Opinion: Donald Trump and the allure of a second Korean war

Official Washington is obsessed with Donald Trump’s shenanigans. The latest is his attack on what he has called the partisan behaviour of the FBI.

Trump’s critics say the U.S. president’s decision to release a memo critical of the bureau is part of an effort to protect him from the so-called Russia inquiry.

His defenders say he is just fighting back against a national security establishment that has never accepted his election.

Both sides fulminate on Twitter. For those of us in the media, it is all great sport.

Meanwhile, real stuff is happening. Among other things, the U.S. appears to be barrelling toward a nuclear war with North Korea.

The Korean crisis has fallen out of the news lately. In large part that’s because of the North’s decision to take part in the Winter Olympic Games, which are due to start this week in South Korea.

The South Korean government has welcomed this rapprochement. The U.S. government even agreed to delay planned military exercises near North Korea until the Games are over.

But the problems remain. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons capable of reaching North America – and is determined to keep them.

The U.S. is equally determined to make North Korea give these weapons up. But to date, none of its strategies have worked.

Tough economic sanctions have not brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to his knees. Quite the reverse has happened.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered to negotiate with the North – but only on the condition that it ditch its nuclear weapons (which it has said it won’t do).

The Chinese and Russians have suggested a compromise whereby Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear tests in exchange for Washington freezing its military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. rejected that out of hand.

Tillerson, with the help of Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, convened a meeting of the old anti-Communist alliance that fought in the 1950-53 Korean War. Nothing came of that either.

There has been vague talk of creating a naval blockade around North Korea to enforce sanctions. But the North has said it would view this as a provocation.

The U.S. could accept the fact North Korea is now a nuclear power, just as it did when China and the old Soviet Union joined that exclusive club. But Washington has said it won’t do that.

What else is left but war?

Washington has never rejected the idea of using military force to achieve its ends in Korea. It has always said all options are on the table.

Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” against the North unless it complies is merely an extravagant version of a long-held U.S. policy.

Up to now, the Americans have been constrained by the sheer human cost of waging war again in Korea. The North’s conventional artillery alone could obliterate Seoul.

But there are now disturbing hints that some kind of military action against the North is being seriously considered.

Last month the New York Times reported that American troops are being trained across the U.S. for a possible invasion of North Korea.

And in another signal, Trump’s administration reversed its decision to nominate Georgetown University professor Victor Cha as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

Cha’s sin, it seems, is that he is a vigorous opponent of the so-called “bloody nose” strategy promoted by some senior figures within the administration.

This would involve a limited military attack on the North just to show that Trump means business. But as Cha wrote in the Washington Post, even a limited strike would invite an all-out response from Pyongyang.

Still, from Trump’s perspective, war has some advantages. It would show that he is indeed different from the past presidents he likes to criticize. And, since Americans gather reflexively around their commander-in-chief during times of war, it might finally put to rest questions about his political legitimacy.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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