“There’s battle lines being drawn,” Stephen Stills sang in the 1960s song that became an anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. Today those same words can be applied to the escalating confrontation between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
That conflict will be front and center when President Donald Trump pays his first state visits to Japan and South Korea in November. In Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—Trump’s closest friend in the region—just won a smashing reelection victory, Trump will be honored with an audience with the country’s aging emperor and his usual golf game with the hawkish Abe.
But in Korea, where there is far more ambivalence about Trump’s policies, antiwar groups and unions—many of which backed President Moon Jae-in’s election campaign last spring—are planning major rallies to greet him. As a precursor to what’s to come, South Korean activists this week in the southern port of Pusan handed out leaflets reading “US Troops Go Home!” to US soldiers arriving for another round of military exercises with the South Korean military.
They have good reason to be concerned. Listening carefully to the Trump administration and the government of Kim Jong-un over the last week, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the two sides are trying to signal the limits of their policies—and their patience. Nobody is sure whether these statements are a prelude to the diplomacy long promised by Trump’s national-security team, or the opening salvos of what will be a bloody and destructive war if the situation explodes.
Trump, who appears to have stopped tweeting about Kim, is leaving the policy pronouncements to H.R. McMaster, his national-security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his CIA director.
Both men have been warning for weeks about the possibility of a risky “preventive” war that would theoretically destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability and—in a strategy known as “decapitation”—take out Kim and his military leadership team in Pyongyang. (As if to underscore that threat, a team from the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, which assassinated Osama bin Laden, was aboard the nuclear submarine USS Michigan as it participated in recent bilateral maritime drills with South Korea.)
Last week, in separate appearances before the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, McMaster and Pompeo made clear that Trump’s endgame is the termination of the North’s nuclear program, by any means necessary. Trump “is not going to accept this regime threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon,” McMaster told the organization, which has supplanted the American Enterprise Institute as the spiritual home of the neocons.