Not so fiery or furiousTo start with the conclusion, Trump has lost to Kim Jong-un on maneuvers, at least for now. He warned of “fire and fury” and said the United States was “locked and loaded,” as if a strike was imminent. Kim Jong-un must have snorted with amusement.
For bluffing to work, there should be some kind of evidence for the other party to believe it is not a joke. That is how gambling works. That’s how a lot of business works too. Uber-businessman Trump failed to make his bluff believable. The Washington Post saw through it too.
First, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford set out on a Korea-China-Japan tour as planned much earlier. If the war was imminent, he wouldn’t have had the time for such a visit. Second, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which had plied the waters around the Korean Peninsula to put pressure North Korea, returned to its base in Yokosuka, Japan last week. That would have been unthinkable if military action on the Korean Peninsula was imminent. Thirdly, there was no evacuation order for the 200,000 Americans in Korea.
The secretaries of the defense and state departments are clearly not in tune with Trump and his rhetoric. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could not be tricked with such obvious miscues by Trump. Meanwhile, 1.7 quadrillion won ($1.49 trillion) in market capitalization evaporated from global stock markets thanks to the scare. Good job, President Trump!
What should have been done? William Perry, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, recently discussed his tactics in 1994.
“We never threatened — nor would we ever have threatened — to use nuclear weapons. Washington kept silence intentionally. A strategically timed op-ed in the Washington Post by Brent Scowcroft, a former White House national security adviser, urged us to attack North Korea with cruise missiles. Kim Il Sung believed that I had instructed him to write that story. There’s no doubt that our threat, which was incidentally buttressed by this op-ed, was very clear and very plain and very concerning to them. Within a few days, we had negotiations.”
A similar strategy was employed when the U.S. Naval spy ship Pueblo was captured by North Korea. President Lyndon Johnson never mentioned military action. He sent a fleet and 100 fighter jets to the East Sea. At the same time, false intelligence about imminent military action was leaked to the Soviet Union. A deal was made. With care and subtlety, negotiation capability increases. That’s why Trump lost this fight.
Trump has run out of cards to play. Ironically, he needs a negotiation with North Korea. Susan Rice, national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be “tolerated” if it provides verifiable evidence that it will not use them on the United States and Korea.
We must choose the lesser of two evils. Korean Peninsula expert Patrick Cronin noted that Trump had referred to Kim Jong-un by his full name for the first time last week after saying “he” all along. Something is shifting.
There is a role Seoul can play. South Korea may not be able to initiate negotiations, but can assist contacts between the United States and North Korea. If Seoul proposes reducing the size of the Korea-U.S. joint drill scheduled later this month, there is no reason for Washington to turn it down. It may be what North Korea wants the most. We may not want to admit it, but it is about time we think about how to live with North Korea as a nuclear state rather than going down together in total annihilation.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha cut her vacation short and returned to work. The gravity of the situation calls for more readiness and planning.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 15, Page 26
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.