Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Strategic restraint, strategic impatience

Trump is so far untested as a US president, but may face, via North Korea, one of the gravest threats faced by any US president: a possible nuclear war, writes Hussein Haridy

In interview with Reuters a week ago, US President Donald Trump warned that there was a chance that “we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” The statement sent shudders across the globe. Chanceries, high officials, military leaders, politicians and experts have been guessing whether the Korean peninsula would witness a second devastating war, this time a nuclear one. To keep people around the world on edge, when asked about his reaction to a failed ballistic missile test by the North Koreans last week, Trump retorted: “You will soon find out.”

Earlier in the same week, the USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered submarine, joined an armada led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and the accompanying strike force in the Sea of Japan. They participated in drills with the Japanese and later with the South Koreans — developments that led North Korea to say that the moment the USS Michigan “tries to budge even a little, it will be doomed to face the miserable fate of becoming an underwater ghost without being able to come to the surface.” No one knows if the North Korean navy is capable of carrying out such threats, but the statement itself speaks volumes of the high level of tension gripping Pyongyang. Many have warned that any miscalculation on the part of either party could lead to a nuclear holocaust in the Korean peninsula and Japan.

For almost a month now, and more so after the Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase 7 April, Washington has been upping the ante against North Korea, militarily and diplomatically. The deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea has been completed, a move that angered both the Chinese and the North Korean governments. THAAD is an acronym for Thermal High Altitude Area Defence System, a defensive anti-missile system that is meant to protect South Korea and Japan from North Korean missile attacks in case war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. The deployment of such an advanced anti-missile system could be seen in a larger strategic context that has to do with China in the long term. But for the time being, the direct aim is to neutralise, as much as possible, North Korean ballistic missiles.

In response to American military moves in Korean waters, North Korea demonstrated its awesome firepower by holding exercises for its field artillery that could reach Seoul. The amount of fire coming out of the barrels of North Korean artillery sent a very disturbing message to the people of South Korea, particularly the inhabitants of Seoul, who would be the first to bear the brunt of war. The South Koreans are not very enthusiastic about the saber-rattling between the North and the United States, all the more so that they would elect a new president 9 May. They would have preferred that the deployment of THAAD be postponed till after that. Washington should take this into consideration while planning its next moves, unless Washington wants to lead developments in the Korean peninsula without prior consultations either with the South or with Japan. It is difficult to imagine the United States starting a major war — and this one would be the first nuclear war in the history of mankind with wide-ranging ramifications across the globe — without prior notification to its allies, not only in Asia, but also in NATO and the Middle East.

The feeling in South Korea was summarised by Park Huirak, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, when he stressed, as quoted in The Financial Times, that “the current situation is very serious. South Korea is facing a situation where the country has become marginalised by its neighbours and excluded from dialogue on North Korea.”

On the diplomatic front, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chaired a Security Council meeting Friday, 28 April 2017, on the ministerial level that was attended by the Chinese and British foreign ministers. A few days earlier, 24 April, President Trump had invited all the permanent representatives whose countries are current Security Council members to the White House. As far as North Korea is concerned, President Trump emphasised that the “status quo in North Korea is… unacceptable, and the Council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This is a real threat to the world… North Korea is a big world problem, and it is a problem we have to finally solve.”

In the same vein, Secretary Tillerson told the Security Council that, “Had this body fully enforced and stood behind resolutions it has enacted in the past, vigorously enforcing sanctions with full compliance, perhaps we would not have found ourselves confronted with the high level of tension that we face today.” He, moreover, ruled out talking to the North till “they exhibit a goodfaith commitment to abiding by the Security Council resolutions and their past promises to end their nuclear programmes”. The United States, according to Tillerson, is ready to extend sanctions to third parties who fail to abide by the sanctions against North Korea. He even went further in applying pressures on Pyongyang and called on countries “to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea”.

It was interesting to hear the Chinese foreign minister in the same session asking everyone to exercise restraint and opt for a diplomatic solution, and, in the meantime, trying to downplay, diplomatically, the role that Beijing has been playing behind the scenes to encourage the North to start de-escalating and not to proceed with its sixth nuclear test. However, it seems that the United States is escalating its muscled rhetoric coupled with a very important show of naval force in Korean waters to push China to exert more pressure on the North to accept theoretically, at least at this stage, to denuclearise and, later on, to stop its programme of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach targets in the United States.

Celebrating the end of the 100-day start to his presidency, 30 April, President Trump made it clear it is much more important to rely on China in solving the “problem” of North Korea rather than getting concessions from Beijing in trade issues with the United States. Instead of calling China a “currency manipulator” as he had done throughout his presidential campaign last year, President Trump prefers calling on the Chinese President Xi Jinping to reconcile the current diametrically-opposed American and North Korean positions. He even had nice words to say about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un. He called him a “cookie”. Hopefully, the world could be witnessing the start of de-escalation in the Korean peninsula. If such a process would materialise in the very near future, the world would breathe a very deep sigh of relief, including the United States that could not conceivably want to be accused of starting the first nuclear war in history. But it is useful to reflect on the following conclusion of the leading editorial of The London Times on Saturday, 29 April, entitled “One Hundred Days”:

“The Trump administration, it seems, is wedded to the tactic of shock and awe to demonstrate that the United States is not in retreat. So far these activities owe more to the theatre of political engagement than to any long-term attempt to assert Western power over an unruly world. Mr Trump is still an untested president. After 100 days he presides over a polarised political establishment and engages with a wary world.”

The United States under President Donald Trump is being tested in the Korean peninsula. The world has a crucial stake in him passing the test. Same goes for the future of mankind.


The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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