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Domestic crisis further clouds stand-off with Kim Jung-un

Kim Jong Un
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Kim Jong Un North korea

Steve Bannon let North Koreans breathe a sigh by admitting in an on-the-record interview a few days ago that there is no military option for dealing with North Korea. Or did he? On its face, Bannon’s comments, who has been since fired flew in the face of the president’s “fire and fury” bombastic comments last week that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” to react to any military provocation by North Korea. In doing so, he admitted what is clear to most observers in Asia and elsewhere that South Korea – that Seoul and its population of about 25 million people living 40 miles away from the Demilitarized Zone, are hostages of Kim Jung-un. Among those 25 million people are 28,500 U.S. service personnel stationed in the Republic of Korea as a trip wire and thousands more American civilians living and working in the South.  

Bannon’s comments highlighted that any serious American military action against North Korea must allow for the planned and orderly evacuation of these millions of American and Korean civilians.  Also, no U.S. military action should be undertaken without careful consultation with our treaty ally, the democratically-elected government of the Republic of Korea, led by President Moon as well as ally Japan and importantly consultation with the Chinese and the Russians who would be directly and significantly affected by a regional war on the Korean Peninsula.  

{mosads}However, the bigger question is now whether the President of the United States is so unpredictable and so unstable that he could launch an attack without allowing for evacuations and consultations which would be expected in any normal set of circumstances. But these are not normal times in America given the shattering events in Charlottesville and the divisive comments of Donald Trump articulating moral equivalence between white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites on the far right and those protesting them everywhere else on the political spectrum. Richard Nixon claimed Vietnam protesters were violent, immoral, and anti-American because they opposed his war.  

Is Kim Jung-un really off the hook or not? It is not an act of war to launch test missiles near the territory of another state as Kim has threatened to do against Guam. Coupled with North Korea’s own rhetoric about burning Guam with a ring of fire or attacking the U.S., the line may be blurred in normal times. Now it is even more uncertain what a President would do with the tremendous nuclear and conventional power in his hands.  

Will the American military refuse an order to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and provoke a war killing hundreds of thousands or millions? Will the South Koreans demand that President Trump seek their consent to attack the North and coordinate preemptive plans for striking the North? Will Japan, China and Russia demand the U.S. secure UN Security Council concurrence to use force against the North and if Trump refuses to condemn American military action, no matter how limited or targeted?  

Does the collapse of the moral authority of the Trump administration, coupled with a savvy, volatile, and unpredictable leader in North Korea give Kim Jung-un the basis to take risks and fire his test missiles against Guam, or conduct another nuclear test, or fire an intercontinental missile across the Pacific to land tens of miles off the shores of the Western U.S.?  

Barbara Tuckman in her work “The Guns of August” details how World War I began through a series of miscalculations and blunders after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. President Kennedy kept her warning about how some major wars start well in mind when he navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union in 1962. Little chance that our president has read that book or even understands the message about wars beginning with a spark that grows out of control.  

We are living in a very dangerous moment of time: a crisis over what patriotism means for most Americans over many generations vs. what patriotism means for the alt-right supported by President Trump. This domestic crisis is overlaid by the simmering and more dangerous stand-off between the United States and North Korea.  

Will the President, under siege from the Russia investigation, isolated by his comments supporting the alt-right, betrayed by the business elites of the United States for abandoning his CEO economic councils, just decide to use any action or even words coming from Kim Jung-un to strike the North and divert the world’s attention? And will Kim Jung-un feel like Prometheus Unbound and use the fog of political warfare in Washington as an opportunity that cannot be missed and push the limits of his aggressive behavior? We have not had a greater need for strong and calming seasoned leadership in Washington like we have now.

Howard Stoffer is an Associate Professor at the University of New Haven and the former Deputy Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate of the United Nations Security Council.  

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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