With the current administration, there seems to be a new burning question nearly every week. Some linger and others are beyond answering except when they do so themselves. One of these obviously is how to deal with North Korea’s pursuit of atomic weapons parity with other nuclear powers, with a White House itself seemingly in personnel chaos amid increasing reports of changes in top level staff that deal with such questions.
If the reports are correct, the crucial foreign policy team would shift to those more inclined to US President Donald Trump’s way of thinking and that itself is scary, given his threats to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Certainly, more sanctions and other restrictions meted out by the United States and its western allies are not going to bring about any curtailment of Kim’s determination to push his nation into the atomic elite with the threat of dire consequences -- a possible attack on any major target in the United States including Washington DC.
That was made clear with his firing of yet another intercontinental missile -- this one something new with a range that makes any site in the United States a target. That is if, as North Korea claims, it has solved re-entry and warhead weight problems.
International experts don’t believe that is the case, but concede it won’t be too long now before it is. At any rate the incident a few days ago when the test missile reached much higher than the International Space Station was enough to increase concerns. America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, echoing her boss, once again warned that the North Koreans would not survive such action.
Strategists, both military and civilian, seem convinced that while this country would sustain a hit or two, the entire infrastructure of North Korea -- military, industrial, economic – and its population would be all but eliminated by a US retaliation. Such foolishness would end them entirely, an ex-general friend detailed. But then, he added somberly, we may be dealing with a madman on their side and an irresponsible one on our side.
There seems little doubt that Trump’s saber rattling, while it might have stimulated Kim’s anxiousness over the US’ intentions, wasn’t the catalyst for all this. The North’s paranoia about South Korea’s defenses bolstered by US forces -- including nuclear weapons if necessary -- has been constant.
Also, Kim’s apparent obsession with exceeding his grandfather and father in power and importance is a factor. He obviously sees equality with the world’s nuclear powers as bringing his impoverished nation an undeniable status. He also has seen Iran’s nuclear development stunted by US and Israeli pressure and is having none of it -- no relegation to that lower status for him.
The question is how far he will take this. Will he continue to test weapons -- including the possibility of above ground atomic displays aimed at evermore powerful payloads -- and to bring about their delivery in more and more sophisticated ICBMs until someone says enough with obvious consequences?
One could only hope that somewhere along the line the North Koreans themselves would rebel against the poverty, starvation and abuse that have been their lot. The other day a North soldier at the DMZ fled south and was shot several times before he made it and was saved by doctors. His physical shape was deplorable from lack of nutrition and abuse. However, a general rebellion seems a long shot, considering a populace unable to break Kim’s tight control and constant portrayal of himself as an infallible god backed by steadfast military and bureaucratic leaders.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be. Despite the potential for disaster, there are efforts at negotiations by some US officials, who remain optimistic that a nonviolent solution, even one without the use of atomic weapons, can be reached. But Trump’s name calling and brinkmanship make one nervous. Meanwhile, the latest ICBM demonstration has once again convinced the US military that it must be more alert than ever. It has taken defensive steps including concentrating more resources on missile defense and showing muscle whenever possible through military exercises in the area.
But even a conventional land war would stand to take thousands of lives if not more, it is estimated. The “Little Rocket Man,” as Trump calls him, seems hell bent on his own destruction and a whole lot of the rest of us along the way.
By Dan K. Thomasson
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)