By John Frederick Kaufman, sole member of The Pacific’s Editorial Committee
It turns out that what the Trump White House meant to say is that the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and accompanying ships (the “armada” according to Trump) was going to get around to going to the Korean Peninsula to show strength and resolve. It just took a little detour to the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence stood today on the deck of another aircraft carrier docked at a U.S. naval base in Tokyo and verbally rattled a shield and a sword at North Korea. According to the Associated Press, here’s part of what Pence had to say:
“The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready. Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.”
In other words, the U.S. seeks peace by threatening war . . . and not with shields and swords, but with far more powerful weapons whose lethal effects we cannot entirely control. So far under the Trump administration, the feeling one gets is that “peace” is not nearly as trusted as the sword.
And what, one wonders, would an “overwhelming and effective” response be to a North Korean nuclear attack, assuming such an attack is scientifically possible? Would we essentially “nuke” North Korea? Or just obliterate a city or two? What can such shield and sword rattling really accomplish except to increase tension and mistrust? The Trump administration may think it can intimidate the North Koreans, but that is highly unlikely. What will Trump’s missing armada do (once it actually arrives) but provoke more talk of and potential for– war.
And the U.S. idea of placing a missile defense system (THAAD) in South Korea will only make things worse with North Korea and upset the Chinese as well, who are at least sanely and peaceably calling for more diplomacy. And will THAAD work as advertised if needed? For there is evidence to suggest that the $40 billion missile defense system the U.S. is now relying on to destroy nuclear-armed missiles from reaching the U.S. mainland would not work as predicted by the Pentagon.
So we really have no choice but to make sure that the North Korean missiles, nuclear or not, are not launched. It would be wise, then, not to provoke the North with foolish, macho displays of armed might and armed language. The U.S. should offer to sit down and talk, unconditionally, to open the lines of communication and keep talking for as long as it takes. If China can put more economic pressure on North Korea, so much the better. But diplomacy is not weak. After all, talk is cheap and our best hope.