The most surprising part about Donald Trump’s Wednesday speech, directed at the North Korean regime via Tokyo, is that more people of a certain type weren’t gushing over it. After all, if sending cruise missiles at Syria makes a man presidential, condemning North Korea accurately as “a hell that no person deserves” and sounding vaguely concerned about its miserable treatment of its civilians should make Trump worthy of Mr. Rushmore.
Trump is locked into an eternal squabble with Kim. This is nothing new for the United States – we’ve been messing with Korea for 70 years. On the other hand, Trump is usually a blowhard almost in the manner that the Kim family tends to be. Trump hasn’t released any dramatic videos of what it would like if the US nuked North Korea, but he’s done the American version – constantly threatening terrible things towards a nation that has had a victim complex since its inception, as well as delivering goofy schoolyard insults like “little rocketman” at a regime that clearly believes that it is to its benefit to acquire and keep nuclear weapons.
Never mind his vague nods to anti-interventionism on the campaign trail. Trump started his presidency by enthusiastically bombing the same countries his predecessors did. He even joined in on the hot new presidential trend, helping to eliminate members of the Awlaki family (and at least a dozen other civilians, in the disastrous SEAL January raid in Yemen).
Now, Trump truly joined the American Empire family with his summer speech to the UN, in which he declared that the US “may have no choice but to totally destroy” North Korea if it does not behave.
America remains in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and myriad other locations across the globe. It continues to help Saudi Arabia destroy Yemen, which is now on the brink of utter disaster. Trump has even removed the meager restrictions on arms funding to Saudi Arabia that President Obama placed into effect in 2016.
However, the question of the summer, and now the fall continues to be whether the US will proceed farther into a war with North Korea. Threats have been passed back and forth between the two nations. The US has instituted new sanctions – with Trump hinting either darkly, or nonsensically that worse is to come – and demanded that China put their back into making sure they stick, even while they are horrified by Trump’s “unhelpful” speech.
The neocons have been smelling the possibility of conflict in the air, and have written enthusiastic editorials in favor of attacking it. If they can’t have Iran – and by God, they’ll get their war with Iran one day, especially if the nuclear deal is removed as they and Trump hope – then maybe they can go after the as-of-late untouched prong of the Axis of Evil.
Fox News’ Ralph Peters, for one, thinks “moral relativism” is another term for hesitation when it comes to preemptive war. Every-war cheerleader John Bolton is down to attack North Korea, because you have to give up on diplomacy and start murdering eventually. And lawyer-for-any-kind-of-empire-the-emperor-mandates John Yoo is also concerned about a lack of war.
North Korea is a concerning place–but so are the people stamping and puffing in anticipation of a fight with it. Furthermore, every war, or precursor to war such as sanctions, punishes the downtrodden, and irritates the powerful and oppressive. Action against North Korea would be no exception to this rule. The only way to help the people of North Korea is to admit refugees to the US, and to fund worthy organizations such as Liberty in North Korea, which helps feed, clothe, and relocate people who have fled the country.
The US has in the past tried to use humanitarian aid to North Korea as a carrot and stick for the nation to fall into line, However, leaders in Pyongyang and DC have something in common–they don’t care about the people of North Korea. That’s certainly not their priority. The majority of the 25 million North Koreans are stuck in a police-slave state, with a recent history of catastrophic famines. America’s goal is to constrain the current iteration of the Kim dynasty, and to prevent the acquisition of a functioning nuclear program.
Almost nobody on earth is excited by the prospect of nuclear North Korea. But it’s equally essential to be alarmed by the prospect of nuclear weapons, or warfare, period. This is to say nothing of a country where more than 100,000 people are stuck in concentration camps. (And no, the answer to that horror is probably not an invasion–if only it were so easy as hawks claim!)
Besides, no matter how irrational their leader behaves, and how unsettling the Hermit kingdom, and how cruel its treatment of even its own people is, they have motivations. Iran has theocrats and tyrants, but isn’t suicidal or baseless in its distrust of the US. Similarly, North Korea has a long history of reasons to keep the United States at arm’s length. We threaten them, and have done so for decades–not with the lost in translation, parody style of the regime, no, our people just write terribly serious New York Post pieces about the necessity of invasion and bombardment of the country.
The US killed millions of North Koreans between 1950 and 1953, and dropped more bombs than they did on Japan and the rest of the Pacific in World War II. Serious consideration was paid during that “police action” to the idea of using nukes. Subsequent decades of North Korean propaganda have rivaled the best dystopian novels, and include goofy caricatures of America. The North Korean hatred of America has plenty of nonsense mixed in. Unfortunately, it also is fueled by what many people in the US would consider war crimes if they bothered to remember them, and to hold America to the same standards they hold everywhere else . Furthermore, the US has scores of thousands of troops within sight of the North, and the world has missiles pointing at them daily.
Post-1953 nuclear tensions have evolved in part from the idea that, as the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz put it when comparing the current war of words with North Korea to the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The ‘crisis’ then and now was created by the refusal of the U.S. to live under the same threat to which we subject others.”
That is, the US gets to have nukes, and the endless possibility that they will someday be used. Nobody else that we deem unfit can have the same privilege.
Kim Jong-Un is high on the list of untrustworthy brutes, tyrants, and idiots who run the nation-states of the world. On the other hand, the United States so far holds the record for actual use of nuclear weapons on civilians populations. Egoist Trump may be unpredictable and frightening. He may want to be liked by everyone and anyone, including the neocons who tear up every time he does something “presidential” like bomb Syria. However, big men need audiences. Even a dictator like Kim needs a population to run into the ground.
In spite of Trump’s more polished Tokyo speech, neither man is playing some brilliant strategy game, they’re blowing hot air back and forth at each other in the form of threats of fiery death from above. It’s high-stakes, but in order for both of them to continue from their seats of power, it must remain only words. On the other hand, North Korea’s specialty is self-aggrandizing threats against powerful nations that go nowhere. The US shamelessly sending such threats back, and worse still, feeling obligated to deliver on them, is the worst possible way to tip this whole game over.
Take the standoff seriously? Yes. Be drummed into another war on the hawk bucketlist? Take a moment. Even brutal leaders want respect, want aid, want something. All we will ever have in a world of politicians is diplomacy. Let’s hope Trump continues to pursue a presidency based on short-term scorn and pride. He talks big, but his ego suggests a man who is too lazy to go to the war of neocons’ fantasies, and too spoiled to suffer the misery that would invariably result.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.