Trump’s fiery rhetoric plays into Kim’s hands

Lesotho Times - - Opinion - John Kirby

THIS week, US Pres­i­dent Trump (pic­tured) promised North Korea a “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it con­tin­ues to threaten the United States. His re­mark came on the heels of a news ar­ti­cle that cited an in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ment claim­ing Py­ongyang had suc­cess­fully minia­tur­ized a nu­clear war­head. Minia­tur­iza­tion is a crit­i­cal step to­ward be­ing able to mount such a de­vice onto a mis­sile -- so, if the re­port is true, it’s cer­tainly wor­thy of due con­cern by those charged with our na­tional de­fense.

But a lit­tle self-dis­ci­pline by the com­man­der in chief and some per­spec­tive are in or­der.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s “fiery” rhetoric only es­ca­lates the ten­sion fur­ther. And it plays right into Kim Jong Un’s hands. Kim’s ar­gu­ment -ridicu­lous as it sounds -- is that North Korea needs nukes to en­sure the regime’s sur­vival and de­fend it against the United States, a na­tion he re­mains con­vinced is out to un­seat him.

Con­sider how North Korea’s for­eign min­is­ter re­acted to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions yes­ter­day: “We will, un­der no cir­cum­stances, put the nukes and bal­lis­tic rock­ets on the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble,” Mr. Ri said in a state­ment. “Nei­ther shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bol­ster­ing up the nu­clear forces cho­sen by our­selves un­less the hos­tile pol­icy and nu­clear threat of the US against the DPRK are fun­da­men­tally elim­i­nated.”

For Kim, it’s all about the United States -and only the United States. Threats of over­whelm­ing force by Pres­i­dent Trump, while per­haps sat­is­fy­ing in the mo­ment, only bol­sters that pro­pa­ganda and lends it cred­i­bil­ity.

And all of this from an as­sess­ment which is not sup­ported by the en­tire in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity -- it came from a leak. That doesn’t di­min­ish the grav­ity of it, but it sure makes one won­der who in the hell thought it was a good idea.

Dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied con­clu­sions is against the law -- but, more crit­i­cally, do­ing so when those con­clu­sions are not fully vet­ted could also prompt re­ac­tions from Py­ongyang that only make the sit­u­a­tion more volatile.

We’re al­ready wit­ness­ing the reper­cus­sions of Trump’s threat, as the North Korean mil­i­tary is now “care­fully ex­am­in­ing” plans to strike Guam, the US ter­ri­tory that is home to more than 160,000 Amer­i­can cit­i­zens.

Does Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­mo­ni­tion about con­tin­ued threats from Py­ongyang rep­re­sent a red line the North Kore­ans just crossed? It is un­clear whether the North Kore­ans can ac­tu­ally hit Guam with any pre­ci­sion or lethal­ity, but I sus­pect the peo­ple of that tiny is­land will be wak­ing up wor­ried none­the­less.

Trump will also no doubt cause a fair bit of angst in Seoul, Tokyo and Bei­jing. The South Kore­ans ob­vi­ously ex­pect us to meet our mu- tual de­fense treaty re­quire­ments, but they just elected to of­fice a new ad­min­is­tra­tion that de­sires to find a peace­ful so­lu­tion to the cri­sis, in­deed di­rect talks. They stand more to lose by war on the penin­sula than any­one else, and by “lose” we’re talk­ing po­ten­tially mil­lions of lives.

Our Ja­panese al­lies like­wise are in the crosshairs now. And the Chi­nese, for all their re­cal­ci­trance to put pres­sure on Py­ongyang, just voted on some of the tough­est sanc­tions ever en­acted against Kim’s regime and could be for­given for think­ing the United States was will­ing to con­tinue to pur­sue diplo­matic pres­sure.

True, Bei­jing has not done enough to change Kim’s cal­cu­lus and their im­ple­men­ta­tion of sanc­tions in the past has been spotty, but in the wake of a truly sig­nif­i­cant win in the UN -- one that rep­re­sented a gal­va­nized in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity against an in­creas­ingly iso­lated North -- Trump ac­tu­ally risks iso­lat­ing the United States in­stead.

Fi­nally, the Pres­i­dent is only mak­ing it that much harder for his na­tional se­cu­rity team to con­tinue to work on the prob­lem with the same thought­ful, mea­sured and de­lib­er­ate ap­proach they have hith­erto been tak­ing. It was just a week ago that Sec­re­tary of State Tiller­son made clear that the United States: 1) was not seek­ing regime change, 2) did not con­sider North Korea an en­emy, and 3) did not rule out di­rect talks at some point. Tiller­son’s pur­suit of this ap­proach just be­came a lot more dif­fi­cult, and the Pres­i­dent just nar­rowed his own de­ci­sion space.

Putting all that aside for a mo­ment, we have long known and sur­mised that Py­ongyang was striv­ing for a nu­clear-ca­pa­ble ICBM. Ev­ery­thing they have said and done in the last cou­ple years has re­in­forced this the­sis. As the head of the US Pa­cific Com­mand, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, re­cently said of Kim Jong Un, “I take him at his word. I must as­sume his claims are true -- I know his as­pi­ra­tions cer­tainly are.”

So, ob­vi­ously, if we as­sume Kim Jong Un is se­ri­ous -- and we do -- we must be pre­pared to de­fend our­selves and our al­lies. And we are. As Adm. Harris made clear, our mil­i­tary forces are ready to “fight tonight.” But we must also rec­og­nize that, even if true, this new as­sess­ment does not mean Py­ongyang can ef­fec­tively de­ploy a nu­clear-tipped mis­sile right now.

While minia­tur­iza­tion is crit­i­cal, it does not in and of it­self speak to the abil­ity to mount the war­head on a mis­sile, pre­cisely tar­get that mis­sile, or en­sure the war­head can even sur­vive reen­try into the Earth’s at­mos­phere.

We must take the threat se­ri­ously, to be sure. Kim Jong Un has been noth­ing if not con­sis­tent in his de­sire to achieve this ca­pa­bil­ity. But we don’t need to go dig­ging bunkers in our back­yards just yet.

There is still time for di­plo­macy, still room for in­ter­na­tional pres­sure -- if only the Pres­i­dent would let his team con­tinue that vi­tal work. — CNN

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