Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Three Words. Now, Worse than Ever.

I remember those tense days in October, 1962, when John F. Kennedy squared off against Nikita Khruschev in what would come to be called the Cuban missile crisis.  We didn't know it at the time but we were immensely fortunate that the showdown involved these two leaders, cool heads who found a way to back down from what could have become nuclear armageddon.

It's fair to say those two weeks left some scarring on the psyche of many. Not much, perhaps, but some especially for those who realized that tomorrow might not come - for them.

Which is why I got a little jolt this morning when I read a headline about the "Korean missile crisis."

First of all, this is not remotely the same as the Cuban missile crisis. North Korea doesn't have the weaponry, not yet, to annihilate the U.S. or trigger "nuclear winter." That said, other nations that could wind up dragged into this definitely do.

And there's no John Kennedy or Nikita Khrushchev at the helm either. No this time we've got Kim Jong-un, the guy who thinks it's fun to dispatch his own uncle with an anti-aircraft gun, staring down the aging man-baby president, Don Trump. I think those two are scarier than the nukes - by an order of magnitude.

An old friend has a phrase to describe two guys like these - "great snappin' assholes." I think that's apt. They're both in serious need of therapy. Both currently find their own positions a bit precarious. Trump knows he has investigations closing in. Kim knows he's never more than a couple of steps away from his own trip to that anti-aircraft gun. Neither of these half-wits can afford to be seen as weak. Each needs the other to bend.

Wait and see. Just remember to breathe.

Continuing with the theme of other nations getting drawn into Pyongyang and Washington's pissing contest, Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald worries that Trump is risking a crisis with China.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has seemingly crossed a threshold - he now has missiles that go halfway around the world, despite a January warning, when then president-elect Donald Trump declared: "It won't happen!"

If Trump's tweet was an implicit threat of a pre-emptive strike by Washington, it stands out in the administration's menu of possible responses as the only one that has not been attempted.

That the North already had the capability to strike South Korea and Japan, possibly with nuclear-armed missiles, had a certain abstract quality for Washington. With Alaska now in Pyongyang's crosshairs the calculus changes dramatically - but useful responses remain elusive.

As Americans celebrated Independence Day on Tuesday, Kim taunted Trump, describing the test as a milestone in his plans to bring the US within strike range and as a Fourth of July "gift" to the administration.

"We should send them gifts once in a while to help break their boredom," he was quoted as saying in a report by the state-run news agency.

But just as Pyongyang seems impervious to all that Washington has tried to date, so too, it seems, is Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was unmoved by a folksy dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and by a subsequent presidential Twitter spray, as it dawned on Trump that China was playing to its own regional agenda, not Washington's.

The contours of Trump's "go it alone" strategy are becoming apparent - selling weapons to Taiwan, sanctions on a small group of Chinese banks and individuals who do business with the North, challenging China's territorial claims, citing China as a worst-offender in the State Department's annual report on human trafficking and renewed warning of action against China for dumping steel in the international market.

The risk in all this is that, instead of resolving the existing North Korea crisis, it will only create a new crisis with Beijing. China experts say that Xi is eager to continue dialogue with Washington, but if Trump extends the limited sanctions on Chinese businesses dealing with North Korea, Beijing is likely to retaliate.

China has applied limited sanctions to North Korea, acting earlier this year to reduce its coal imports from the North. But it is not prepared, yet, to accept the collapse of the regime and the ensuing chaos on its doorstep, in which the US most likely would emerge as a major military force on the peninsula.


Owen Gray said...

Everything is a zero sum game with Trump, Mound. For him, there can only be one winner. This is not 1962.

Toby said...

My contact in South Korea insists that Westerners are much more worried about Kim than Asians are. We don't see it in our somewhat rabid media but Kim knows the rules and follows the script. He understands, as you pointed out, that he will be summarily dispatched if he oversteps. On the other hand, there was George (Gomer) Bush with his asinine axis of evil speech (thank you David Frum for penning that nonsense) and now we have Donald (Demented) Trump stirring the pot. Those two jackasses would happily kick sleeping pit bulls just to see who they would bite.

North Koreans are terrified of the US. They are fully aware of the big US military base just south of Seoul and its threat and another in Japan. They believe Americans to be trigger happy. They watched what the US did to Iraq and believe that was only possible because Saddam did not have nuclear weapons. Ditto Libya. North Koreans don't want to attack America; they just want Americans to believe that they could.

The Mound of Sound said...

Authoritarians always need enemies, Toby. Kim Jong-un is a perfect excuse to sabre rattle in the South China Sea and keep the allies (Japan, South Korea especially) in line.