Has Trump Threatened Nuclear War on North Korea?
As President Trump threatens North Korea “with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen,” the need for diplomacy is as urgent as ever, says veteran journalist Tim Shorrock
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Has President Trump threatened nuclear war on North Korea? Well, here’s what he said today.
DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement and as I said they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
AARON MATE: Trump’s comments come as the Washington Post reports, North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. The Post story said to US intelligence assessment, “If true, it would be a major step in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.” The crisis escalated this week after the UN security council imposed new sanctions on North Korea, but Trump’s comments threatened to take tensions to a whole new level. Tim Shorrock is a journalist who covers US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for investigative reporting. Tim, welcome.
TIM SHORROCK: Thank you.
AARON MATE: Let’s start with Trump’s comments, “They will be met with the fire, and fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Tim, when you heard that, what was your reaction?
TIM SHORROCK: Frankly, I was rather shocked. This sounds like the North Koreans that the US is always drawing caricatures of, this kind of bluster and threats we often hear from Pyongyang. We’ve been hearing it for years when they’ve come close to tensions like this, when they’ve come close to war like this, but to hear it from President Trump is definitely frightening because he’s clearly going way beyond what the situation calls for. Frankly, I think we’re at an emergency situation now because I think that there’s so much pressure on this administration, within the administration and from outside, from think tanks and various television networks like CNN, to have a war.
People want to have a war with North Korea and I think it’s … For a while I’ve been thinking that the Trump administration was focusing on diplomacy, which Tillerson, the Secretary of State keeps talking about, and Mattis, the Secretary of Defense keeps talking about. Then you hear other comments from his National Security Advisor, McMaster about military action. Then you hear this kind of bluster from Trump today. I mean, this kind of fire and brimstone the world has never seen before. Well, let’s tell President Trump that actually the world has seen this kind of fire before, it was the last Korean War when the US completely obliterated North Korea almost from the face of the earth. They’ve seen it before.
AARON MATE: Tim, what does this situation call for? I mean, what do you think of the sanctions that were just passed with the unanimous support of the UN security council?
TIM SHORROCK: First of all, let’s go back to the report you mentioned at the top of the hour, which was this defense intelligence report that was leaked to the Washington Post today and reported on by three of their better reporters. I’m a little surprised by this report, because for one thing it’s clearly not the collective conclusion of the entire intelligence community. It’s someone in the DIA and there’s no real analysis of what they say. They just say it has this miniature warhead that they can now put on a ICBM. Well, they’ve said that before in years past. It hasn’t proven to be true and I’m wondering why this is coming out right now. That seems very dangerous on the face of it. Someone is trying to push, someone within the administration, within the intelligence community is pushing for a military response by leaking this kind of report.
It doesn’t have the full discussion that you usually see in intelligence reports, so I’m very skeptical of it for that reason. Going back to the sanctions, I mean, it was pretty surprising to see China and Russia vote for these very severe sanctions, which as Nikki Haley described on Sunday, over the weekend these sanctions will cut North Korea’s exports by at least 1/3 and cut very deeply into their one earnings. They could be very damaging sanctions, but what the US media never seems to pick up is what the Chinese and both the Chinese and the Russians say to the United States, which is, “Okay. We’re going to vote for these sanctions and help enforce these sanctions, but you, the United States, must proceed on a path of dialogue and negotiations to resolve this. This will not be resolved by sanctions and tough words alone.”
AARON MATE: Tim, obviously the fact that they voted for it means that … Or, let me ask you if you think it means that Russia and China do think that these sanctions will help foster that dialogue?
TIM SHORROCK: I think they’re hoping that it fosters that dialogue, but they made very strong statements at the UN when the meeting was held at the security council the other day, and also in meetings that have taken place in Thailand this week where Secretary of State Tillerson is and where the North Korean Foreign Minister is also, where they have emphasized the path of negotiations. The Chinese have also said that they very much oppose the US deployment of THAAD, the Theater Anti-Missile Defense system that’s been deployed to South Korea and they want to see that revoked. They’re still supporting sanctions, but they want another path and they see this as one part of a path to get North Korea to denuclearize.
AARON MATE: On this point about the sanctions, let’s talk about their impact. I want to play you a clip from Bill Richardson. He is a former US Ambassador to the UN and also the former Governor of New Mexico. He was talking to NPR today and asked about what these sanctions target. This is what he said.
BILL RICHARDSON: Well, they affect 90% of North Korea’s economy. It’s a small economy. They embark on cutting off of coal, food stuffs, a lot of North Korean foreign workers that make money through energy. These sanctions have bite. I have to give the administration credit and most credit I think has to be the ability to get the sanctions passed in the UN security council without a veto from China and Russia, especially China.
AARON MATE: Tim, that’s a former Democratic Governor saying that he gives credit to the Trump administration for helping push through these sanctions, and he notes that they target North Korean food stuffs. Now, I was just struck by that, because we’re talking about a starving country already.
TIM SHORROCK: Well, apparently it cuts off seafood exports from North Korea to other countries, that’s one thing. Clearly, these kind of sanctions are going to hurt ordinary people, there’s no doubt about it. In her comments the other day, Nikki Haley at the UN said, ‘The US, with these sanctions they’re going to try to put the screws on the North Korean government like the North Korean government has put on the people’ Well, these will definitely affect the people and I don’t see any sign that in the past that sanctions have worked to dissuade North Korea from its goals. I think that sanctions when you have a very positive negotiating strategy and diplomacy going on, that might work together, but when you only have sanctions and there’s no negotiations. I mean, Tillerson said the other day that he would welcome talks with North Korea and he actually dropped one of the conditions. He said, ‘If they stopped their missile tests, they would talk.’ Beyond that, there’s been little movement toward direct negotiations.
As I’ve been saying for years, that’s the only way to resolve this. North Korea made very clear in its statements in the last couple of days that its nuclear arms are aimed at the United States and anyone who collaborates with the United States to attack them, but they’re aimed at the United States. This confrontation is between the United States and North Korea. There was a lot of talk at the UN about the fact that this is now a global problem. Why is it a global problem? It’s a global problem because the North Koreans say and apparently US intelligence agrees that they now have missiles that can hit the United States. Therefore, because the United States can be hit, it’s now a global problem.
However, you do not hear a foreign minister from another country talk about having a war with North Korea. You do not hear a UN ambassador from another country talking about using military force. You do not hear a national security advisor from another country also talk about military force and you do not hear senators or lawmakers from other countries saying, “We’re going to have a war over there and not over here,” like Senator Lindsey Graham said last week. This is between the United States and North Korea and it should be up to the United States and the American people to resolve and create some kind of move toward peace and move away from this war talk.
AARON MATE: Yeah. Tim, speaking of war talk, you mentioned Lindsey Graham’s comments. Let’s just flesh out what those were. He said something to the effect of that the Trump administration might be forced to launch nuclear war saying that it has to choose basically between homeland security and regional stability. The implication was that he’s going to choose homeland security.
TIM SHORROCK: Well, is he discounting the fact that the United States has 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea and 70 to 80,000 in Japan nearby within range of the North Korean missiles? I mean, any way would draw in US forces there and would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, as well as, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Koreans and possibly Japanese. It was just an outrageous statement by Graham and really smacks of racism. Just to say, “Oh well, we don’t really care because the war will be over there, not over here with us Americans.” Asia’s already seen enough war and particularly in Korea has too.
I think it’s really, it’s just imperative to find a way between what North Korea says and what the United States says to have some kind of accommodations, some way to begin talks. North Korea says it wants an end to the US hostile policy. That to me is the key. They said, “They will not negotiate nuclear weapons. They will not negotiate missiles until and unless the US drops its hostile policy.” We could do some work on that here. Why does the United States maintain this hostile policy toward North Korea? What is it? How could that be changed? In what way could we adopt a less hostile policy and move North Korea to a situation where it doesn’t feel threatened by the United States?
AARON MATE: Tim Shorrock, veteran reporter who’s covered US-Korea relations for years. Thank you very much.
TIM SHORROCK: Thank you.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.