The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is displaying much that is wrong with Trump and Pence in matters related to international engagement.
As a matter of background....yesterday Trump congratulated Erdogan of Turkey for his "win" in an election which has been widely criticized for both its purpose (extending Erdogan's power to a point where he is a virtual dictator) and for its conduct (with results disputed by opposition parties, the Turkish legislature and judiciary, and international observers....with many references to its being rigged); his decision to strike a Syrian airfield in response to Assad's government's use of gas against civilians in an area controlled by the opposition that did little damage and seems to have been a stand-alone reaction rather than as a part of a larger plan; and so on. Trump/Pence are like bulls in the global China Shop.
Trump (and to a slightly lesser degree Pence) do not "know" much and, what is worse, they do not know that they do not know. They think they do. And that is bad news too. Let's take a look at what Trump does not seem to know. First a map. I suspect that Trump could not fill it in if it was blank.
Trump has indicated that his predecessors, Obama, and Clinton were “outplayed” by “this gentleman” in North Korea.In an interview that aired on “Fox & Friends” this morning, Trump told Ainsley Earhardt:
“They've been talking with this gentleman for a long time. You read Clinton’s book, he said, ‘Oh, we made such a great peace deal,’ and it was a joke. You look at different things over the years with President Obama. Everybody has been outplayed, they’ve all been outplayed by this gentleman and we’ll see what happens. But I just don’t telegraph my moves.”
Do you think that Trump does not know that Bush was president between Obama and Clinton? Bush had no greater success in "talking to this gentleman."Further it is not "this gentleman" but "these gentlemen", Current dictator Kim Jong Un ― has only been running North Korea since the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il, who ran the country since 1994. Kim Il Sung ― the current leader’s grandfather ― ruled from the nation’s founding in 1948 until his death in 1994, during the first term of the Clinton presidency. The North Korean government has been seeking a nuclear defensive/offensive capability since 1990.
What else does Trump/Pence not understand? Allaying North Korea’s discontent with its security environment – and the region’s fear of a North Korean attack – is extremely complicated. Trump’s policy seems to be focusing on pressuring Beijing to constrain North Korea, the threat of a U.S. preemptive strike and on additional sanctions against NK.
What that policy ignores is that the NK nuclear development program makes strategic and economic sense for North Korea.
STRATEGICALLY: There is no indication that Kim is suicidal no matter what John McCain says. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying his life. Lots of power and pleasure. He is not the only one. While it may appear that Kim is an absolute master of his nation, the fact is that he is the chosen representative voice/figure head of the autocratic/kleptocratic ruling military class that has been the power behind "the throne" since the 1960's. Their desire for deterrence – to not end up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi – helps explain the existence of its weapons program. Someone who has participated in more than a decade of Track II dialogues with the North Koreans once recounted how North Koreans asked them: “Would the Americans have gone in and done what they did to Gaddafi, and to Syria, if they had what we have?’
ECONOMICALLY: The more dangerous North Korea presents itself, the more it can milk countries like China and South Korea, who are more incentivized than the US to have a calmer Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea).
For South Korea's Seoul hostilities would likely lead, almost immediately, to the destruction of the capital which is close to the Demilitarize Zone. North Korea is capable of reducing Seoul to "a sea of fire" using conventional weapons because the South Korean capital is so close to the border where NK has a wall of artillery protected in hardened Silos.
So Kim might be looking for another payday from Seoul, especially considering that when South Koreans go the polls in May they will almost certainly elect a president who favors positive engagement with Pyongyang.
In the 2009 negotiations with Pyongyang that updated the agreements that keep the uneasy peace, the North demanded what was, in effect, a bribe.
The North Koreans asked for 100,000 tons of corn, 400,000 tons of rice, 300,000 tons of chemical fertilizers and $100m in aid for road construction and $10 billion – purportedly seed money for an economic development bank, but which North Korea’s leader used to pay off the elite to shore up his position in power. Money has been regularly funneled through Kaesong, a North Korean industrial city close to its southern border with South Korea. Investments by South Korea in that city and the industrial zone that North and South Korea ran jointly have not been used for industrial development or wages as agreed but the nuclear weapons program and for luxury goods for the ruling class.
WHERE DOES CHINA FIT INTO ALL OF THIS?
The Chinese fear a North Korean collapse, which could lead to a unified Korea (with South Korea the victor), a prolonged civil war in North Korea, and/or waves of North Korean fugitives crossing into China. The amount of aid China gives North Korea is unknown; however, China is by far North Korea’s most important trading partner. China provides a market and access to the rest of the financial world. China is also a preeminent military power and just as South Korea counts on the U.S. to have its back so North Korea counts on China. China has a lot to lose if North Korea collapses, or is the site of a war. But it also does not want to appear to be doing America's bidding.
HOW REALISTIC IS A PREEMPTIVE U.S. STRIKE ON THE NORTH KOREAN PROGRAM?
The Pentagon sent the 97,000-ton USS Carl Vinson with an escort of a guided-missile cruiser, two destroyers, several small frigates and support vessels. In addition there are submarines on post at all times. The Vinson Squadron and the submarines have both defensive and offensive capability.
The U.S. also has 30,000 troops in the South on 30 bases (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine units). These forces are entirely defensive. They are meant to signal U.S. commitment and to delay a conventional North Korean attack on the South until reinforcements arrive.
Other forces could be pulled in from Japan and there is always the long distance air units.
Here is an example of a realistic defensive response.
How about an offensive strike?
A potential US strike, using aircraft from the Vinson, could range from a small-scale strike against a single target, like a missile on a launch pad or the support equipment that makes a missile launch possible, to a broader set of military targets if the US meant to 'send a message' that an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) or atomic device test was not going to be tolerated.
The Vinson strike group likely does not have the weapons to take out the principal North Korean nuclear assets, which are buried deep underground or mounted on constantly moving camouflaged trailers. Long range heavy bombers (B-1, B-2, B-52) would have to be called in to hit the fortified silos. Fighter sorties and cruise missiles guided by satellites would go after the mobile units from the Vinson.
Another strategy involves electronic interference with launch sequences, and navigation on missiles as they launch. Destruct signals can also be dispatched.
How effective all of this would be is a much debated question. I doubt that Trump is aware of the debate or even open to hearing it.
* Until Mr. Trump has earned the title, I will refrain from referring to his as President Trump, or The President, or Mr. President. While I respect the office, my complete lack of respect for him overshadows that historic sentiment. I am open to being surprised. I am also going to bring the same level of energy and purpose to my critique of him that opponents of President Barack H. Obama did during his 8 years as our President.