This is like watching Nero and Caligula taunt each other.
Kim Jong-un has been making a big show out of his army’s missile capabilities for months now, threatening the US mainland. When the Americans flew their stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula as a show of force, Pyongyang’s propaganda machine grew even shriller. When the US Security Council voted unanimously to impose tough economic sanctions on the pariah state, the sounds emanating from Pyongyang seemed even more agitated.
Early this week, Donald Trump made his startling “fire and fury” remarks that seemed to indicate he was prepared to meet North Korean provocations with a nuclear response. Even as Trump’s team was scurrying to reshape that message, Pyongyang announced plans to fire four long-range missiles into the waters around Guam.
Pyongyang’s announcement was unprecedented. For the first time, the communist capital specified the type of missiles they would use, the flight time required for these to reach their target and the path these weapons would take (which is over southern Japan).
Trump, of course, could not take not having the last word. Last heard, he was threatening North Korea with preemptive action to prevent a hostile missile launch.
It is beyond Trump to specify his thoughts, especially since there is no indication he has been in discussions with his military and national security team. In normal military parlance, a preemptive strike is action taken to take out the enemy’s weapons system ahead of an actual launch.
While the escalating demagoguery between Trump and Kim Jong-un was going on, Beijing declared she would stand down if it is Pyongyang that initiated hostile actions. But there was silence on Trump’s “preemptive action.” By undertaking preemptive measures, Washington becomes the initiator of hostilities. At first blush, it seems Trump, by issuing that statement, falls into Pyongyang’s propaganda trap.
Theoretically, if US bombers initiate action by taking out North Korean missile sites, Beijing will likely come to the succor of its client state. The Chinese might be thoroughly irritated by Pyongyang’s antics, but the rouge state is still an ally. The status quo in the Korean peninsula provides Beijing a buffer zone between them and South Korea.
The Japanese government is still studying its options. The North Korean missiles are expected to cross Japanese airspace, but they could be at such an altitude beyond the range of that country’s missile defense system.
To be sure, the US is maintaining eyes in the sky to intensely monitor activity in North Korea’s suspected missile sites. Last month, however, there was a report that satellite data appears to show the North Koreans loading missiles onto their submarines. Those submarines could be moving closer to Guam, preparing for a launch from a shorter distance.
Pyongyang announced they would launch their missiles around the middle of August. That could mean anytime next week.
East Asian markets are understandably agitated. The war of words between Trump and Kim will scare the markets first. Understandably, investors will be very bearish until tensions in the Korean peninsula subside.
If the tensions are prolonged, that will be bad news for the economies of East and Southeast Asia. The rate of escalation in the war of words between Trump and Kim indicates that this crisis will take a decisive turn soon.
The two main protagonists might be thinking that if they carry on this way the other nations will step in and somehow defuse the crisis without anyone losing face. This could be the reason they are huffing and bluffing so fervently.
But no other nation has stepped up to the role of arbiter and peace broker. Neither Russia nor China volunteered for the futile role. Both major powers seem content letting Trump and Kim complicate the predicament they find themselves in.
Both Trump and Kim need this confrontation to shore up their domestic public support.
With the severe economic consequences of the UN sanctions forthcoming, Kim needs to rally his people against a hostile foreign power. By keeping his troops on war footing, his half-starving people on high alert, Kim will rely on mobilizing patriotism to consolidate his hold on power. His missiles are the only proof that his regime has not failed the country.
Trump, even more desperately needs to wag the dog by its tail. He has the lowest trust and approval ratings on any American president. Over 70 percent of Americans do not think Trump’s White House is capable of handling this crisis – or handling any major issue for the matter. The perception of incompetence hands over the Trump presidency like a thick fog.
What better way to climb out of this political hole than to find a war abroad that would galvanize his people. What better enemy could there be than a war with a third-rate power like North Korea and its tin can army.
Pyongyang appears spoiling for a missile confrontation. That is exactly where it is at a disadvantage. No missile force comes close to that of the US. A confrontation between the superpower and the third-rate power will be like pitting an NBA team against a high school squad.
The outcome of a missile skirmish will be quick and decisive. This is so unlike battling terrorists in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan where everything seems to drag on and on without decisive results.
We are left guessing whether it will be Trump or Kim to pull the trigger first. The war of words, after all, cannot get any shriller.
We might well call this the War of the Buffoons.