In a speech that will long be remembered for its ugly belligerence, President Trump told the UN General Assembly last week that “if it is forced to defend itself,” the United States was prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea: not just its military, or its leaders, but the entire population. To many heads of state, a threat evoking the destruction of both World War II and the Korean War violated the very idea of the UN as a body dedicated to resolving global tensions with peaceful means.
“This was a bombastic, nationalist speech,” declared Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden, who grimly watched Trump’s outburst with folded arms. “I must say that we consider any type of military solution absolutely inappropriate,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a German newspaper. Experts on North Korea, meanwhile, argued that the speech played right into Kim Jong-un’s hands by proving his claim that the United States is North Korea’s mortal enemy.
“President Trump has handed the North Koreans the sound bite of the century,” wrote Marcus Noland, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who is well-known for his critical analyses of North Korea. “That footage will be used time and time and time again on North Korea’s state television channel.”
Sure enough, Kim followed Trump’s speech with what might be called the insult of the century. In an unprecedented move that sent the Internet into a miasma of laughter and shock, he responded personally to Trump’s threat by calling him a “dotard” and a “frightened dog” that “has rendered the world restless through threats and blackmail against all countries in the world.”
“On behalf of the dignity and honor of my state and people and on my own,” Kim said, “I will make the man holding the prerogative of the supreme command in the U.S. pay dearly for his speech.” He told Trump to expect “the highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.” Later, his foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, suggested that might include a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean—and then upped the ante by accusing Trump of making a unilateral “declaration of war” against North Korea.
Clearly, Trump’s threat to obliterate a country with 25 million people, many of them with family and relatives in South Korea, had struck a chord. Trump, naturally, struck back on Twitter by calling Kim a “madman,” and announced at the UN that the United States, South Korea, and Japan had agreed on a new set of US sanctions aimed at punishing any company or country that does business with the North Korean regime. Then, as if tensions weren’t high enough, on the night of September 23 the Pentagon sent B-1B Lancer bombers, nicknamed “the swan of death,” to fly over international airspace just off the coast of North Korea—“the first time since the Korean War that a U.S. bomber flew over North Korea’s east coast,” according to the Kyunghyang Shinmun, a major daily in Seoul.
Two days later, after Trump tweeted that if Ri and Kim kept up their threats, they “may not be around much longer,” the foreign minister called his bluff. Standing before television cameras in front of his New York hotel, Foreign Minister Ri said that if a state of war existed, North Korea reserved the right to “make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country.” That worried longtime US negotiators with North Korea.
“That’s not the Ri Yong-ho I know,” Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA proliferation expert who met with Ri many times as a special envoy to the Six-Party Talks, told The Nation on Monday. But the escalating rhetoric did not meet the approval of the US public: That afternoon, CBS News put out a new poll showing that 53 percent of Americans were concerned that Trump might act too quickly “and start an unneeded war in Korea.”
This week, as pundits debated what the next step would be in this global spectacle, few were asking how the standoff got to this point. Nor was it clear why the Trump administration abandoned the path of diplomacy that its top officials, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have defined for months as their objective, one strongly embraced by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Amazingly, on Monday the administration continued to insist this was the case, with a State Department spokesperson telling reporters (despite the president’s words at the UN) that the “United States has not ‘declared war’ on North Korea,” and that “We continue to seek a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But a review of recent events and US government statements shows, in fact, that the “military option” against North Korea has eclipsed negotiations as the strategy of choice and become almost conventional thinking in Washington. More darkly, it suggests that the key influence on US policy during this period may have been Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of the most obsequious, pro-American leaders in modern Asian history.
Just a month ago, things seemed to be looking up in Korea. In mid-August, Kim—derisively dubbed “Rocket Man” in Trump’s UN speech—canceled plans to shoot missiles toward the US military base on Guam, where the B1-Bs that would lead a military attack on North Korea are based. Possibly in response, the Pentagon quietly reduced the number of US troops involved in the upcoming US-South Korean “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” war games, from 25,000 in 2016 to 17,500 this year. They lasted from August 21 to 31.
But the key elements of the exercises so feared by the North, including training in nuclear warfare and “decapitation strikes,” remained. That apparently triggered its decisions to go ahead with another series of missile tests, including two shots fired over the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Then, on September 3, Pyongyang tested its sixth—and largest—nuclear bomb. Even before that, H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, had signaled a shift in US policy by speaking openly of a “preventive war” aimed at stopping North Korea’s weapons programs.
In the weeks that followed Pyongyang’s early September test, Trump and his advisers launched a campaign to convince the American public that such a war might succeed. From Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to UN ambassador Nikki Haley, the idea of a “military option” that could “annihilate” the North became a mantra. Mattis even suggested that the Pentagon was seriously considering an option that could avoid damage to South Korea and other US allies—a claim scoffed at by many analysts, who believe that any US attack on the North would be met with catastrophic retaliation by the North.
For Trump personally, Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test appeared to be the final straw. A few hours after he learned of the explosion, he insulted President Moon by tweeting that South Korea’s “talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” and declaring that “talking is not the answer!” Mattis escalated the rhetoric by saying that any “aggression” from North Korea would end with its “total annihilation.” Although the United States is “not looking” for that, he added, “we have many options to do so.”
But North Korea’s actions alone don’t account for this new hard-line posture. Rather, it appears to be the result of the influence of Japan’s Abe, who has become Trump’s most faithful fan and ally on the world stage.
Two years ago in this magazine, I chronicled Abe’s imperialist heritage and his attempts to “transform Japan—with its surprisingly large, tech-driven military-industrial complex—into America’s new proxy army.” Since Trump took office, Abe has become his closest confidant on North Korea and the man he inevitably calls first during every crisis. Their alliance has deepened since the North Korean missile shots over Japan. Frightened by the possibility of a strike on their island nation, Abe and his supporters have rallied behind Trump’s militant policy toward Pyongyang.
On September 17, right before Trump’s UN speech, Abe published an unusual op-ed in The New York Times endorsing the idea of a military attack if sanctions fail to dissuade North Korea. “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table,” he wrote. As Abe well knows, a key element in any US attack, along with the B1 bombers in Guam, would be the advanced stealth F-35 fighter jets stationed at the US Marine base in Iwakuni, Japan.
Japanese speakers made similar assertions the following day at a forum in Washington on “past diplomacy with North Korea.” Although it took place at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it was conceived and sponsored by the US-Japan Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank sponsored by several major universities and financed by Nissan, Toyota, Sony, and other large Japanese multinationals. The basic message was that Japan’s interests must be front and center in any US negotiations with Pyongyang.
Mitoji Yabunaka, the former Japanese negotiator at the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, noted that he has heard many Americans argue that it’s “not realistic” to think North Korea will denuclearize, and that Washington should thus concentrate on managing Pyongyang’s arsenal. That “might suffice US interests,” but it is unacceptable to Japan, he said. “We are already being [threatened], so that doesn’t work for Japan.” The objective of any negotiations “must be clear—denuclearization,” Yabunaka said. “In that sense, I’m encouraged that Trump is sticking to that.”
On September 20, Abe followed Trump’s speech with an aggressive call for a naval blockade on North Korea that would block its access to “the goods, funds, people and technology” necessary for its military programs. Abe also repeated arguments that past negotiations with the North had failed because they had allowed Pyongyang to “deceive” the global community, and said the time for diplomacy was over. What’s needed to force North Korea’s denuclearization is “not dialogue, but pressure,” he said.
On September 22, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force joined the US Navy in drills designed to counter the North Korean threat. Finally, on Monday the 25th, Abe made his intentions clear: He was dissolving Japan’s powerful lower house and calling for a snap election in late October. “By holding an election at a time like this, I would like to test our public mandate on actions against North Korea,” he said.
To many South Koreans, Abe’s intervention has effectively sidelined President Moon. While he tacitly endorsed Trump’s rhetoric in a meeting with the US delegation during the UN session, Moon laid out a very different approach in his address to the General Assembly.
“We do not desire the collapse of North Korea,” he said. “If North Korea makes a decision even now to stand on the right side of history, we are ready to assist North Korea together with the international community.” Korean media have also reported that Abe’s government opposed Moon’s recent decision to provide $8 million in humanitarian aid to the North despite its missile and weapons tests.
Japan’s growing influence on Trump was noted last week by Choe Sang-hun, The New York Times’s Seoul bureau chief. The day of Moon’s speech, he reported that the South Korean president is viewed by Koreans as “the odd man out,” and quoted Lee Won-deog, an academic expert on Korean-Japan relations. “There is a suspicion that Prime Minister Abe is using his close personal chemistry with President Trump to help shape the American leader’s views on South Korea.” Abe’s loyalty to Trump was also noted last month by The Wall Street Journal. “The Japanese leader’s refusal to let any daylight come between him and Mr. Trump contrasts with other leaders who have hinted at unease with Mr. Trump’s language, including his [recent] threat to bring ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea,” it reported from Tokyo.
Moon himself has downplayed the idea of any splits, telling reporters on his plane back to Seoul, “I do not think the international community has any other option but to pressure North Korea with one voice.” But the tension between the Abe government and Moon’s was palpable upon the latter’s return from New York. In an unusual public display of anger reported by The Hankyoreh, senior South Korea officials complained bitterly to the White House that Japanese reporters, apparently with the support of their government, had “repeatedly printed distorted reports about South Korea-US-Japan summit remarks” last week as a way to weaken Moon’s position with Trump.
Outside of the obvious attempt to sideline Moon, one of the problems with the Abe-Trump alliance, according to some peace activists, is that Japan and the United States are by far the largest financial contributors to the UN and could use that clout to pressure other nations into supporting military action against North Korea. In any case, peace groups hope to persuade the UN to intervene and press for a stronger diplomatic approach.
Last Friday, Women Cross DMZ, a coalition of dozens of women’s organizations that made a peace vigil to North and South Korea in 2015, in a letter signed by nearly 300 women and over 40 major women’s organizations, wrote to UN Secretary General António Guterres urging him to “immediately appoint a Special Envoy” to de-escalate the conflict and “encourage dialogue, compromise and the peaceful resolution of tensions.” And after Trump’s appearance at the UN, three US peace organizations—CREDO Action, Win Without War, and MoveOn—condemned his threats and issued an urgent call for action. “We need to stop this slow roll toward a catastrophic war, and work towards defusing the North Korean crisis diplomatically,” they asserted.
But there might be light at the end of the tunnel. At some point during the tumultuous week, a reporter asked Trump if negotiations were still an option. “Why not?” he shot back. That’s a good sign, said DeTrani, the former intelligence officer. “Negotiations are the only way out.”