President Trump’s belligerent and aggressive threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea in response to its rapid advances in nuclear weaponry and ballistic missiles has set the world on edge and left many Americans asking whether a war—possibly even a nuclear one—is about to break out.
That question became acute when Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has been a lone voice for diplomacy within the administration, made an about-face after Trump made his reprehensible comments from his New Jersey golf club. North Korea, Mattis said in a public statement issued by the Pentagon, should not take any action that “would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
The chilling language from the administration was reminiscent of President Truman’s warning just before he dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. If Japan doesn’t accept the US terms of capitulation, he said, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Tens of thousands died when he unleashed that power—and nearly 3 million were killed when the United States firebombed North Korea during the Korean War only five years later.
Apparently delighting in the attention, Trump doubled down on his threats for the rest of the week, ending it on Friday sounding like a cowboy drunk on power: by tweeting, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” All that was missing was a war whoop.
But any hopes for a different approach were dashed by the media, particularly CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, which bought into the war fears with a 24/7 onslaught in which every utterance from Trump was treated as the hottest of news. When the usual guests appeared—mostly former spooks and generals—the conversation was all about numbers and death: How far can North Korea’s missiles go? How many people would die in a war? Do we have the capability to take them out?
One of the most ubiquitous of the commentators is Gordon Chang, who became famous on the basis of his simplistic and bombastic books about China and North Korea. He spends his days hopping from CNN to MSNBC, spouting his view that military confrontation is inevitable because Kim Jong-un want to “blackmail Washington in hopes of breaking the U.S. alliance with South Korea,” as he wrote in The Daily Beast this week. Despite his scare-mongering, nobody in the South seemed concerned.
Over on Fox, the man of the day was John Bolton, one of the Bush administration’s famous neocons, who thinks the only way to stop North Korea’s nuclear program is “to end the regime in North Korea.” On Wednesday night, he was on Hannity, arguing for preemptive strikes “before North Korea has dozens and dozens of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that can hit the United States.”
On Thursday, NBC News ran a detailed story on how far that planning has gone, reporting that the Pentagon has plans to strike “approximately two dozen North Korean missile-launch sites, testing grounds and support facilities.” Reporter Cynthia McFadden said on the air that the six B-1B bombers from Guam that would deliver this payload could fire their missiles from outside South Korean airspace, thus making it possible to launch unilateral strikes without the approval of the Moon Jae-in government.
That’s a frightening thought to Seoul, where people are well aware of the catastrophe that would follow a US attack. On Monday, following an hour-long telephone discussion with Trump, President Moon carefully contradicted the US president, warning that “South Korea can never accept a war erupting again on the Korean Peninsula.” And the US strike plans may have prompted an emergency meeting on Thursday night in which the US and South Korean national security advisers agreed to discuss all military steps against North Korea in advance.
War, war, war.
Missing from the US media discourse was any discussion of what North Korea is trying to achieve with its nuclear and missile arsenal, why it fears the United States, or how the United States could address its concerns through negotiations.
A rare exception came on Thursday, when Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who has been focusing on nuclear proliferation since the early 1980s, popped up on MSNBC. He said that Trump and company “have to stop the reckless, dangerous, scary language which they are using. It’s exactly what [the North Koreans] are most concerned about, and will most likely lead to them continuing to test nuclear weapons and ICBM capacity.”
Also on Thursday (and receiving virtually no press attention), 64 Democratic House members released a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing “profound concern” about Trump’s comments and supporting Tillerson’s recent proposals for direct talks with Pyongyang.
In a significant passage, they urged him to “make a good faith effort to replicate” the successes of past negotiations, including the 1994 Agreed Framework in which North Korea froze its nuclear program for over 10 years and the two sides pledged not to have “hostile intent” toward the other (I’ll be taking a deep dive into that agreement and how it fell apart in a feature for The Nation next week).
In fact, North Korea’s desire to end the enmity with the United States has been the driving force behind its military program for decades, and it continues to be the one issue that it says will bring its leaders to the negotiating table.
In Kim Jong-un’s July 4 statement about its ICBM launch that day, the North made that clear, saying that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (its formal name) “would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated.”
The most recent formulation of this position came this week, when North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told a forum of Asian diplomats in Manila that the DPRK would not put its nukes and missiles on the bargaining table “unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the D.P.R.K. are fundamentally eliminated.”
Amazingly, in most press reports, including The Washington Post, that last clause about the “hostile policy” was left out, leaving Americans with the impression that the North is refusing any and all negotiations. But analysts familiar with the North’s policies argue that the United States ignores this formulation at its own peril and argue that it’s imperative for the United States to test Kim’s statements.
“Experience in past negotiations tells us that the North Koreans can use this sort of vague conditionality however it suits them,” Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department intelligence officer who has visited North Korea on official business over 30 times, wrote in the publication 38 North this week. “Sometimes it prevents progress, but sometimes it actually gives Pyongyang the maneuver room it needs to move ahead. How will we find out? One way seems obvious: go and talk to them.”
Meanwhile, there were hints on Friday from the Associated Press that the Trump administration is doing just that by meeting with North Korean diplomats through the once-busy “New York channel” at Pyongyang’s UN Mission in New York. Right now, that slim channel—and the broader hope of peace talks—may be our only hope of finding a resolution to this worsening crisis.