“I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.”
— Senator John McCain on President Donald J. Trump, Aug 8, 2017
Moral equivalence is the enemy of the noble and the exceptional, and the screeching rhetoric currently being fired across the diplomatic bows of Pyongyang and Washington have become mirrors of brute behaviour.
The reasons for this spike came after another round of spanking sanctions on the North Korean regime, a move that did have the reluctant blessing of China on the UN Security Council. Such a move would effectively strip Pyongyang’s coffers of $1 billion, making the point that Washington may well not so much bomb North Korea to the negotiating table as bankrupt it into a bargain.
The evident flaw in this strategy is simple: sanctions have succeeded in reducing a desperate population to an even more impecunious position while entrenching the regime. All the while, these moves have boosted the nuclear weapons drive.
The note on sanctions marked a particularly aggressive mood of participants at the ASEAN foreign minister’s summit over the weekend, one flavoured by the combative sprigs of Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, spat the potty-mouthed, drug pusher killing strongman, was a chubby faced “son of a bitch” prone to “playing with dangerous toys”. It was soon evident to reporters that a self-portrait was being sketched. (It takes one to grudgingly know one.)
Duterte did, however, make the needless point that any nuclear confrontation on the peninsula was bound to inflict a geographical calamity of some consequence. “A limited confrontation and it blows up here, I will tell you, the fallout can deplete the soil, the resources and I don’t know what will happen to us.”
Chinese delegates had been keen not to put too many noses out of joint, given South China Sea tensions and the vast elephant in the room that is Beijing’s ambitions. The final joint communiqué of the ministers on August 5 called for “non-militarisation and restraint” regarding the contested area while avoiding any specific mention of Chinese actions.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s cup of praise brimmed, describing the summit as a “successful meeting with [a] very positive and friendly atmosphere”. In rather jejune fashion, Wang claimed that the China-ASEAN strategic partnership had “entered a new stage of comprehensive development.”
On Sunday, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, expressed her satisfaction at Beijing’s warming to the US position. “The fact that the Chinese were helpful and instrumental in setting up this really sweeping set of international sanctions shows how they realize that this is a huge problem they need to take on, that it’s a threat to them and their region.”
In absentia, albeit very much present, was the regime of the DPRK. Having effectively gathered a noose, the US-led effort generated a predictable response. “Packs of wolves,” went a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, “are coming in attack to strangle a nation. They should be mindful that the DPRK’s strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilisation of all its national strength.”
It took a matter of hours for the White House occupant to respond. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” exclaimed President Donald Trump to reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He [Kim] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
It did not take long for the Kim regime to put out word that it was considering the possibility of a military deployment using the Hwasong-12. One suggestion was a missile strike on Guam in the Western Pacific, home to the Anderson Air Force Base.
This would involve, in the bombastic wording of a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army, initiating a plan that would be “put into practice in a multi-current and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong-un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPKR, makes a decision.”
The nuclear playground is proving busier than ever. Ballistic missile tests are met by air-force fly overs and further military exercises. These, in turn, are met by more tests, spruced with the necessary, inflammatory rhetoric of incineration. The sand pit is being turned over.
Instead of pushing an agenda of recognition that would entail the survival of the Kim regime, rather than its annihilation let alone more genteel overthrow, asphyxiation is being pursued. Desperation is being fed its disturbing rations.
What matters now is which bully will call the other’s bluff. Will the ghost of pre-emption be made a blood-spilt reality? Pyongyang remains the better placed one, noting the old adage that leopards don’t tend to alter their indelible spots. (Remember Iraq, remember Libya.) But it is Trump who persists in showing that a bully’s restraint and measure of self-control is taking a heavy toll.