As Trump Threatens North Korea, US Preps War Games Next Door
President Trump has doubled down on his “fire and fury” threat to North Korea, saying maybe it “wasn’t tough enough.” Christine Ahn of Women Cross DMZ says that despite dangerous bluster from both sides — and upcoming US-South Korea war games — peaceful solutions are still within reach
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump has doubled down on his fire and fury threat to North Korea. Now Trump says maybe he wasn’t tough enough.
DONALD TRUMP: Frankly, the people that were questioning that statement, was it too tough, maybe it wasn’t tough enough. They’ve been doing this in our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries, so if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough. We’re backed by 100% by our military. We’re backed by everybody and we’re backed by many other leaders, and I noticed that many senators and others today came out very much in favor of what I said, but if anything, that statement may not be tough enough.
AARON MATE: Joining me is Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea. She is also co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute and Korea Peace Network. Christine, welcome.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you for having me.
AARON MATE: What’s your assessment of where things are at? It’s not just Trump who’s talking this way. Defense Secretary James Mattis talked yesterday about the destruction of North Korea’s people. Meanwhile on the other side, we have North Korea threatening to turn the US mainland into a theater of nuclear war. Talk to us about, right now, where things are.
CHRISTINE AHN: Things are in a really, really dangerous place and you know, these statements coming from across the Trump administration are reckless. They’re dangerous, and then as you noted on the North Korean side, their rhetoric has been bombastic equally, and so you’re having a situation where the rhetoric is so high, it’s so loaded that everybody is playing a game of chicken. What is approaching in about a week is the U.S.-South Korean war games that are simulating an invasion, an attack, a decapitation of the North Korean leadership. When you have this state of non-communication and the only communication is bombastic rhetoric that is upping the brinkmanship on all sides, there is a high chance of miscalculation, miscommunication, misunderstanding that could lead us into a potential conflict. That would definitely engulf all the regional players potentially into nuclear war, so I don’t mean to say that to raise the alarm, but I do think that we have to caution, we have to urge our government leaders to use more caution.
Today there was a letter that was led by John Conyers. He’s one of the two Korean War veterans in Congress, and he and I think 65 other members of Congress signed this letter to the Trump administration, calling upon them to tone down their rhetoric and to engage in direct talks with North Korea without precondition, so I think that’s the direction. We need to all be calling for calm. As my daughter said, take a deep breath and meet with the people of North Korea. That must begin the process of an eventual peace process because what most Americans don’t realize is that the thing about the fire and fury that North Korea would never witness as the world as witnessed before, that is actually completely historically inaccurate.
North Korea did experience fire and fury. The US had threatened to use nuclear weapons even though they used it against Japan in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but Truman threatened to use it during the Korean War, but as many historians who covered that war showed that it was so badly carpet-bombed, 80% of North Korean cities were completely destroyed, that North Korea did experience it and their pursuit of a nuclear weapon is very much because of that experience, of that lived experience, and recovering from that, and then witnessing what happened to both Iraq and Libya. I think we have to understand where the North Koreans are coming from and we have to recognize that they are not maniacs. They are not madmen. I mean, I think Bill Perry recently said, in fact, they’re very reasonable and they’re very logical. Even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when she went to North Korea to meet Kim Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong-il, she said, “This is a regime that we can negotiate with.” That’s where we need to bring it back to.
AARON MATE: Yeah. Christine, on the Korean War, the numbers there are staggering. There’s that quote from Air Force General Curtis LeMay who said that over a period of three years or so we killed off what? 20% of the population. That’s about three million people, but going to what you say there about whether or not North Korea is rational and mentioning the examples of Iraq and Libya, there was a really striking statement recently from the current director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and I want to play that comment. He was speaking at the Aspen Institute about what motivates the North Korean regime and its strategic thinking when it comes to nuclear weapons. Here’s what he said.
DAN COATS: Our assessment has come, has pretty much resulted in the fact that while he’s a very unusual type of person, he’s not crazy and there is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country. He has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have, and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in latter deterrence capability. The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving its nukes is, unfortunately, if you have nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them, and we see a lot of nations now thinking about, “How do we get them?” and none more persistent than North Korea.
AARON MATE: That’s Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, speaking with candor that we don’t usually hear from active US officials. Usually it comes from former officials. Christine, on this front, can you talk about the impact of the experiences of places like Libya and Iraq on North Korean thinking? It’s said that those factor very heavily in how the regime sees the world and sees the US, as Coats confirms. What has to happen now for negotiations to happen given that they do have these nuclear weapons? What would be at stake in talks and what would a possible resolution be?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I think that Bill Perry, his famous quote is very apt, which is, “We have to deal with North Korea as they are, not as we wish it to be.” We can as much say that we won’t acknowledge North Korea as the nuclear power. Well, they are and that think the question then becomes, at what stage do we want to limit their capability? There is all sorts of intelligence assessments about how far the North Koreans can get a nuclear warhead on a missile that can strike the US mainland. I think that that is still remained to be confirmed, but if the United States cares so much about defending our country, then you would think that they would seriously be negotiating some kind of halting of North Korean’s missile.
Every missile that they test is about them improving their capability, and so what we have is an intelligence community that is not on the same page about that capability. If the Bush administration is saying … sorry, the Trump administration is saying it’s not going to happen, well, what are they actively doing? By further isolating North Korea, by pursuing more aggressive rhetoric and the upcoming war games that will take place with South Korea, that is not going to lead North Korea to the table to give up its nuclear weapons program. What will is some kind of diplomatic engagement. The most reasonable proposal that is on the table that was first introduced by the North Koreans in 2015 was this freeze for freeze. North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons, and missiles testing and program in exchange for the US and South Korea freezing its joint military exercises, which have been done. They were done during the Clinton administration years, and so it’s not completely out of the picture to do that, and so I think what needs to happen is that there needs to be dialogue.
AARON MATE: Christine, let me ask you about Moon Jae-in because I’ve heard some criticism of him that despite the spirit of his campaign, you know, opposing the THAAD missile system, calling for a revived Sunshine Policy, that he hasn’t stood up enough to the US since taking office. Do you think that’s a fair critique of him so far?
CHRISTINE AHN: I think it’s a fair critique and I would say that I think we are undermining the enormous pressure militarily, economically, politically that the US wields on South Korea. Tim Shorrock, as you know wrote a great chapter in the WikiLeaks book about what do we know about US policy. After [inaudible], the Obama administration, which was so-called Liberal, but maintained still a very hawkish position with regards to Asia … I mean, it was Clinton that initiated the US pivot to Asia, which is about ramping up tensions against a rising China. They see Korea as an important geo-strategic point to maintain its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
There was a funny poll that … not funny, but really telling about how ignorant the Americans are, but the Washington Post recently ran an article about a poll that stated that if the South Koreans were attacked by the North, that the US would deploy troops. My quick response was, “We have had 30,000 troops on the Korean Peninsula since 1945.” We have been there for 70 years virtually, and so I think that is very emblematic of how deeply entrenched US interests are in South Korea and on the Korean Peninsula, and not to mention the US has wartime operational control over South Korea. This is the 11th largest economy in the world, the 10th largest military in the world, and still it is under the thumb of the United States.
AARON MATE: That’s right, and when President Trump complains about China not doing enough to pressure North Korea, the problem for China, I imagine, is that because there’s 30,000 US troops in South Korea, they don’t mind having a buffer in North Korea that stands in between them and these 30,000 troops, and certainly they don’t want those troops any closer, but as we’re talking about the US military presence there, let’s talk about Guam because in all this, North Korea has threatened Guam. They’ve talked about drawing up plans to attack it with four missiles. Obviously a really dire situation for that island. Can you talk about Guam in this context?
CHRISTINE AHN: Absolutely. I would just maybe modify that the North Koreans aren’t threatening. I think just as in every other statement about North Koreans retaliating, it has always been that unless the US changes its hostile policy, that they are considering this. If you look at the Korean People’s Army statement about Guam, it’s basically like it’s an analysis of how the B-1, B-2 bombers actually leave from Andersen Air Force Base from Guam and goes to South Korea or to Japan in its journey towards North Korea, and so I think that’s why the North Koreans put that focus on Guam, but what concerns me is this brinkmanship that both sides are contributing to, that places the people of Guam, which is the Guahan, actually. The US named it Guam. It’s a territory of the United States, but the Chamorro people have been basically militarily occupied.
I mean, this is an island that is called tip of the spear for the US military. About 40% of that little island is of US bases and it’s expanding as part of this US pivot to Asia. These unfortunate people are caught in the middle of this and they don’t want to … I mean, they’re still fighting for their sovereignty from a US military occupation. The one member of Congress doesn’t even have voting power, so I just think it’s important to bring in this kind of historical, colonial legacy that actually ties the people of Guam to Hawaii where I’m based, to the Philippines, to Okinawa, to South Korea. This is part of a long history of US imperialism and colonial occupation over the last two centuries.
I’m currently in the process of working on a statement with the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice from Women Cross DMZ and this international women’s network against militarism that has been building a feminist critique and anti-imperialist, anti-militarist critique because what we see is that this Korean conflict is being used to justify more militarization. I mean, the day after the whole Guam thing, the New York Times ran a piece about how now all the other countries, Japan and South Korea and everybody is amping up their military capacity and considering nuclear weapons because of the standoff that has not ended for the last 65 years, and so I think we need to be challenging this brinkmanship, but also this kind of militarized mindset that says that that is going to be the solution. It’s not. A diplomatic solution is what’s needed and for there to be a true alliance between the peoples of the countries.
AARON MATE: Christine, in the last minute we have I want to talk about travel bans. You recently went to South Korea and you initially were banned from entering because of your peace activism there before that decision was reversed. Meanwhile, you’ve also spoken out against the travel ban here imposed in the US where the Trump administration is now banning Americans from going to North Korea. Your comments on this, as we wrap.
CHRISTINE AHN: I just think we have no official contact between the United States’ government and the North Korean government. Now the US government, now the Trump administration is trying to deny Americans from going and meeting and understanding and speaking to the people of North Korea. That is a really dangerous precedent. We know during the Cold War that Americans went to go meet with the Soviets and that helped bring about, to end the Cold War. During the hostile policy against China, that the Ping-Pong diplomacy helped spark understanding between the athletes of China and the United States, and that ultimately led to Nixon going to China and normalizing relations.
So citizen diplomacy is critical. We know that the amazing activists during the Vietnam War played a critical role in bringing letters and care packages to the POWs that helped ultimately end that war. This is a very dangerous precedent. It has never happened with regards to North Korea and we have to challenge it. It is not a just thing and if the government isn’t going to have any kind of contact with the North Korean people, we as citizens have a responsibility to do so, so we have to push back and hopefully think of creative ways to actually meet and understand the people of North Korea.
AARON MATE: Christine on, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea. She is also co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute and Korea Peace Network. Christine, thank you.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you so much, Aaron.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.