It is obvious even to the most myopic observer that President Donald Trump is hell bent on breaking free of Obama’s policies. This became clear when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un became the recipient of his threat of “fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States. After Trump’s comment the dictator announced he was assessing plans to fire missiles in the waters near Guam, the home of America’s Andersen Air Force Base. Trump’s words reflect a desire to do something different following three visible years of bipartisan failure on North Korea.
As the world ponders the meaning of President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea, one should at the same time look at why his predecessors never took steps to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme. It is not just recently that North Korea has been sending messages of aggression in America’s direction; it has been doing so for years. While there are many who dislike Donald Trump and all that he stands for, it is nevertheless true that Trump inherited a mess from his predecessors. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, Kim Jung-un is testing ballistic missiles at an alarming rate, while the Defense Intelligence Agency now believes North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear warhead so that it can fit into a missile.
No president in recent times ever confronted the North Korean dictators. Instead they assuaged them. When faced with the North Korea’s exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Bill Clinton opted for negotiations which culminated in what later became known as the Joint Framework Agreement. In exchange for fuel shipments and a light water reactor from the US, the North Koreans froze their plutonium programme. Neither side ever fully delivered and eventually the agreement broke down. Then along came George W Bush who did not like North Korea, and put the nation in the “axis of evil”. During his tenure, in 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device, and by 2007 President Bush had entered into new negotiations.
The North Koreans backed out of these talks. They then resumed pursuing their nuclear programme by the time Barack Obama came into power, developing missiles, sinking a South Korean ship and shelling a South Korean island. When Kim Jong-un succeeded to power he set about strengthening his position, killing his uncle and was later implicated in ordering the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam. All the while Obama followed a policy of “strategic patience”, geared towards not rewarding Kim’s regime for its provocations and rogue behaviour.
The question is, why did the last three presidents not take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities when they had the opportunity? The answer lies with Seoul, South Korea’s thriving capital. The North possesses an adequate supply of artillery pieces within range of this metropolis to kill hundreds of thousands of people, which could very well start a world war and consequently throw the global economy into a tailspin. Without a doubt, attacking Seoul, a civilian population centre, is different from attacking a remote military outpost. It is extremely risky.
While everyone expects better chosen words from the President, at the same time nothing that he has said has been that different from the implicit threats by earlier US administrations against North Korea before, or any power that is perceived to threaten American cities with nuclear destruction. President Trump just says things in a manner that the presidents before him have not. Although he may be guilty of hyperbole, it is far less damaging to American credibility than the failure under Obama to impose consequences on Bashar al Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Can anyone say with certainty that plain speech is not the way to make Kim Jong-un understand? The reaction from President Trump is well merited as the regime brought it on itself. This is certainly not the time to continue whining about Trump and whether he is liked or likeable. It may be a blessing in disguise to have someone in charge who is not afraid of meeting fire with fire, and who will not go crouching in a Security Council corner, to come up with the next strongly worded statement.
Crises call for great presidents and prime ministers who are capable of thinking quickly and improvising. President Trump must make a sound decision as the future of America is at stake. His predecessors all dropped the ball so now it’s entirely his call.