What happens when you rattle your saber and then find out your horse has gone astray? Ask Donald Trump.
Last week, the gaffe-prone US President announced he was dispatching a powerful “armada” to the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang was then preparing to observe the birth anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung. This was the holiest day on the North Korean calendar and is usually marked by missile launches.
Trump seems to have suggested his “armada” would shoot down any missile Pyongyang launched. He did sound like he was drawing a line against the exasperating North Korean obsession with building nuclear missile capability, an obsession that puts the entire region in distress.
The North Koreans did attempt to launch a missile. But this one exploded shortly after blasting off. No mention of the incident appeared in the Hermit Kingdom’s tightly controlled press. However, the South Koreans and the Americans detected the launch.
On that tense weekend, US Vice President Mike Pence was on the DMZ, doing his own saber rattling. He warned Pyongyang the US is no longer maintaining its strategy of patience regarding the North’s nuclear weapons tinkering. All options, says Pence, is on the table. Those remarks call up images of the US bombing of a Syrian air base from which chemical weapons were delivered and the more recent use of America’s largest conventional bomb to obliterate an ISIS base in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was pressing on America’s European allies to review the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Although there is no evidence Tehran revived its nuclear program, the country is actively supporting groups the US considers terrorist.
Then someone pulled the rug from under the Trump teams full court press.
The media outlets Trump loves to hate discovered that the “armada,” basically the carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson, sailed south from Singapore toward the Indian Ocean for scheduled exercises with the Australian Navy. Had a skirmish broken out during the “Day of the Sun” activities in Pyongyang, Trump would not have had his carrier battle group anywhere near the scene.
There was a certain urgency in Trump’s tone when he talked about his “armada.” It sounded as if the US Navy was charging toward the Korean peninsula to frustrate any North Korean show of force. America’s friends were quite happy by the muscular Trump response – only to be disappointed later when it was confirmed the carrier battle group was actually in another ocean.
Trump’s proclivity for inaccurate utterance is legendary. But this one is particularly devastating for the credibility of US strategic policy. All the tough talk from Trump and Pence, it turns out, was not backed up by actual deployment of firepower.
All the while, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ruthless leader, was taunting the US. He was challenging both Trump and Pence to bring it on, saying his country was ready to deal with whatever tough action the US undertakes. Pyongyang showed propaganda video of the US apparently in flames after a missile attack.
The South Koreans were, understandably, most distressed by the fiasco. They wonder aloud whether the US will be a reliable ally in the event hostilities break out in the peninsula.
Adding salt to the wound was Trump’s comment that the Korean problem is better handled by China since the peninsula was once part of that country. The peninsula was never part of China.
With an erratic leader like Trump, Asians have reason to be concerned.
Seoul is within artillery range of the North Korean Army. Tokyo is within range of short-range missiles Pyongyang has successfully fired. Manila, Taipei and Hong Kong are within range of the medium range missiles – although the North Koreans still experience problems launching and aiming these devices.
Most cities in mainland USA and Europe will be within range of the ICBMs North Korea is frantically developing. Observers were surprised when, during last week’s military parade in Pyongyang, ICBMs were rolled through the streets.
They could be mere facsimiles of the real thing. But it is considered just a matter of time before North Korean engineers perfect this dreadful weapon of war. North Korea has successfully exported its shorter-range missiles to Pakistan and Iran.
So far, no amount of economic sanctions succeeded in dissuading North Korea from its obsession with becoming a global nuclear power. China, the only country with which North Korea has any significant trading relationship, began enforcing economic sanctions on what many consider its client state. Several North Korean ships carrying coal for China were asked to return to port.
No one knows how much further Beijing is willing to go to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear dreams. A maverick North Korea could still prove useful for China’s own strategic designs. Pyongyang could be the bully Beijing cannot be, given the trade and financial equations.
When some foreign critics took President Duterte to task for doing nothing in the face of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea, the Mayor snapped back. He asked a truly relevant question: Where was the US Navy when all the construction was going on?
In the face of the gap between Trump’s brave words and the actual deployment of his forces, the South Koreans might ask the same question. Where was the US when North Korea was building its missiles?
The credibility of US defense commitments has just been damaged by this “bluff” about an “armada” rushing to protect an ally.