Are Trump’s as­sump­tions about nu­clear threat right?

A look into Don­ald Trump’s key mes­sages as rhetoric on Py­ongyang’s nu­clear pro­gramme reaches fever pitch

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - John Sud­worth

A look into Don­ald Trump’s key mes­sages as rhetoric on Py­ongyang’s nu­clear pro­gramme reaches fever pitch

Among the avalanche of tweets that have so far de­fined Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, one for­eign pol­icy is­sue stands out - North Korea.

With the Pres­i­dent now warn­ing of ‘fire and fury’, we thought it was time for a re­al­ity check.

What does his Twit­ter feed @re­alDon­aldTrump tell us about the as­sump­tions and be­liefs be­hind his ap­proach to one of the most press­ing se­cu­rity is­sues of our time?

So we’re train­ing our re­al­ity radar on four of his key North Korea mes­sages since be­ing elected.

On Au­gust 5, this year, Pres­i­dent Trump de­clared the UN had agreed a sanc­tions pack­age that would cost North Korea US$1bn.

This lat­est set of sanc­tions, agreed unan­i­mously by the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, was her­alded by Trump as a di­plo­matic vic­tory - the cul­mi­na­tion of months of work to try to get China on side.

The mea­sures in­clude, for ex­am­ple, the re­moval of the civil­ian ‘liveli­hood’ ex­emp­tion in the pre­vi­ous sanc­tions pack­age that al­lowed North Korea and China to con­tinue trad­ing coal and iron ore in large vol­umes.

But US$1bn of dif­fer­ence? Al­though the fig­ure was sup­ported by at least two other Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­bers (France and Ja­pan), as al­ways the ex­tent of the eco­nomic pain in­flicted will de­pend en­tirely on the will­ing­ness of China, North Korea's big­gest trad­ing part­ner, to en­force the new sanc­tions.

Re­al­ity check ver­dict: Close enough. The US$1bn fig­ure is a best-case sce­nario for Pres­i­dent Trump, but the sanc­tions do rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant shift, on pa­per at least.

Since his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Pres­i­dent Trump’s tweets on China’s per­for­mance re­gard­ing North Korea have veered from high op­ti­mism to an­gry pes­simism, and back again.

In July 2017, his frus­tra­tion was front and cen­tre as he tweeted: ‘Trade be­tween China and North Korea grew al­most 40% in the first quar­ter. So much for China work­ing with us - but we had to give it a try!’

This goes right to the nub of the is­sue of China's en­force­ment of sanc­tions.

There are some signs that China is be­gin­ning to bow to pres­sure when it comes to gen­eral trade, such as com­modi­ties.

Ear­lier this year, it did fi­nally stop buy­ing North Korean coal, a ma­jor source of for­eign cur­rency for Py­ongyang, and for the first half of this year, China said its to­tal im­ports of all goods fell by 13.2 per cent, as re­ported in the Chi­nese state news­pa­per the

Global Times.

But North Korea is still a long way from be­ing squeezed un­til its pips squeak.

Trump was (al­most) right about the 40 per cent in­crease in to­tal two-way trade with China in the first quar­ter.

The ac­tual fig­ure, ac­cord­ing to the Global Times, was 37.4 per cent, al­though it added that this fig­ure bucked an over­all down­ward trend since 2014, and by May the in­crease for 2017 so far had dropped to 13.7 per cent.

But the same state me­dia ed­i­to­rial makes it clear that push­ing Py­ongyang to the limit is ‘not what the UN res­o­lu­tions are in­tended to do, nor what the Chi­nese pub­lic wants’.

Trump’s state­ments that China could do more are backed up by the views of many other ob­servers. A 2017 UN re­port linked North Korean rocket com­po­nents to Chi­nese com­pa­nies.

There are other cred­i­ble claims, in­clud­ing one by C4ADS, about the con­tin­u­ing trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy via China.

Re­al­ity check ver­dict: Spot on. China’s stated pri­or­ity is sta­bil­ity in North Korea, not regime col­lapse. It is never go­ing to push its old ally too hard. Trump's sus­pi­cious barbs are jus­ti­fied.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s tweet in April that if China ‘want to solve the North Korean prob­lem, they will’ is an­other as­pect of his think­ing/tweet­ing that needs test­ing - his ba­sic premise that, if prop­erly ap­plied, eco­nomic pres­sure might per­suade North Korea to give up its weapons pro­gramme.

Go­ing by North Korea’s own words, this seems un­likely.

Py­ongyang makes it clear via its state news agency KCNA that it sees nu­clear weapons as an is­sue of regime sur­vival.

And it has shown it is noth­ing if not re­silient, en­dur­ing a dev­as­tat­ing famine dur­ing the 1990s through­out which it con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ing its mis­siles and rock­ets. Re­al­ity check ver­dict: Wide off the mark. While sanc­tions may de­lay and frus­trate North Korea's at­tempts to gain nu­clear-tipped mis­siles, they are un­likely on their own to stop them.

Trump’s first tweet about North Korea af­ter his elec­tion in Novem­ber last year set it out as his key for­eign pol­icy pri­or­ity.

Af­ter North Korea said in Jan­uary, that it had suc­cess­fully minia­turised nu­clear war­heads that could reach the US, he said ‘it won’t hap­pen’.

It goes hand in hand with his claim that, in the mis­sion to dis­arm North Korea, his ad­min­is­tra­tion will suc­ceed where his pre­de­ces­sors have failed.

Re­al­ity check ver­dict: What is cer­tainly the case is that North Korea’s decades-old nu­clear weapons pro­gramme has been sig­nif­i­cantly ramped up un­der Kim Jong-Un and is now at a crit­i­cal phase.

It has star­tled ex­perts with the speed of its progress, with many now say­ing it has re­cently proved it has long-range mis­siles ca­pa­ble of reach­ing ma­jor US cities.

Ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion leaked to the Wash­ing­ton Post,

US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials now be­lieve North Korea’s claim that it has the tech­nol­ogy to fit its mis­siles with nu­clear war­heads.

And the var­ied ge­o­graph­i­cal spread of its test fir­ings has also led to con­cerns.

The Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive has an­a­lysed the lo­ca­tions of the tests, and says they could in­di­cate that North Korea is now work­ing in earnest to­wards rolling out its weapons to mis­sile units around the coun­try in prepa­ra­tion to de­ploy them.

The stakes couldn't be higher, and yet the mes­sages com­ing from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion are con­fus­ingly mixed.

Just a week be­fore Trump spoke of ‘fire and fury’, Rex Tiller­son, his Sec­re­tary of State, told a press con­fer­ence: “We’re try­ing to con­vey to the North Kore­ans, ‘We are not your en­emy, we are not your threat’.”

That lat­ter road, of course, would lead to the same set of im­per­fect choices that has be­dev­illed every US pres­i­dent since the first Ge­orge Bush.

In the end, all ad­min­is­tra­tions have had to deal with the re­al­i­ties as they find them - a re­luc­tant China, a de­ter­mined and re­silient North Korea and the in- cal­cu­la­ble cost in hu­man life of any kind of mil­i­tary so­lu­tion.

Many sea­soned North Korean ob­servers are hop­ing that Trump too comes to re­alise that the rea­son his pre­de­ces­sors have failed is pre­cisely be­cause there are no easy solutions.


A North Korean Scud-B mis­sile (right) along­side South Korean ones, at the Korean War Memo­rial in Seoul on Thurs­day


North Kore­ans protest against the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s sanc­tions, at the Youth Park Open-Air theatre in Py­ongyang


Kim Jong-Un (left) and Don­ald Trump Korea

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