US-North Korea Face-Off Escalates


The U.S.-North Korea confrontation has reached a perilous level and the risk of war is serious.

The best starting point to take stock  of the perilous face-off betweenthe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) and the United States of America is President Trump’s maiden speech at the UN General Assembly on 19 September 2017.Trump said,  “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”  Trump criticized China without naming it when he said that it was an outrage that some nations “would trade, arm and support North Korea.”

Trump had phoned Xi Jin Ping the day before his speech.  In an editorial the state-run China Daily ‘scolded’ the United States for not doing more to start talks with North Korea. “His threat to ‘totally destroy’ the D.P.R.K. if need be will, therefore, likely worsen the already volatile situation,” the paper added.

The reaction from D.P.R.K. was sharper. Its Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told the media,”If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream.” A ‘dog dream’ means something absurd in Korean language. The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in  an  unprecedented televised statement accused  Trump of being “mentally deranged.” He added that Trump would “pay dearly” for the threats, and that North Korea “will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history…I  am now thinking hard about what response he could have expected when he allowed such eccentric words to trip off his tongue, I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” The use of ‘dotard’ prompted The New York Times to give its dictionary meaning as its readers might not readily understand the word.

On 22 September 2017, D.P.R.K.’s Foreign Minister Ri  Yong-ho  spoke at U. N. General Assembly  of his country’s search for a “nuclear hammer of justice” and added that his country was “a few steps away from the final gate of completion of nuclear deterrent.”  He hastened to add that it was meant to be a “deterrent”. The same day the Pentagon sent B-1B bombers and F-15 C fighters to fly over waters north of the Demilitarized Zone.  A Pentagon spokesperson said that the intention was ‘to demonstrate the options before the President’.

Tillerson’s Visit to China

President Trump is due to visit China in November. He will visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines from November 3 to 14. By that time, Xi Jin Ping would have got his second five-year term at the 19th    National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party due to open on 18 October.

Secretary of State Tillerson was in China on 30 September. He was delayed by six hours as his aging Boeing 757 broke down in Tokyo   and he had to take a C-130, a cargo plane.

Of course, U.S. and China have many things to discuss including the trade imbalance of $347 million in favor of China. North Korea was discussed, but nothing on that was divulged to the media. Even before Tillerson arrived, China had stated that it was going to comply with the latest U.N. Security Council relation on reducing trade with DPRK. Obviously, Xi Jinping wants to make sure that China’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the US, appear to be in good shape, especially before the big Congress.

While in Beijing, Tillerson divulged to the media that his government was in touch with North Korea and was probing North Korea’s willingness to talk; hecalled for a calming of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, adding it was incumbent on the North to halt the missile launches.”We have a couple … three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them, we do talk to them.” He made it clear that the contacts were not arranged by China.

Hours later, the State Department issued a statement saying, : “Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization..”

It is clear that Washington wants to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, an obvious euphemism for dismantling DPRK’s nuclear weapon programme. This is a non-starter. It should be as clear as daylight to anyone familiar with the issues that North Korea is seeking security, respect, and sizable economic assistance.

Some US pundits have pointed out that the two Koreas had agreed on such denuclearization in 1992. That argument does not hold water as much has happened since 1992.Now,  D.P.R.K. is a nuclear power, with weapons and improving delivery capabilities. If US is keen on talking, it has to propose a broader agenda.China’s proposal of a ‘double freeze’ meaning simultaneous halting of tests by D.P.R.K. and of military exercises by US and South Korea might be a possible starting point.

However, it is to be noted that in his interaction with the media, Tillerson projected realism when he said that the progress towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would be “incremental”.

  The incoherence in US policy

The day after Tillerson divulged about the contacts with DPRK, Trump tweeted and made it clear that his Secretary of State was not speaking on his behalf.“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” A few hours later, Trump tweeted again, “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed; Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”

It has been reported that Trump was angry with Tillerson for publicly contradicting President’s stated position that it is not the right time to talk to DPRK.  Trump obviously forgot that Kim Jong Un has been in power less than four years.

There has been some speculation that Tillerson might resign after such public humiliation by his President. Tillerson has denied any intention to resign. That apart, the more important  question is:

What is the US policy towards DPRK? Is there a policy followed by the State and the Pentagon,and another by the White House?

Let us have a thought experiment:  Trump orders a military strike on DPRK. Will the Secretary of Defense carry out the order or will he and the Secretary of State threaten to resign? If they threaten to resign, how will the Congress respond?

Some members of the Congress have started publicly expressing their fears about Trump’s taking the country to war. Representative Ted Lieu of California, a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, says that if Trump starts a war or if North Korea mistakenly concludes that he has started one, the death toll could be as high as 2.1 million and the number of the injured 7.7 million.

South Korea’s concerns

President Moon-Jae-in  finds himself facing a dilemma. As a presidential candidate he had promised to open talks with D.P.R.K. to persuade it to stop testing either missile or a nuclear weapon. Moon had clarified that if D.P.R.K. carries out a nuclear test, he would abandon his policy of engagement and take suitable measures.

After D.P.R.K. tested a nuclear weapon, possibly a hydrogen bomb, on 3 September 2017, Moon came under pressure from his support base to abandon his ‘Moonshine’ policy. Moon was Chief of Cabinet to President Roh Moon-hyun who continued with the so called ‘Sunshine policy’ with D.P.R.K. initiated by   President    Kim      Dae-jung in 1998. That policy of giving economic assistance, invoking the success of the Ostpolitik in the case of Germany, was followed for ten years till 2008.

. After the 3 September test, the South Korean President spoke to President Trump. South Korea came out with the following announcement, presumably with the concurrence of the White House:“The two leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation, and exert stronger and practical sanctions on North Korea so that it realizes provocative actions leads to further diplomatic isolation and economic pressure.”

There is another debate going on in South Korea. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953 by an armistice, not yet followed by a peace treaty, it is a US General who would command the 650,000 South Korean army in the event of war. In a speech on 28 September marking the Armed Forces Day, President Moon said  he would push for the South to move more quickly to retake wartime operational control of its military from its American ally. On the face of it, one wonders whether this is the best time to talk about this matter. But, it is a fact that there is serious concern in South Korea on two counts. One, President Trump might precipitate a war unnecessarily. The other concern is that once D.P.R.K. has the capability to send a nuclear bomb to a US city, will Trump with his ‘America First’ philosophy , risk one of his cities to defend South Korea?

The snap general election in Japan

On 25 September Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would go to polls in October though he has one more year to go. The election is due on 22 October. We do not know whether Abe’s gamble to get more political support for his plan to amend the pacifist constitution imposed by US will work or not. Abe has gained some popularity bytaking a hard line on D.P.R.K.  We have to wait and watch the policy of the new government led by Abe or another leader, say the popular Mayor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike

What is in store in the next few weeks?

South Korean government officials fear that D.P.R.K.  might carry out another strike between two crucial dates, 10th October marking the anniversary of the foundation of its  Communist Party and the 18th the start of the big congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

D.P.R.K., it is learnt, has not given a visa to Xi Jingpin’s Special Envoy Kong Xuanyou. Russia is still talking to D.P.R.K.

Even if no test is carried out in October as feared by South Korea, how about a test to ‘welcome’ Trump when he  begins his East Asia tour on 4th November?

It is necessary for DPRK and US to talk and  perhaps the only person who can undertake the delicate task of  mediation is the UN Secretary General.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.[2] During his time in the diplomatic service, he spent three years in Iran (from 1976 to 1979), witnessing the Iranian Revolution first hand. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), Fabian coordinated the evacuation of over 176,000 Indian nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in 1990–91. His multilateral experience includes representing India at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Civil Aviation Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He is also the author of two books, Commonsense on the War on Iraq, which was published in 2003 and Diplomacy: Indian Style.

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