by William P. Kiehl
At a recent photo op with senior military officers and their wives, President Donald Trump was heard to remark that it was “the calm before the storm.”
In response to shouted questions from the press, the president declined to be more specific, only noting that they (the press) would soon find out.
As one might expect, this threw the American media into a frenzy of speculation and a certain degree of panic. This may, in fact, have been the sole object of Trump’s remarks. No one, including this writer, knows what he had in mind then or now.
The Iran deal
Most of the speculation centers, however, on one or another of two issues: the Iran deal and decerti- fication, and North Korea and military action.
The former is really not such a mystery. As he promised to do during the campaign, Trump decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and tossed the ball to Congress to decide what, if anything, to do about it within 60 days. This decertification has no bearing on the validity of the JCPOA itself.
Anyone who has followed the issue knows that Congress will take its own sweet time and thus the “deal” will still be in force for some time to come. Perhaps even enough time for some “adjustments” in the terms to be negotiated, and again, this may well be the Trump plan — who knows?
North Korean threat
The more pressing and threatening issue is what to do about North Korea and how to deal with “Little Rocket Man,” as our president refers to that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
The alarming threat of a nuclear-capable North Korea with the intent and the means to use, or at least threaten to use, nuclear weapons to achieve its foreign policy goals is the most serious threat to American national security since the Cuban missile crisis.
Everyone realizes that there are no good options with regard to mitigating the — as yet still potential — threat from North Korea.
North Korea has literally thousands of artillery pieces trained on Seoul, the South Korean capital, as well as on U.S. troops on the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
With a population of some 20 million, Seoul stands to lose, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of its people in just the first minutes of an armed conflict with the North.
And that assumes that only conventional rather than nuclear forces would be used. Many of the casualties would also consist of the thousands of American troops manning the DMZ “trip-wire” on the Korean Peninsula.
Carrots and sticks
For the past 25 years, the United States and its main allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, have struggled to find a way to eliminate the potential threat of a nuclear-capable North Korea. They have failed miserably.
Indeed, their failures with North Korea seem to have been used almost as a template by the Obama administration to reproduce a similar lack of real success in negotiations with Iran.
A sporadic series of carrots and sticks by successive U.S. administrations has done nothing to disincentivize the North Korean regime from its goal to join the nuclear club.
Clear and present danger
Non-ally interested parties like Russia and particularly China held o on any real cooperation and saw North Korea as a useful tool to distract and deter the United States in the Northern Pacific and to keep Japan and South Korea from developing their own nuclear forces.
North Korea’s successes have radically changed the situation. The Americans have at long last awakened to the clear and present danger presented by a nuclear-capable North Korea and the Trump administration’s sheer bellicosity has shaken countries like Russia and China to the real possibility of military conflict and even nuclear conflict in the region.
This is why Russia and especially China have now agreed to harsher and more meaningful United Nations sanctions on Kim’s regime.
China has been playing a duplicitous game for decades. Even while condemning North Korea’s missile and nuclear adventurism, China has supplied much of the technology and funding for Kim’s military forces. Now perhaps realizing that the United States is really serious about use of military force, China is playing a more constructive role diplomatically in order to avoid the one thing that every nation dreads—military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Such a conflict would not only be materially destructive for the two Koreas but would cause enormous instability through the entire Asia-Pacific region leading to unintended, unplanned and unpredictable political, economic and military outcomes.
That would be against the interests of all of the powers involved, not least of which are China and the United States.
So what is the plan? There really are limited choices.
One option is to continue our diplomacy using China’s leverage on North Korea to work out a verifiable limitation on the North Korean nuclear and missile capability, with the ultimate goal a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
This China option requires the United States to continue to tighten sanctions through the United Nations and exercise a certain level of military bellicosity and unpredictability so that China will see a reasonable diplomatic outcome as preferable to military conflict and push North Korea aggressively in that direction.
A second option is use of overwhelm- ing U.S. military force to intimidate North Korea into submission. Or—as that last is unlikely to happen—there’s the use of military force to take out most of North Korea’s missile and nuclear capability. This option would create just the sort of human carnage and geopolitical mess that all nations want to avoid.
The third option is to work out an “accommodation” with North Korea that would permit it to join the nuclear club (with the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Israel, India and Pakistan) but would set some agreed and verifiable limits on its potential use of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This unsatisfying option would inevita- bly lead to Iran joining the “club,” and who knows how many other potential nuclear states would emerge over the next decade.
Whatever Trump meant by “the calm before the storm,” we are most assuredly in it. The hope is that the coming storm will be one that is within our abilities to manage.