Trump's Big Test: North Korea

In 2002 President George W. Bush declared an “Axis of Evil” – three outlaw nations who were bent on nuclear proliferation. He took care of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (a long story). President Obama reached an accommodation with the mullahs in Iran (another long story). President Trump has been left to deal with perhaps the most recalcitrant, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea at a time when the clock is running out.

Known Knowns

– Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, with the most recent having a strength about equal to the bomb used at Hiroshima. A sixth is imminent. They withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003, and from “6 party talks” with Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States in 2005. Beyond size, their emphasis is on miniaturization and controls for fitting on a missile.

– North Korea has been testing missiles for four decades, with recent efforts including a satellite launch, a submarine launch, and multiple concurrent launches. Some have been aimed toward Japan; some have failed – perhaps with American assistance.

– North Korea ‘s military encompasses about 1,000,000 troops – twice that of South Korea. Nevertheless, the South’s technology is far superior, and they do have 28,500 American troops in South Korea as a “tripwire”. Many of North Korea’s 21,000 artillery pieces are aimed at Seoul, some 35 miles from the border.

– Kim Jong Un is one bad dude. He killed his former mistress. He killed his uncle, who had strong China connections, and who acted as regent after Jong Un’s father’s death. He killed his half brother who lived in Macao with Chinese support.

– The United Nations has imposed six rounds of increasingly severe sanctions against North Korea since 2006. Some 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China which is the predominant supplier of oil, grain, and foreign exchange.

– Beyond their own threat, missile and nuclear technology offer the impoverished North Koreans a marketable resource to other nations or terrorist groups.

Known Unknowns

– In recent decades China has been protective of North Korea, stressing the view that resolution of the nuclear issue could only be accomplished by direct negotiation with the United States. This did not work with the Six Nation Talks a decade ago, or with occasional bi-lateral contacts in the Bush and Obama administrations. Whether President Trump can cajole the Chinese to help is to be determined. At least the official Chinese press is now criticizing the North Koreans openly.

– The Chinese and the CIA undoubtedly have plans to replace the Kim dynasty with leaders more amenable to nuclear disarmament. That may be part of why Jong Un’s half brother was killed. Realism is unknown.

– American war plans undoubtedly include an option for a preemptive attack – with or without the South Koreans. Realism is unknown.

As Donald Trump demonstrated with his retaliation for Syrian use of chemical weapons, Barack Obama is retired. As he demonstrated by dropping a 10 kiloton conventional weapon in Afghanistan, we possess major firepower without using nuclear weapons ourselves. What other characteristics of President Trump might be relevant for this looming crisis?

– Trump shows significant deference to the military, appointing generals to the Homeland Security, Defense, and National Security Adviser roles as well as the traditional Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of Defense Mattis is probably the most respected and influential cabinet member – on both sides of the aisle. Correspondingly, State is having their budget cut some 30%, and Rex Tillerson’s primary deputy has yet to be named. Military answers could come to the fore.

– Trump is a negotiator. He has had a robust, public discussion with Xi Jinping of China in which he offered to concede on high priority foreign trade issues in exchange for help with North Korea. He has deployed anti-missile defenses to South Korea, with Japan probably to come soon. He has offered to meet directly with Kim Jong Un, even to the point of calling it an “honor”.

– Trump can delegate. He has sent Vice President Pence, Director of National Intelligence Coats, Secretary of State Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Mattis to talk with our allies in South Korea and Japan as well as with the Chinese. This has been a clear priority for the fledgling administration.

– Trump is a risk taker. He insisted on a House vote on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare even though it would cost some House seats, and might well not make it through the Senate. He has four bankruptcies on his business resume. He takes on all comers – the media, the Democrats, Republican opponents. He goes big.

The likely outcome? Rex Tillerson expresses the administration’s policy – the approach of the past 20 years has failed; all options are on the table. And for those capitalists who view markets as predictors of geopolitical events, the South Korean stock market hit an all time high on May 4 – even though it may not exist in a few months. A good short opportunity if ever there was one.


www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 5/5/17