Korea was one of the central topics of US President Donald Trump’s lengthy tour of East Asia and his meetings with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, China and other countries. Observers are already used to Mr Trump’s peculiar manner of speaking, full of contradictory and metaphorical statements. Oppositely directed signals he sent from different capitals do not make it possible to understand the line of action towards North Korea currently chosen by the Republican administration and if the White House has a strategy in this area at all.
This time, the president did not voice any direct calls for a military operation or threats to destroy North Korea, which the world had heard many times before. However, during his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on November 6, the American guest said that the era of “strategic patience” and soft-bodied diplomacy towards Pyongyang, which allowed North Koreans to develop nuclear weapons, was over and the US had moved on to tough actions.
One day later, in Seoul, where he was met by protests of proponents of peace in Korea and where South Korean President Moon Jae-in repeatedly and firmly spoke against military scenarios of settling the current crisis, Mr Trump chose a different tone and even called on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to come to the negotiating table. In Beijing, the US president tried to exert maximum pressure to persuade the Chinese leaders to further toughen sanctions and fully join Washington’s policy of building an impenetrable economic blockade against North Korea. It looks, however, like Mr Trump failed to achieve his main goal, which was to obtain Beijing’s silent consent to a US military operation against North Korea and secure China’s non-interference in an armed conflict.
Speaking at the South Korean parliament, the American leader painted North Korea as black as possible, a terrible and intolerable tyranny, a prison for the entire nation, but already on November 12, he twitted that he hoped to become friends with Kim Jong-un.
The analysis of statements made by Mr Trump and the outcome of his meetings is definitely important, but it is even more important to assess the practical steps taken by his administration. Here, the situation remains quite alarming. Large-scale joint US – South Korean military maneuvers near the North Korean border are going non stop. November 11-14 saw the biggest naval exercise of the decade involving three (!) US carrier groups and 7 South Korean vessels.
Sentiments of the public and political circles in the US and South Korea are contrasting. Attitudes in the south of the Korean Peninsula are dominated by general calm and belief that the White House will not dare to strike against North Korea, but it is very different on the opposite side of the Pacific. Korea experts both in the US and other countries are seriously concerned about how elaborately the US is developing a military operation against Pyongyang and how openly these plans are being discussed by US officials. Former CIA chief John Brennan estimates the probability of war against North Korea at 20%-25%, while former diplomat and leading Korea scholar at the John Hopkins University Joel Wit puts it at 40%, and Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations of the US Department of State, at 50%.
Most analysts are correct when they describe the current military and political situation in Korea as the most explosive since the Pueblo crisis of 1969 or even since the end of the Korean war in 1953. The fundamental reason for the permanent conflict in the peninsula is well known: unregulated relations between the United States and North Korea; Washington’s stubborn unwillingness to improve relations with Pyongyang, including its diplomatic recognition, to bring the Korean war to a close. In reality, the US strategic goal is still elimination of North Korea by some or other means. At least, this is how the situation is viewed in Pyongyang.
Korea experts remember Pyongyang’s persistent efforts to get the US to answer the following question: if guarantees given by the US president were valid only during his time in office and are easily cancelled by his successor, could the US Congress act as a more reliable guarantor, adopting a law that would be binding both for the incumbent leader and for presidents to come? There was no answer. North Koreans once again saw that the only reliable guarantee in the present “unfair” world was their national force of “nuclear deterrence.”
Given this background, many countries are beginning to express increasing worry about the safety of the forthcoming Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. South Korean hosts are concerned about the potential decline of the tourist traffic. This, however, does not seem to bother Seoul’s “allies” in Washington.