The more closely you read Donald Trump’s comments about North Korea in his State of the Union address, the more plausible it becomes that he is preparing for war.
First, there’s the sheer emphasis he placed on the subject. In his speech, Trump devoted a mere sentence to Russia and China. He devoted 23 words to Israel, 34 to Afghanistan, and 48 to Iran. Even the war against ISIS, which Trump cites as the main foreign-policy achievement of his first year in office, garnered only 302 words. North Korea received 475.
Second, there are the things Trump didn’t say. The Olympics begin in South Korea in 10 days, and the South Korean government hopes participation by athletes from the North will ease hostility on the Peninsula. But Trump didn’t mention the games. In fact, he didn’t mention diplomacy at all.
Even more strikingly, he didn’t mention either sanctions or China. For close to a year, the Trump administration has been urging Beijing to increase economic pressure on North Korea. It’s also repeatedly congratulated itself for having passed the toughest-ever United Nation sanctions against Pyongyang. In a speech devoted in large measure to trumpeting his achievements, one might have expected Trump to mention those sanctions again. But he did not, nor did he ask China to further help in isolating Kim Jong Un’s regime. Instead of “sanctions,” Trump referred to America’s “campaign of maximum pressure,” a phrase that could cover military as well as economic means. The sanctions strategy requires some degree of American patience. Trump’s attack on the “complacency” of past administrations suggests that his is running out.
Also notably absent was any clear sense of what North Korea would have to do to satisfy the United States. In his speech, Trump focused less on the regime’s nuclear weapons than on the nature of the regime itself. He told the story of Otto Warmbier, an American student arrested in North Korea who died shortly after his return to the United States. And he saluted Warmbier’s parents, who he had invited to watch the speech. This isn’t that unusual; telling the stories of individual Americans has become a State of the Union tradition. But then Trump did something more unfamiliar: He told the story of a non-American, a defector named Mr. Ji Seong Ho, who endured grotesque horrors in North Korea before making it to the South.
If Trump still aims to pressure Kim Jong Un into a nuclear deal, these stories are counterproductive. The North’s central rationale for developing nuclear weapons is to forestall the kind of regime change America brought about in Libya and Iraq. Trump—by emphasizing the depravity of the North Korean regime in his most high-profile speech of the year—thus strengthens Kim’s justification for never giving his nukes up.
But if Trump’s real aim was to rally public support for a military strike, the Warmbier and Ji stories serve a purpose. They rouse moral indignation. The Warmbier case even makes American military action seem like an act of self-defense. Kim’s regime brutalized a U.S. citizen. Now, as Trump told Warmbier’s parents, “we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.”
As Trump was preparing to deliver his address, news broke that the White House was withdrawing the nomination of former Bush National Security Council official Victor Cha to be ambassador to South Korea. The Financial Times reported that Cha had been “asked by [administration] officials whether he was prepared to help manage the evacuation of American citizens from South Korea —an operation known as non-combatant evacuation operations—that would almost certainly be implemented before any military strike.” Cha, the Financial Times reported, “had expressed his reservations about any kind of military strike.” These reservations apparently cost him his job.
Maybe the FT story is wrong. Maybe Trump isn’t as serious about a “bloody nose” military strike against Pyongyang as some reports suggest. But his State of the Union speech suggests, at the very least, that Congress should begin debating the risks of war. “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” declared Trump on Tuesday night. So could Trump’s reckless pursuit of a military solution to a problem that has none. It’s up to Congress to try to stop it.
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