North Korean Brinksmanship
Terry H. Schwadron
Sept 4, 2017
The news that North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb (or a big nuke) in an underground test that registered as a 6.3 magnitude earthquake early Sunday is more than unsettling. That they did it under pressure from the world’s largest powers, and under specific warnings from the United States, makes it more troubling.
The explosive is said to have been built specifically to fit on a ballistic intercontinental missile capable of reaching Japan and the United States. The timing of the test met several North Korean goals, it was reported, including the start of an international trade summit in China, a holiday weekend in the United States, and the anniversary of North Korea’s founding. Indeed, President Trump sharply condemned the latest nuclear test, saying North Korea is “very hostile and dangerous to the United States” But then he tweeted criticism for South Korean “appeasement” of North Korea, which couldn’t help any forward movement.
It seems reasonable that we would expect our President, whose belligerent military talk possibly has goaded the unhinged leader in North Korea into speeding up his nuclear weapons testing agenda, to move smartly to get South Korean, Japanese, Chinese and world leaders aligned toward concerted action of some kind. The U.S.-South Korean link is supposedly firm and fast.
But the next story in the queue of forehead-smacking news stories is that the Trump administration is choosing exactly this moment to give serious consideration to withdrawing from bilateral trade agreements with South Korea, to live up to campaign promises to get out of international agreements that do not “favor” the United States. This must be proving more than confusing to new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the same guy who is proving un-eager to install U.S. anti-missile technology north of Seoul.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to weigh in on the Trump move, which could come this week, to end the five-year-old trade pact, known as Korus President Trump has repeatedly complained about the pact and the sharp increase in the U.S. trade deficit, 90 percent of which seems to be in autos.
Now, it is the White House, not me, who makes much of connecting trade and foreign policy; the United States is doing so in talks with China in trying to persuade more Chinese intervention in North Korea towards stopping the nukes in return for lessening U.S. objections to various trade issues.
So, we have the White House simultaneously moving to slap South Korea at the same time that we want a tight bond with South Korea against the North. That sound you hear is me hitting my forehead in consternation. On top of that, it seems unclear as to whether Team Trump really wants to withdraw from Korus or merely wants to use a threat to bring about better bargaining. Or whether all of this is a feint from an impatient Donald Trump who really is more frustrated over the slow pace of talks with Mexico and Canada about NAFTA, and is looking for a win of any kind to put on his presidential record.
Significantly to me, the President;’s brain trust, those generals he says he wants to heed, are against withdrawal, pointing to the terrible timing of this pending decision. National Secrutiy Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gary Cohn, national economic council director, are against the idea, and various U.S. business groups including the National Assn. of Manufacturers, are reportedly lobbying heavily against withdrawal.
Apart from all else, withdrawal form Korus would be seen as further distancing of U.S. interests in Asia, following pullout from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with 12 Asian nations.
A fact sheet from the U.S. trade representative says the U.S. trade deficit in goods with South Korea had more than doubled from $13.2 billion in 2011 — the year before the pact took effect — to $27.6 billion in 2016, with most U.S. trade deficit coming from autos. By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also rallied its members Saturday to fight a pullout, said American aerospace exports to Korea have doubled and agricultural products have done well. China, the North’s main ally and biggest trading partner, expressed “strong condemnation” of the test; Japan sought an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council; the Russians said the North Koreans deserve absolute condemnation, and German and French leaders said the provocation from North Korea is reaching new dimensions. The International Atomic Energy Agency said the tests were a complete disregard of the international community.
Team Trump has threated “fire and fury” against North Korea, despite efforts by those around him to keep the war rhetoric dampened. After North Korea launched a missile that passed over Japan into the open sea, American and South Korean aircraft, including U.S. bombers, conducted open war games within miles of the North Korean border. Clearly, any military response to North Korea would put 20 million South Koreans around Seoul at immediate risk, a sobering impediment to action.
We have an unstable situation on the Korean peninsula, being exaggerated by unstable moves by all players, using financial and real weapons that can do real damage on widespread scale.
We ought to be thinking twice about recognizing what our goals and obstacles are before speaking, or worse, acting.