13.03.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What does Donald Trump Have in Common with South Korean Problems

4533423123123According to The Wall Street Journal, citing its sources, the White House is holding a “comprehensive rethinking” of US policy toward North Korea, including options that are “far from the political mainstream” – from the recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power to military action against Pyongyang.

Sources to the WSJ stressed that the military aspects of the strategy against North Korea were also discussed during the recent talks with the new US administration and its longtime allies in South-East Asia – Japan and South Korea. For example, writes the WSJ, during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US officials also mentioned that “all options are being considered” against North Korea.

A number of media outlets edited “all options” to “the United States is going to bomb”, but this news is not really new. Whether “to bomb or not to bomb” was discussed in the United States at the end of Obama’s reign, and the arrival of a new president somewhat shook out dirty linen in public. Therefore, we should not think that a military solution is something new in American politics, or that Trump is especially inclined to it by virtue of his own personal qualities. The problem goes deeper.

As early as 2016 it finally became clear that a policy of “strategic patience” had resulted in the opposite effect. The hope that North Korea would suffocate under sanctions did not materialize, as a) in practice, not all parties maintained the sanctions; b) North Korea learned to circumvent the sanctions; c) understanding the direction things are headed, the DPRK, on the contrary, took the leap and brought its missile and nuclear program to a new level.

If earlier North Korea’s enemies could count on a relatively high probability of a successful pre-emptive strike on stationary missile silos, for which the time to prepare for the launch is more than an hour, then now the mobile platform and the solid-fueled engine reduce start-up time to 15-20 minutes and significantly increase the level of problems associated with the detection of the rocket launcher.

Moreover, now when the North Koreans are beginning to make statements that they will soon “do something big”, it should be seen not as an idle boast, because with existence of the country under threat, they have truly put maximum effort and capabilities into the development of a nuclear deterrent.

Now the United States must make a rather unpleasant decision, because the likelihood of a North Korean attack on US mainland territory has turned from hypothetical to analytical. It is just a couple of percent, but military analysts consider this two percent a serious possibility that cannot be ignored. As the author wrote in one of his early works if at least one North Korean warhead explodes in the United States, the US can consider the war lost, even if in the course of retaliation, all the territory of the DPRK is turned into a Martian landscape.

The difficulty in deciding lies in the fact that such a threat (one way or another) must be eliminated, but the risk that the conflict with North Korea will not occur in a similar fashion to the one in Iraq (recall America’s losses during this operation were minimal) is significant enough. North Korea is a serious enemy, and although it is unlikely to attack first, it will be impossible to defeat with the first blow. It may mean a serious regional crisis, additionally due to the very probable North Korean missiles strikes on vital objects of Japan and the ROK.

Thus, the fight may be too risky. But can negotiations be considered as an alternative? No, because to make concessions is an enormous reputational loss that Trump certainly cannot afford. After all, it will seem as if most powerful country in the world has turned tail to a country that has almost officially announced to be “a branch of hell on Earth.” The demonization of North Korea in the US and pro-US media has reached such a level that any attempt to turn back will be perceived by American public opinion as a true deal with the devil.

In a previous publication even before Trump became president, we talked about the difficult choice the United States must make and about the factors that are pushing Washington to force a resolution to the problem. Now however, there is a new, particularly intra-American political crisis. The author has already written about the new head of the United States, mainly referring to why his arrival should not be taken as a sign of radical geopolitical changes. Now, when the discussion on this subject have already become commonplace, he wants to draw attention to other issues that may accompany Donald Trump as the country’s leader. Some of these issues are very similar to the challenges faced by the leaders of the Republic of Korea.

On the one hand, the challenges are very similar to the issues faced by Lee Myung-bak, who became a very good manager but a very bad president. The fact is that a number of qualities that bring success to a go-getter businessman (and Trump, just like Lee Myung-bak, can be called a “bulldozer”) are rather disadvantages to a president. If the head of the corporation, presenting a program of radical reforms, can safely and honestly say, “if someone doesn’t like it, you can quit and find yourself another boss,” then for the head of the country this is simply not possible. He needs to learn to negotiate or, increasingly, be led by the masses, or openly move toward authoritarianism, applying unpopular measures.

On the other hand, Trump’s position partially resembles that of Park Geun-hye, who has come under fire from the very first days of her presidency, and the criticism came both from political opponents and from representatives of other factions of her party. Trump also came into conflict with a very large part of the establishment for which his rise to power was an “unimaginable violation of the natural order of things.” The media and the majority of the American “intellectual elite” considered him lowbrow, racist, sexist and practically a new Greg Stillson, believing that he’ll be lucky if he gets 15%. However, he won, and that does not mean that his enemies have laid down their arms. Consequently, when implementing certain actions in foreign policy, Trump is obliged to keep in mind what the response will be and that any step he takes will likely be covered in a negative light: any mistake will be immediately dragged into the public eye and exaggerated. It would be impossible to plug this fountain of dirt, and even attempts to do so will lead to his being labeled a “strangler of the freedom of the press.”

Moreover, the Republic of Korea and to an even greater extent, the United States are the countries where a “leak culture” is common in political practice. In both cases, relative transparency within the political decision-making system plays an important role, while in the case of South Korea, this is complicated by factional strife. But, in both cases, the successful and timely (and most importantly – properly presented) dirt on those or other “significant persons” is almost guaranteed to cost the political career and reputation of the persons involved in the scandal. What is more, in view of societal transparency and love for investigations, it can actually be quite a small thing or situation where the hype surrounding reasonable suspicion reaches such a level that a decision is taken while the investigation is underway, as it were.

From an administrative point of view, all this influences Trump’s effectiveness in two ways. Firstly, there is the likelihood of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which people who are confident in Trump’s imminent fall cease contact with him in advance, and begin to focus on the future, which, of course, brings Trump down due to the absence of those contacts.

Secondly, there is a serious personnel crisis, and it is connected to two factors. Firstly, as the majority of the intelligentsia did not wish to communicate with the disreputable candidate – the niche of Trump’s advisers, including department dealing with East Asia, is mainly occupied by people who are, to put it mildly, strange. It is possible that after some time, Trump will replace them, but that can happen only after they prove their incompetence in practice. Secondly, being a rather touchy person, Trump himself will not want to deal with those who mocked him and dragged him through the mud. This also reduces his potential base of expertise.

It’s curious that possible errors are pre-emptively thought to be part of some cunning plan. Thus, some experts believe that Trump might arrange a war on the peninsula not only to eliminate North Korea, and then also to seriously hurt China and the Republic of Korea. This is due to the fact that, when speaking about the foreign threat to American business, Trump says a lot about Beijing, but much of it can also be applied to Seoul. That is why conspiracy-minded experts believe that the American plan is that in Washington, this war will be watched on TV, and Seoul and Tokyo, which will bear the brunt as a result of the conflict, will weaken and become more dependent on Washington.

In the author’s view, this is not entirely correct, because the more time North Korea is given to prepare, the greater the likelihood that this war can inflict unacceptable damage on the US: opponents of Trump will certainly take advantage of a similar global blunder.

Nevertheless, the author believes that, in general, the likelihood that 2017 will be hot continues to rise, and the arguments pulled out from under the rug regarding the plans to change the North Korean regime by military force are a good confirmation of that.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.