of the White House.
A more mature president would realize that one sometimes has to choose between cholera and the plague, between doubtful containment and dangerous escalation, but Trump seems more like a troubled teen who’ll do anything just to be able to tweet to the world about his manliness. Trump’s great advantage, on the other hand, is that the world will breathe easier even if he accepts a deal that would be deemed a disaster under other circumstances, because it would be measured against the expectation that Trump is bound toward total catastrophe