By Dr. Jonathan Z. Ludwig is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Oklahoma State University,
Stillwater, OK, USA and a member of the SIA Advisory Board
In what was an otherwise unremarkable State of the Union Address, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, 30 January 2018, raised eyebrows around the world when he addressed the issue of the Korean Peninsula. In nearly 500 words, and with two very powerful visuals, he called attention to the brutality of the Kim Jung Un regime, but he left open the key question: what is going to happen with North Korea?
By bringing as guests Otto Warmbier’s family, Trump reminded the United States and the world what Kim’s regime did to an American student allegedly guilty of tearing a poster off the wall in a Pyongyang hotel. By bringing as guest North Korean defector Ji Seong Ho, Trump reminded the United States and the world what Kim’s regime continues to do to its own citizens not only through the brutal torture of those arrested, but also by not providing enough daily sustenance for the average citizen to survive from day to day. The question is why did he bring these guests, and why did he say what he said?
On one hand it could be a simple desire to mock Kim Jung Un, as Trump has previously done both on Twitter and then at the United Nations in September 2017 where he referred to Kim as “little rocket man,” before promising to “totally destroy North Korea.” On the other hand, it could be a simple – and, in this case wise decision, to remind the world and put North Korea on notice that, despite the seeming rapprochement taking place on the eve of the 2018 Winter Olympics, we know their true character; US Vice President Mike Pence bringing Otto Warmbier’s father as a guest to the Opening Ceremonies of these same Olympic Games adds to this message. After all, North and South Korea have marched together during previous Olympic Games, most recently in 2006. Reminding the world of the DPRK’s record and continuing to show Pyongyang that we are watching may have its advantages. It also puts pressure on Russia and China by reminding them that we know they have been caught helping North Korea cheat the United Nations’ sanctions.
It’s the third hand that is the most concerning, especially if Trump is serious about his threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” To fully understand this possibility, we need to look at two events before and one after the State of the Union address.
Earlier in the day, before the speech, Trump mentioned his desire to unite the American people amid the “tremendous divisiveness” that has existed since at least the impeachment of former US President Bill Clinton. Taken alone, it’s a comment that any and every American President could and should say. It’s what followed that may be cause for concern, as Trump noted: “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do.” While he does go on to say, “But I would like to do it without that major event because usually that major event is not a good thing.” However, with Trump one can never be sure whether he really cares about the caveat, especially given the two additional events.
Victor Cha, who had been named Ambassador-designate to South Korea to the great relief of many who pay close attention to the region, was suddenly removed from consideration for this post. Cha is of Korean descent, holds a PhD from Columbia University, writing his dissertation on Japanese-Korean relations, served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council (2004–2007) as Director of Asian Affairs, and is currently Director of the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University, while concurrently serving as a Senior Advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Asian affairs. He is known to be hawkish toward North Korea, but pragmatically so. He would be, as Trump watchers like to say, yet another of the adults in the room when decisions are made. However, his reluctance to endorse the idea of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, even in limited form, and his opposition to withdrawing from KORUS–FTA, the United States Korea Free Trade Agreement, made him anathema to an increasingly unpredictable – some might say irrational — anti-free trade, and militaristic Trump White House.
Then, on Friday, 2 February 2018, Trump met with eight North Korean defectors in the Oval Office.
Any of these events alone would almost be a non-event: Presidents use guests to send messages all the time; ambassador-designates are withdrawn or are asked to withdraw all the time; Presidents meet with dissidents all the time; and, yes, Presidents say threatening things against enemy nations all the time. But rarely do all these occur within a four-day window and with a part of the world that is already teetering on the edge unless the intent is to start a hot war.
The increasing fear is that Trump is raising the likelihood of military action as each day passes. In shunting aside the potentially most powerful voice in the room (Ambassador Cha), against such an action in reminding the American people just what Kim did to a young American student, and in reminding them just how horrible the North Korean regime is on the eve of the Winter Olympics, when the world will be shown positive images of South Korea, while also being reminded of how the North Koreans are now playing nice – Lester Holt’s January 2018 absurdist piece about a North Korean “ski resort” is but one example – Trump could be putting into place the background through which he could “unify” America after an attack on North Korea.
100 years ago, in transitioning from 1917 to 1918, the world underwent fundamental change: a brutal Bolshevik regime was consolidating itself through the Red Terror in Russia, while on the other side of the planet, the United States was leaving its near-island and engaging with the world in a way that would transfer power across the Atlantic for the next century. The result was decades of antagonism between these two powers and their allies, largely ideological in Europe, but very bloody in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Should such a pre-emptive strike occur on North Korea in 2018, with blood once again being shed in Asia, the likelihood is that the world will change just as drastically as 100 years ago. The question is what will it become and what will remain, because the economic, military, and environmental cost of such a strike will be huge, and much of the world will be lined up against the United States.
 The official name of North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).