US officials warn of a president who is a dangerous wild card, but Trump should be supported in his denuclearization plan
When Donald Trump sits down with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi this week to further discuss eliminating North Korea’s nuclear capability, there are lots of reasons to doubt that the American president can pull it off.
Yet denuclearization is exactly the right goal and the president should be cheered on to succeed.
And yet, ever since the president announced last year that he would pursue “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” jeering has been the near universal response. It’s come from almost every imaginable American quarter: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, expert and amateur.
President Obama’s CIA director John Brennan has been the most vociferous, saying that a president “prone to flattery” and oblivious to North Korea’s “agile feint” has taken Kim’s “bait”, canceling exercises and contemplating reductions of forces. Meanwhile, the news media is filled with leaks and speculation that North Korea clandestinely continues to manufacture nuclear materials and work on long-range missiles. Ahead of the meeting, US officials promise that troop withdrawals from the Korean Peninsula won’t happen, more of a hope as to the actual agenda, given the portrayal of Trump as a dangerous wild card.
The picture painted is of an unmanageable patriarch who desires to give away the family fortune. That family fortune of course is in the possession of the national security establishment. On North Korea, but not only with regard to Korea – look also at Syria and Afghanistan – expert Washington is the master at adhering to their own preferred solutions. Their passive aggressive ways – whether applied to Trump on Korea or Obama on issues like Guantanamo and general nuclear disarmament – perpetuate stagnancy, any real change stymied through the imposition of conditions that are never quite achievable.
Though it might seem like nothing has happened on North Korea since Donald Trump introduced denuclearization, and hence the near universal howl against Trump’s folly, consider the factual picture: North Korea conducted one nuclear test during the Trump administration in September 2017 and has backed off even since then. Five underground tests were held in the two previous administrations. After a flurry of longer and longer range missile activity in the first months of Trump’s rule, the North also hasn’t conducted a long-range missile test since November 2017. Provocations and incidents of other types have also noticeably declined.
No one quite knows why Pyongyang slowed its public and overt testing, nor why Donald Trump’s bluntness and boasting that his nuclear button was bigger seems to have worked. But consider this: Trump largely inherited practices initiated in the Obama years, military moves that were meant to threaten and coerce North Korea in light of its diplomatic failures.
And so, from the beginning of the Trump administration, American B-1 bombers based in Guam accelerated mock bombing runs over the Korean peninsula. US troop movements and readiness for war increased as well, with larger exercises and more live fire drills. Ballistic missile defenses of the United States, South Korea and Japan were all augmented and increasingly netted together. According to intelligence officials, cyber activity against North Korean military and nuclear targets increased. A very large armada of US ships congregated closer to the Korean Peninsula. More American missile-shooting submarines deployed within range of the North in 2017 than at any time since the Korean War, according to US Navy data and military officials.
Into this near autonomous skid towards conflict blundered Mr. Trump. It did look grim for a few months, the two threatening strikes on each other, missiles flying, and speculation even emerging that the United States might move nuclear weapons back onto South Korean soil.
But then a different course emerged, the denuclearization dream vetoing the national security establishment’s “tried and true” practices. Much of the American activity stopped or slowed at the end of 2017. The navy pulled back and submarines were sent home. B-1 bombers flew elsewhere. After the first summit meeting, some war games in South Korea were canceled. There was even a gap between rotating Army units coming from the United States.
Meanwhile, a new leader in South Korea made significant overtures to the North and the two sides increased their talks and meetings, ratcheting down tensions and creating far better conditions for serious negotiations. And slowly, though this could change on the whims of the illustrators of doom, the ominous maps also pulled back. You know the ones I’m talking about. First Guam and then Hawaii in range of the North’s missiles, then Alaska and California, all culminating with the mushroom cloud and the dotted line moving closer to Washington DC itself.
With this second summit, the same cast of characters wants you to know that North Korea is refusing to provide an inventory of its nuclear program, that it is secretly building missiles and preparing this and that new base, that it is modernizing its military, that it is trying to break sanctions, that it is a cyber and even terrorist threat. And most important, that it is fooling the president.
Most of the leaks come from active saboteurs but some also just believe they are protecting America. They want you to believe that doofus Trump will willy-nilly agree to withdraw the near 30,000 American troops from the peninsula, at the same time closing the nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan. And, if he is successful, they want you to know that he might divert attention from Robert Mueller and the border wall debacle and all of what else might be more important to Washington.
Say what you will about Trump, but after some very bad years of active nuclear testing and missile shooting, disarmament on the Korean peninsula has already occurred. Things are quieter and two leaders who previously weren’t talking – ever – now are. Sure the United States should remain vigilant, but much of the penis-wagging and button-pushing is over. To say no success has occurred is factually incorrect. Just getting rid of the war cry is enough to cheer over.
William M Arkin is a long time military analyst, critic and commentator who is writing a book for Simon & Schuster on ending the era of perpetual war. He is also a Guardian US columnist