We wound up getting the best case scenario when the Senate went to the White House for a special briefing on North Korea. It was mostly optics, a showpiece to mark Trump’s twisted idea of a White House sweeps week ratings bonanza. However, that meeting coupled with US Naval fleet movements and Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, left tensions much higher than they needed to be. North Korea does present a problem. Their nuclear proliferation activities do need to be stopped, but the problem was one that the world still had a good amount of time to solve. It wasn’t an immediate threat until Trump started poking the beehive.
News comes this morning that North Korea has accused the US and South Korean intelligence agencies of an attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with biochemical weapons. So it seems that the bad idea of escalating tensions with an unstable dictator turned out to be a bad idea. Who would have known international diplomacy was so hard?
Dan Carlin, a history and current events podcaster, had a very good point in his last episode of Common Sense. Carlin said you have to imagine the baseline of tensions between the two countries. If the baseline is normal or friendly, like our relationship with Germany, something like the revelations that the NSA was spying on Angela Merkel will increase tensions but even though something like that would create conflict, there would have to be many incidents of high severity before the conflict became violent.
If you’re dealing with a regime that is paranoid and tensions between you are high, like our situation with North Korea, anything you do or say that exacerbates those tensions will only eat up the space that you have between tense relations and open warfare. Things happen. Mistakes are made. Spy planes malfunction and fall out of the sky. Dictators that are paranoid enough that they’re killing off all their close relatives in order to guard against usurpers are generally not the best people to poke with a stick. Sometimes they just make something up out of whole cloth and carry that narrative.
Carlin also made another good point. With the power disparity between the US and North Korea, which is sizable, North Korea’s options are few in the case of open warfare. In fact, they would know without a doubt that their country would be defeated fairly quickly. However, they would also know that their only chance to do any real damage or gain a strategic foothold would be to launch a preemptive attack. The only real target that North Korea is able to reach is Seoul, South Korea. Seoul is a city with over 10 million people. It has a population so dense that it is second only to Hong Kong in population density among developed cities of their size. Even a conventional artillery attack on that city from North Korea, which is a likely first move, would cause massive civilian casualties.
Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the lives of millions of South Koreans with his bombastic, aggressive rhetoric. North Korea is a regime that feels its back against the wall, ruled by a dictator who is unsure enough about his rule that he’s killed his uncle and half brother to make sure he can stay in power. Those are the circumstances that leave a regime desperate enough to do something stupid, no matter how much pressure they get from China.
The Trump administration is behaving in a very unsafe manner. Trump’s off the cuff style and mixed messaging are not what will see the world through this situation. When the same person who said he wouldn’t rule out dropping nuclear bombs, let’s go ahead and have an arms race, and that he would be open to communicating directly with North Korea is the person you’re dealing with, how are you supposed to know which Trump to take seriously. Should you believe the one with a gun to your head or the one who says he wants to talk it over? One thing is certain from the information that we have, neither of these men seem like the type to blink, and they have both demonstrated a willingness (if not eagerness) to escalate the situation.