Trump Just Can’t Say or Do Anything that Comes to His Mind

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at age 33, is continuing his father’s and grandfather’s pattern of wild threats and bluster to cloak development of nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems that has caused problems for American presidents since Dwight Eisenhower.

President Trump, aged 70 and a novice at dealing with national security issues, has fired back verbally with inconsistent but often threatening responses.

One basic, historic fact Trump should know as background to the current controversy.

The July 1953, Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended fighting in the Korean War was not a peace treaty. However, it carried a provision barring the introduction of “new weapons” into the Korean peninsula, including nuclear ones.

In 1956, to reduce the cost of U.S. troops then in South Korea, President Eisenhower approved a Pentagon proposal to withdraw some American Army units. To make up for those reductions, beginning in 1958, the U.S. introduced into South Korea nuclear short and medium range missiles and artillery pieces that were nuclear capable. Those nuclear systems violated the Armistice provision and drew objections not only from Russia, China, and North Korea, but also from some U.S. allies.

In response, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, in the early 1960s, based several hundred thousand conventional forces near his southern border and began construction of a massive number of underground facilities.

Additionally, he sought help in developing his own nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union turned him down in 1963 and the Chinese a year later, although Moscow promised North Korea a small atomic reactor, which began operation in 1967.

By 1970, Pyongyang began to develop its own nuclear weapons program, which has continued, with some interruptions, to this day.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to maintain nuclear weapons in Korea, some nuclear artillery within range of North Korea, until they were removed in 1991 by the George H.W. Bush administration.

Thus, it was the U.S. introduction of nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula that instigated the North’s desire to have some of their own. The U.S. still maintains a nuclear umbrella over South Korea from American strategic nuclear submarines in the Pacific Ocean and nuclear capable aircraft stationed on Guam.

Since Trump’s direct talks at Mar-a-Lago April 6-7 with Chinese President Xi Jinping and after their follow-up phone calls, Trump has relied heavily on the Chinese leader to increase economic pressures on North Korea to get Pyongyang to halt missile and nuclear testing and move to the probably unattainable goal of ending its nuclear program.

Although Trump has claimed Xi is working hard on Pyongyang, the most visible proof the White House cites is Chinese halting importation of North Korean coal, a major source of Kim Jong-un’s foreign currency. In fact, the halt was announced by Beijing on February 18, well before the Trump-Xi meeting and under a United Nations resolution adopted in November 2016 to sanction North Korea for testing missiles.

While Trump has repeatedly pointed to China’s ability to close down North Korea’s economy because it provides over 85 percent of its foreign trade, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Friday’s United Nations Security Council session on North Korea that his country favors a “two-track approach,” whereby Pyongyang suspends its nuclear development activities and the U.S. halts its joint military exercises with South Korea.

“By doing so, we hope to address the most pressing concerns of the parties and also identify a place of breakthrough to resume the peace talks,” said Wang.

It’s a proposal the North Koreans first made in 2015, and Wang Yi raised again publicly on March 8. It was turned down at that time by Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

Notice Wang Yi did not include halting North Korea’s missile tests. His remarks last Friday came after those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told the Security Council that Pyongyang “must terminate its nuclear missile programs” before any talks can take place.

There is no clear red line for U.S. use of force, although last January 2, President-elect Trump stated that North Korea “developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S…won’t happen,” appears to be the closest equivalent.

National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster came close to saying the same thing when he said two days ago on Fox News Sunday, “What the president has first and foremost on his mind is to protect the American people. And I don’t think anyone thinks that it would be acceptable to have this kind of regime with nuclear weapons that can target…the United States.”

Of all the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and China – nations that today are facing North Korea’s present nuclear and conventional weaponry – Trump alone has threatened using military force.

To back up such threats, Trump publicized on April 10 that a U.S. Navy “armada,” consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson strike group, was heading toward Korea. It finally arrived this past Sunday off the east coast of the Korean peninsula and is currently involved in wartime exercises with Japanese and South Korean ships.

Meanwhile, the nuclear submarine USS Michigan arrived last Tuesday at the South Korean port of Busan. It is capable of carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which apparently led Trump to describe it as “far more powerful than the aircraft carrier,” during that April 10 interview.

In response to Pyongyang’s Saturday morning, failed, short-range missile test, Trump tweeted, “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”

With all this potential U.S. firepower openly within range of North Korea, Trump on Saturday evening was asked by an ABC reporter whether “military action” would be his response to Pyongyang’s Saturday missile launch?

Trump’s answer was the ambiguous, “You’ll soon find out.”

McMaster said on Sunday the U.S. forces now provide a “viable…military option” to help make what the U.S. and others “were doing diplomatically, economically, with sanctions viable, to be able to resolve this problem.”

Does North Korea believe there is a viable U.S. military option? I don’t think so because of the almost immediate possibility the North could do enormous damage to Seoul some 40 miles from the border where thousands of artillery and missile batteries are stationed. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee thinks the same.

McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met with Trump for dinner at the White House on April 24 and discussed North Korea. On CNN, Jake Tapper on Sunday asked McCain, “Is the president considering a preemptive strike on North Korea?”


McCain answered, “I don’t think so, Jake.”

Is all this talking, tweeting and movement of U.S. forces a sign of Trump’s lack of experience?

He certainly showed it in his April 28 Reuters interview when he said he had “informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they pay $1 billion for the U.S. Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system now being installed to meet the threat from North Korean missiles.

Under a previous agreement, Korea was to pay for the land and base facilities, while the U.S. paid for the system and its operation by American units.

McMaster attempted to ease Korean concerns and diplomatically cover over Trump’s earlier remarks by saying on Sunday’s Fox interview, “The last thing I would ever do is contradict the president of the United States…In fact, what I told our South Korean counterpart is until any renegotiation, that the deal is in place. We’ll adhere to our word.”

McMaster then said that Trump had asked his staff to look at all alliances “to have appropriate burden-sharing, responsibility-sharing.”

That study should show Trump that the THAAD system will not only protect South Korea and Japan, but also the 28,000 American troops in South Korea plus the 50,000 in Japan, plus all their equipment.

Trump, though a novice, must learn more about national security issues beyond just thinking as commander-in-chief of the strongest military in the world he can say or do anything that comes to his mind.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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