Donald Trump’s latest moves toward North Korea are “dangerous” and sow confusion in a tense geopolitical scenario, says veteran Korea analyst Daniel C Sneider.
Trump’s recent declaration that he ordered a US carrier strike group to race toward Korea when there was no such force in the vicinity undercuts American credibility and increases the possibility of a misstep, said Sneider, associate director of research for Stanford University’s Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“War is always possible,” said Sneider, a former Asia correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. “What Trump is doing is dangerous if it leads to miscalculation by the North Koreans, and it’s dangerous if the US actually acts on this vague threat of doing something, presumably with the use of force.”
In reality, Washington’s options for dealing with North Korea are the same as they were almost 20 years ago. Past US administrations have also held that “all options are on the table.” Both Bill Clinton and George W Bush considered preemptive strikes against nuke and missile facilities, but dropped the idea due to the risks involved.
‘To say strategic patience is over, no more negotiations, we’re going to do something — that doesn’t work, that isn’t very credible’
“There are no different or other policy options than the ones the US has been discussing and pursuing since 2000,” Sneider said. For Trump “to say strategic patience is over, no more negotiations, we’re going to do something — that doesn’t work, that isn’t very credible,” he said.
If the recent missile strike against Syria and the giant bomb that was dropped on an ISIS complex in Afghanistan were meant to signal the US now means business, that marks a sharp divergence from Washington’s previous script in dealing with Pyongyang, Sneider said.
“They’ve tried to kill the president of South Korea three times, shot down an American reconnaissance plane, captured an American Navy ship and took the crew hostage, bombed a Korean Air flight, and engaged in other numerous incidents leading up to the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan in 2010,” Sneider said. “But the US and the South Koreans have never responded proportionally in a military way.”
This measured approach on the part of Washington and Seoul springs from an understanding that any escalation might lead to war and would put Seoul’s 10 million population – including about 100,000 Americans – within range of North Korean artillery and rockets.
China policy puzzle
Sneider said he sees a similar disconnect in Trump’s attempts to get China to “pressure” North Korea.
“The Chinese want to avert conflict” on the Korean peninsula, he said. “That’s the No1 motivation for them.”
Beyond recognizing Beijing’s mutual interest in resolving the nuke crisis, it isn’t clear how the Trump administration wants China to help, Sneider said. Beijing has already applied sanctions and slowed the flow of trade.
“I don’t understand what Trump, or National Security Adviser McMaster or Defense Secretary Mattis want China to do,” he said.
Much of the tension over what North Korea would do to honor founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 16 was due to hyperbole in the US press, he said. Expectations for a nuclear test were just speculation.
“The North Koreans never said they were going to conduct a nuclear test or a long-range missile test. Everybody just put two and-two together and got 65,” Sneider said.
“Sometimes the North Koreans use those dates for propaganda purposes, sometimes they don’t.”