Fire And Fury: Part II
Hours after President Trump’s provocative “fire and fury” threat, the North Korean government, as is its wont, responded in manner and in time. One mustn’t forget that the DPRK is quite well-practiced in the act of reciprocating or, for that matter, instigating lashings by the tongue. It has a long, asinine history of doing so. It gets ample kicks out of lambasting American politicians whenever doing so suits the government’s purpose (such is the case, there’s never a time that it doesn’t suit its purpose). Usually, if not importunately, the DPRK will say something crass, callow, and unbecoming even measured up against the standards of its own troglodyte state. Few American politicians have been immune to the aspersions. It called President Obama a “dirty fellow”, a “juvenile delinquent”, and a man who “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being”.
President George W. Bush was likewise subjected to the KCNA’s odd sort of calumny (KCNA is the acronym for the Korean Central News Agency, from which the regime’s scurrilous, propagandistic spittle ejaculates on a fairly regular basis). It referred to our forty-third president as a “chicken soaked in rain”. A man was never made to stand for such a foul jab in the ribs—nor perhaps a fowler one. The KCNA didn’t stop there. It called Vice President Dick Cheney a “most cruel monster and bloodthirsty beast” while attributing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the honorifics, “political dwarf”, “human scum”, and “hysteric”.
While the KCNA might just be compensating a bit too much for its own leader’s character flaws, its recent reply to President Trump was somewhat atypically sober and disquietingly mature. After denouncing President Trump’s “fire and fury” threat as a “load of nonsense” (as per the KCNA), Pyongyang released a cursory plan to strike out militarily against the US. In its crosshairs lays Guam, a strategic American military outpost in the Pacific. The KCNA informs us, in response to President Trump, that its Korean People’s Army (KPA) has developed a plan to unleash an “enveloping fire at the areas around Guam” with its medium to long-range ballistic missiles. As per the report, the plan could potentially become operational once presented to and accepted by the military’s Supreme Commander, none other than Mr. Kim Jong Un himself.
Guam and its sister archipelago, the Mariana Islands, are approximately 2,000 miles south of the Korean peninsula and well within the Hwasong missile’s range (the Hwasong is the name of North Korea’s missile recently made functional). Guam, the nearly imperceptible land mass located in the Pacific, is a Micronesian island territory. There, where the furthest reaches of Asia’s East meets those of America’s West, Guam has been vitally important as a strategic American outpost. America has controlled Guam since the Spanish American War in 1898, when the tiny island was commandeered bloodlessly from its erstwhile Spanish colonialists. Now, it’s home to the Andersen Air Force Base and the Naval Base Guam, both of which combine in housing over 6,000 American troops. Aside from the servicemen and women, approximately 160,000 civilian Guamanians reside on the island as well.
Guam was an essential outpost during the Eastern campaign in WWII, and remains no less strategically important today. For this reason, the island is defensively outfitted with the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missile defense system. It’s a highly effective deterrent that, in South Korea’s most recent presidential election (necessitated, you might recall, because of former president Park Guen-hye’s ignominious ousting which stemmed from her corruption scandal), many South Koreans audaciously bristled against having implemented. One must assume these same South Koreans find themselves shamelessly warming to the “THAAD” concept more and more each day. In all of its tests and simulations, the THAAD has been perfectly efficacious, striking down incoming ballistics on fifteen of fifteen attempts. Never has it been challenged with a legitimate threat though. Nor really do I want it to be.
Awaiting Kim Jong Un’s order, should he deliver it, the KPA has expressed in no ambiguous terms its earnest intention to strike the waters near Guam. This current, more harrowing threat coming from North Korea isn’t the same as those tired, sophomoric, and altogether impotent threats from the recent past. The little libels tossed at Obama and eccentric epithets thrown Bush’s way appear shallow in comparison. This newest threat is not one at which we should laugh. Nor is it one that we should mindlessly flip away. The threat must be taken seriously, as it might very well and very quickly become much more than a threat.
Should North Korea make good on its threat, and I do hope that it doesn’t, the repercussions would be devastating. Not since Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 would there be such a casus belli. American troops would be mobilized, international pressure further legitimized, and Kim Jong Un’s obstreperous, despotic reign would swiftly come to an end. Depending on how exactly the Pentagon would choose to respond, one thing would be sure: North Korea would dissolve into a stateless humanitarian disaster the likes of which history hasn’t yet seen. If, in the worst of scenarios, America were to respond with a nuclear counter-strike (this is, after all, the preferred option discussed by President Trump), millions of North Korean civilians would be at immediate risk. The peninsula would be torn asunder. It’s a moribund prospect, but one needn’t look further than Hiroshima or Nagasaki across the Sea of Japan for a review of the possibilities of calamity.
Should America strike the peninsula with an atomic weapon, North Koreans would be incinerated, rather than peacefully liberated, from their decades-long thralldom. I do wonder if there isn’t a North Korean who thinks that freedom is worth that cost. Aside from those confined and imperiled in North Korea, China very much has a stake in this game. It is, for all intents and purposes, North Korea’s suzerain; North Korea deals almost exclusively with China in economic transactions—fruitless though they may be for the latter, essential for the former. Add to that China’s geographic proximity, and it’s clear to see what would happen if North Korea were blown asunder. There would be a torrential refugee movement across Manchuria into the upper Chinese state. The “liberation” or, obliteration, of North Korea would leave behind a stateless mass of land, incapable of recovery or of basic function. China, whether it likes it or not, would be the last frontier remaining between North Korean civilians and their deaths. And, if the memory of Mao is indeed fading, I’ll remind you that China has a rather poor track record of humanitarian relief. Therefore, it’s clearly in China’s own acute self-interest to seek an apotropaic resolution to the problem at hand in whatever way it can.
President Trump has made clear that if Kim Jong Un acts in Guam, in a manner consistent with his threat, the American military’s response will be “an event the likes of which nobody’s seen before”. One shivers to imagine. And if, perchance, Trump’s statement lacked credibility, in light of his penchant for hyperbole, he doubled down by adding that that which he said was “not a dare, but a statement of fact”. For better, yet maybe now for worse, there’s not been a political leader as consistently and explicitly willing to match Kim Jong Un’s threats. Nor has there been a leader as equally intransigent as him. Trump is doing just that. By doubling down, he’s forging, however portentously, a new road leading possibly to a new and unprecedented international crisis.
I will say, it’s curious to note that Trump—whose art is in the deal, lest we not forget—has taken such a rigidly inflexible position against Kim Jong Un. Although I don’t expect an irenic end to this situation, in which both sides are equally appeased, diplomacy and careful negotiation must be not only prioritized above all else, but exhausted to all ends. If so willing, the three sides (China, America, and North Korea) must pry open the discourse whenever it begins to close—and they mustn’t waste time. The openings are fast-receding. There is still potential for cool-headedness to prevail, for reconciliation to win, and for an agreeable détente cordiale, but only if all sides are willing to chart the proper course. This moment, unlike any before it nor after it, is President Trump’s chance to live up to his reputation and be the deal-maker he thinks he is. If he was to succeed in softening North Korea’s bluster—let alone its nuclear proliferation—even slightly, Trump would finally, in good-faith, be the negotiator for all-time and history.
A closing thought is this: Nuclear weapons technology is old technology. Fusion isn’t new. Uranium is no longer a phenomenon, nor plutonium a novelty. Since the mid-century, when the atomic bomb awed Oppenheimer and overwhelmed Alamogordo, and since it razed Nagasaki and reduced Hiroshima to rubble, it’s been present for nearly a century. This doesn’t mean nuclear bombs are antiquated, and it most certainly doesn’t imply they are obsolete. It simply means that the civilized world would do best to accept North Korea’s inevitable nuclear capability and then check its flirtation to use its new toy. This regime is bound to achieve its singular goal. The only recourse, as I see it, is to dissuade Kim Jong Un’s maleficent tendencies, while accepting the realities. Nuclear weapons will continue proliferating. It’s the evil hand that points its tip and presses its trigger that now needs chastening. And to chasten, we must talk.