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  September 28, 2017

Trump Confronts North Korea With Japanese PM's Help

President Trump is siding with right-wing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over South Korea President Moon Jae-in on North Korea, says journalist Tim Shorrock
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Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who spent part of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about North and South Korea since the late 1970s. He just returned from a two month stay in Gwangju, South Korea, where during the Korean president campaign he interviewed South Korea's President Moon Jae-In. He writes about US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting.


Aaron Maté: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. The crisis between the US and North Korea has brought the world closer to nuclear war than any point in years. But in Washington, President Trump continues as usual.

President Trump: We are totally prepared for the second option, not a preferred option, but if we take that option, it will be devastating. I can tell you that. Devastating for North Korea. That's called the military option. If we have to take it, we will. He's acting very badly. He's saying things that should never, ever be said and we're replying to those things, but it's a reply. It's not an original statement, but it's a reply. But the things that he's said over the last year and if you look back the things that he said to past administrations, North Korea is a situation that should have been handled 25 years ago, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago, and it could have been handled much more easily.

Aaron Maté: Joining me now is Tim Shorrock, journalist who has covered the Korean peninsula for decades. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Shorrock: Thank you.

Aaron Maté: Do you think I'm correct to say that we're closer to nuclear war than we have been in decades, going back to the early '80s at the height of the Cold War?

Tim Shorrock: Well, the fact is that North Korea does not yet have a nuclear weapon it can place on an ICBM and shoot anywhere. I'm not really sure if we can say we're that close to nuclear war, but I think we're definitely close to war, and I think that option, that military option seems to be very much alive and seems to be the mantra of pretty much everybody from Trump on down in his Administration.

Aaron Maté: What do you make of what's going on on the peninsula. Just yesterday, the US said that they saw some activity of North Korea moving some warplanes closer to its border with South Korea, I believe, and they took that activity to mean that North Korea is preparing for some kind of potential military action. But meanwhile, in South Korea, which you don't hear about as much, you're having lawmakers and, of course, the president, calling repeatedly for dialogue.

Tim Shorrock: Well, that's true, although Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, says he's in sync with Trump on his policies right now. But I think a lot of people in South Korea are very, very concerned and worried about this military option that Trump keeps talking about, and by his threats to “totally destroy North Korea,” that he made before the United Nations General Assembly last week. If we're talking about things that people shouldn't say, as he says about Kim Jong-un, these are definitely things that no leader of the world should say before the UN, when you threaten the actual existence of another country in front of the United Nations, which is supposed to bring peaceful solutions to conflict.

The fact that the North Koreans are moving any kind of military planes is no surprise. Two days ago, the United States flew two B-1 bombers off the east coast of North Korea, farther than they'd ever gone before, and the other day, the North Korean foreign minister said that because of Trump's threats of declaration of war, North Korea has the right to shoot those planes down.

We're at a very dangerous situation right now, where any kind of misperception or mistake could lead to catastrophe. When the United States flies these planes, and Trump says, "We're ready to destroy North Korea," how does North Korea know that these are not the planes that are going to be sent to destroy them? Everything is at a hair-trigger level, and what's needed right now is some common sense, some diplomacy, a special envoy from the US to North Korea or South Korea to North Korea, some country to step in and talk sense.

Aaron Maté: Tim, there is a report today that suggests that type of diplomacy, that type of initiative is actually offensive to the US, and here's why I say that. The headline in the Korea Times that says, "US offended by Moon's offer to North Korea for military talks," and it talks about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lodging a complaint to Moon, Chung-in, a special advisor to the North Korean president, after he proposed military talks with North Korea earlier this summer.

Tim Shorrock: Well, as you said, that was made earlier this summer, an offer where Moon Jae-in requested military talks and Red Cross talks. What these Trump officials don't seem to know and don't seem to remember is that South Korea and North Korea are part of one nation that were divided arbitrarily after World War II, and that thousands of people within their countries strive to have one nation back again. They want a unified country at some point in their future. For any US official to criticize South Korea for daring to talk to North Korea is absolutely outrageous.

I have an article published today in The Nation magazine. I show that part of Trump’s militance in the last few weeks is due to the influence of Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, who has really been pushing Trump and saying he agrees with this military option, and that the time for talks is over, and I think basically Trump is siding with the rightists in Japan against the progressives in South Korea in pushing for a far more militaristic and dangerous posture against North Korea when what South Korea and its people want are talks to defuse the tensions.

Aaron Maté: Right. Tim, you point out in your piece that Abe just wrote a New York Times article basically coming out and saying that he supports President Trump's approach. He even supports Trump leaving the military option on the table. What is Abe's motive here?

Tim Shorrock: Well, he wants to be reelected for one thing. He just called a snap election. But the bottom line here is that for decades, Abe and his liberal democratic party, ruling party, which is neither liberal or democratic, as my father used to say. They have been pushing for re-militarization of Japan with many US officials and former US officials who want Japan to be a so-called “normal nation”, and want it to be able to take military action as it pleases, as it did during World War II.

As you know, there's a peace constitution in Japan which bars its forces from taking part in a war, and that peace clause of the constitution has been eroded a bit. But he wants to put it on the table now, and he's running for office again on a snap election that he's called and he wants support for his policies on North Korea, and also wants support to change the constitution. He's pushing for Japan to be a much more military country, a much more militarized country with an army, a navy, an air force, that can do the same thing as the United States does.

Aaron Maté: Now, I'm imaging that someone in defense of Abe could say, "Well, North Korea recently just fired missiles over Japan, so they have every reason to be concerned, every reason to push Trump to be aggressive towards North Korea."

Tim Shorrock: Well, of course. But some of the planes that would attack Japan and some of the planes that have been practicing, I mean, some of the planes that would attack North Korea and some of the US planes that are practicing to attack North Korea in these exercises they hold and fly overs they hold are based in Japan. F-35 planes are based in Iwakuni, the US Marine base in southern Japan. There's, also a tremendous number of US bases in Okinawa, where spy planes fly out of. Any war, and this has been true for decades, would be fought out of Japan and so North Korea legitimately sees that as targets if a war takes place. This is something that's been around for quite a long time, and it just didn't become a threat because it shot two missiles over Hokkaido air space, which admittedly were quite provocative and scared the heck out of Japan.

Aaron Maté: Finally, Tim, where does this leave South Korea? If Abe has Trump's ear, what kind of a position does that put South Korea in and what are they doing, if anything, about it?

Tim Shorrock: Well, they've been complaining to the Trump Administration about Japan. One of the things that there was disagreement over in recent days has been South Korea's decision to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea and Japan opposed this, and Japanese press attacked South Korea for doing this while Moon was at the UN in New York. The South Korean government raised that with the US, and they've been very unhappy about this Japanese involvement.

On the other hand, the South Korean foreign minister Kang was here just the other day. I went and heard her speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and she says Trump and the Moon Administration are completely in sync, and that's the partnership, the alliance is what's going to drive policy. But I think there is a lot of fear within South Korea in the government itself and among the people that Trump has already started with Abe and taken a more militaristic posture, so it's unclear where this is going to go, but I think that South Korea is saying a war is unthinkable, where Trump is talking about it like it's a reality and it could be here soon.

Aaron Maté: Tim Shorrock, journalist who has covered the Korean peninsula for decades. His new piece up on the is called, “Is Trump Following a "Japan's First" Policy Against Kim Jung-un?”

Tim, thank you.

Tim Shorrock: Thank you so much.

Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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