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What happened to Trump’s diagnosis, prognosis and plan for N. Korea’s nuclear ambitions?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacting with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after test-launching the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14.

Realism demands that, if one had not already done so, one must abandon – or store in a very hard-to-reach place and hope to one day bring back out – the notion that a presidential election is a chance for citizen-voters to select and endorse a set of skills, policies and experiences embodied by a particular candidate and/or party, and – by electing that candidate who possessed those experiences and ran on those policy proposals – voters will put those skills and ideas to work for the common good of the nation.

I try to be a realistic idealist. I hope I’m not particularly naïve. I know that candidates make promises they won’t keep, or can’t keep even if they try. But before this past year, I still thought there was a significant role for the part where the candidates lays out a policy vision and then, if elected, tries to deliver on most of it and expects to be judged by the results.

Let’s apply some of those standards to perhaps the biggest story of the last couple of days, the demonstration that North Korea has developed an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile), capable of carrying a nuclear warhead (and Pyongyang is working on making those, too) capable of reaching Alaska and perhaps advancing to a range of the lower 48 states.

I don’t view this is a good development for the continuation of life on earth. I don’t assume that, if he had the capability, North Korea’s ultimate leader Kim Jong Un would nuke Alaska. He might be a bit crazy, but he’s not that crazy. I do think that all nuclear proliferation increases the odds that someone will use such a weapon for the first time since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

I also note that this development undermines the hopeful notion that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are under control and/or that the United States or the United Nations has an effective means of deciding who does and doesn’t get into the nuclear club. (In my lifetime, the list of nuclear states has grown from two to the current seven, not even counting the former (South Africa), the unconfirmed (Israel) and now the – what shall we say? Almost? (North Korea).

President Barack Obama gets credit in my book (and there is an opposite book subscribed to by President Donald Trump and many Republicans) for finding a way to keep Iran out of the nuclear club. Obama also tried to deter the North Korean program, in ways that made sense to me but ultimately left Pyongyang on the brink.

But, to loop back to where I started, I also think we must take this as another significant instance where Trump’s campaign platform and utterings and tweetings have not held up at all and everything he said and tweeted about how he would handle the issue of North Korean nukes, and why it would work, was wrong and beyond wrong — but seemingly does not bother his admirers and supporters.

During the campaign, Trump said and tweeted repeatedly that:

  1. The solution to stopping North Korea’s progress toward a deliverable nuclear missile was obvious.
  2. It was to get China to do it,
  3. which China could definitely and easily do,
  4. but which China was unwilling to do
  5. because China did not “respect” Obama enough to do this for him;
  6. but that once Trump, whom China would respect, took office, China would see the benefits of curbing the North Korean program, and would do so because of the new respect they would feel for the new oh-so-respect-worthy occupant of the Oval Office.

He said all these things many times. They appear, at the moment, to be rubbish (and plenty of experts thought so at the time). They were mostly in the category of magical thinking and even more magical boasting that worked so well for Trump.

Thanks to the miracle of the worldwide web and to Trump’s twitterishness, just click through to this excellent Washington Post review of Trump’s tweets and statements over the past years of how easily China would rein in the North Korean nuclear program if America had a president China respected to compel them to do it.  You will find the tweets in which Trump laid out his diagnosis, prognosis and plan, and you will find that your estimation of his insights and his plans have not risen.

If Trump, the great dealmaker, can swing a deal, without blowing up the world, to get North Korea to repudiate its nuclear ambitions and dismantle its program, and to agree as Iran did to allow international inspectors to confirm that it is complying with said deal, I will do what the current incumbent never does, namely retract this piece, apologize for its snotty tone, and acknowledge his accomplishment.

Until such time, this goes into the category of Trump claiming to know things he didn’t know and making blowhard promises he couldn’t keep. But I hope I’m wrong.

Late morning update: Speaking in Poland as part of his current trip to Europe, Mr. Trump was asked about the latest North Korean missile test and what he was inclined to do about it. Per the New York Times coverage of the president’s remarks, Mr. Trump said that he was weighing “some pretty severe things” to do to North Korea, and called on all nations to confront what he called the “global threat” from Pyongyang. “We’ll see what happens — I don’t like to talk about what we have planned — but I have some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about… They are behaving in a very, very serious manner, and something will have to be done about it.” He referred to discussion with other world leaders about “the threat from North Korea, and that’s what it is — it is a threat, and we will confront it very strongly.” The United States and nations around the world must “demonstrate that there are consequences for their very, very bad behavior,” he said.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/06/2017 - 10:11 am.

    China and its companies are, at the very least, middle-man for the NK missile program. The companies that have supplied the parts would not continue to do so without the tacit approval of China’s government. So relying on China to halt the NK program without large concessions from the US and SK (and perhaps other Asian countries) is a silly hope given the grand strategies of China. The hotter the situation becomes, the more the price of China’s shut-down of NK.

    Entire sections of booster rocket were snagged by South Korea’s navy and then scrutinized by international weapons experts for clues about the state of North Korea’s missile program. Along with motor parts and wiring, investigators discerned a pattern. Many key components were foreign-made, acquired from businesses based in China.

    The trove “demonstrates the continuing critical importance of high-end, foreign-sourced components” in building the missiles North Korea uses to threaten its neighbors, a U.N. expert team concluded in a report released last month. When U.N. officials contacted the implicated Chinese firms to ask about the parts, the report said, they received only silence.–from-china/2017/04/12/4893b0be-1a43-11e7-bcc2-7d1a0973e7b2_story.html?utm_term=.2200e11e5e2e

    (end quote)

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/06/2017 - 10:37 am.

    Me, too

    That is, I, too, hope Eric is wrong. Sadly, I don’t think he is, but hope springs eternal, they say. Until that hope is realized, however, what we have in front of us is one more instance of what happens when a know-nothing candidate proves to be a president who, quite literally, knows nothing, or at least not enough to do the country any good while he’s in office.

    Trumpian saber-rattling in this instance looks a lot like one neighborhood bully challenging a similar bully from a different neighborhood. Unfortunately, if the bullies miscalculate, it’ll be others who suffer.

  3. Submitted by mark nupen on 07/06/2017 - 11:25 am.

    Is War part of Trump’s desired legacy?

    I think Trump has said enough times about his ‘getting tough’ and I presume he would LOVE to have a War be part of his legacy??? Of course he assumes he could win easily??? War could even be a ‘rallying cry for TRUMP’ to save our Nation??? ?Plausible?

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 07/06/2017 - 12:12 pm.

    Opportunity lost?

    Have we missed the opportunity to settle this issue by failing to negotiate a peace treaty with accompanying arms restrictions and ongoing verification?

    I suspect so, but hope not.

  5. Submitted by Mike Downing on 07/06/2017 - 03:29 pm.

    Hope springs eternal until…

    Shucks, I thought Ray Schoch had seen the light when he said “one more instance of what happens when a know-nothing candidate proves to be a president who, quite literally, knows nothing, or at least not enough to do the country any good while he’s in office.” I thought he was talking about a know nothing who quite literally knows nothing such as Obama handling NK, Iran and Syria.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/06/2017 - 05:50 pm.

      Your Point?

      This should not have to be pointed out again, but Barack Obama is not President any more. Let that sink in: He is not President. There is no plausible scenario under which he will ever become President again. Our President now is Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama–Donald Trump. Got it?

      I don’t subscribe to the notion that liberals are inherently smarter than conservatives, but everyone I know on the left end of the spectrum knows who the President is.

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 07/06/2017 - 09:53 pm.

      Doubt trump could find

      NK on a map. Another Bush2 – avoided the draft but no problem sending others to die.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 07/08/2017 - 10:41 am.


      Barack Obama kept Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons via tactics our current so-called ‘President’ does not have a clue as to use.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/06/2017 - 03:51 pm.

    I’m just not comfortable.

    President Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Trump’s philosophy is to speak loudly and not have a policy, plan, or strategy. Compliment him and he turns into a not very complex, irrational marshmallow, which foreign leader have figured out. I’m not comfortable when the President doesn’t trust his own intelligence agencies, doesn’t have any coherent policies, plans, or strategies, isn’t able to work with the congress effectively, and when he runs the country by tweets. He thinks that is modern day Presidential. I’m afraid one of his late-night tweets will get us involved in another war because the irrational North Korea President ticked him off. I don’t trust the House or the Senate as they are busy trying to stay off Trump’s firing range. They are only trying to protect their jobs with little regard for the country. I’m just not comfortable.

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/06/2017 - 04:01 pm.

    4 possible actions:1–do

    4 possible actions:

    1–do nothing

    2–direct talks with NK with the goal of relieving their existential anxiety

    3–step on NK, China and Russia through additional rigid sanctions and trade restrictions

    4–magical, instantaneous, widespread first strike on NK

    Now what would I do, if I were President Trump ….

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/07/2017 - 08:33 am.

    Give trump time

    It always takes time to recover from the mess that Obama left .

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/07/2017 - 09:29 am.

      Throwback Friday

      Remember how conservatives always sneered about liberals blaming everything on Bush? Remember how that started within hours of President Obama’s first inauguration?

      Of course, that was different, I’m sure.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/07/2017 - 09:58 am.

      And, of course, Obama was trying to clean up the mess that Bush left. Bush was trying to clean up the mess that Clinton left.

      That’s because there is no good option to resolving the North Korean situation. China would be more than happy to keep the status quo — a client state making sure that Korea stays divided — and can only be counted on to do enough to ensure that happens. Meanwhile, a military strike against North Korea would likely come at the cost of thousands of South Korean lives. The North Korean regime isn’t stupid — it knows that pursuit of a nuclear weapon is the key to its survival, and unlike Iran, it doesn’t feel the need to be a part of the larger world community.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/07/2017 - 10:42 am.

        “thousands of South Korean lives”

        There has always been an apocalyptic scenario where the North, under attack, levels Seoul – a city of 10 million – by means of it’s thousands of artillery pieces on the border.

        However, a not-so-old analysis fleshed out, in a more realistic detail, the North’s capability to retaliate against Seoul:

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/07/2017 - 03:34 pm.

          A million deaths a bad trade…

          From the article you reference….


          …Finally, the North would face a strategic dilemma. Artillery used to bomb Seoul could not be used to soften up border defenses for a general invasion, and in wartime it would be critical to capture the enemy capital quickly as possible. An all-out bombardment of the South Korean capital might very well leave Pyongyang without the ability to actually capture it, while at the same time ensuring a U.S./South Korean counteroffensive that would spell the end of the regime of Kim Jong-un. Even if a million civilians were killed in Seoul it would ensure Kim’s untimely demise, and from his perspective that is still almost certainly a very bad trade….

          (end quote)

          The point that the article seems to make is that if the artillery is used in an offensive campaign to destroy Seoul, it can’t also be used at the same time to support of a generalized invasion of SK by NK–the deaths of a million people around Seoul will gain nothing strategic if Kim were making a strike to take SK. But in the event of a strike of the US against NK, the expected artillery response still has the power to inflict massive damage to Seoul (but, silver-lining! –no subsequent invasion of SK would be possible).

          US strike on NK will then be a kind of a “gotterdammerung” situation where each side is trying to inflict as much damage as possible as quickly as possible and seems likely to make the fall of Kim be accompanied by the deaths of many others, in both Koreas.

          A million lives?

          • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/08/2017 - 09:40 am.

            It does seem there is a “Mexican standoff” strategically,

            …so while we focus on the limitations of the US and So. Korea positions, this analysis explores the constraints operating on No. Korea as well.

            Another thing he discusses is the actual artillery weapons the North has, and the limits on their effectiveness & accuracy.

            So I agree with your “silver lining”.

            The Chinese policy is fascinating to consider. Their position has factors weighing in on all sides – the North, the US, the whole peninsula, the whole region, not to mention their own deep concern for stability within China.

            We’d better get used to No. Korea as a nuclear-power, and start planning for some kind of accommodation which involves lowering the threats to that regime. Our saber-rattling has had some very negative consequences. But certain aspects of our foreign policy are extremely resistant to change, no matter how counter-productive.

        • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/10/2017 - 09:28 am.

          Sure, I agree that the doomsday scenario of leveling Seoul is unlikely. But whatever action we take against North Korea is going to be repaid not against Americans, but against South Koreans or Japanese citizens. That has to complicate our decision-making process. Is it OK for us to subject South Korea to say, a 9-11 level of casualties, in order to protect our interests?

  9. Submitted by Sonja Dahl on 07/07/2017 - 10:20 am.

    N. Korea used to be in the Non-Proliferation Treaty

    North Korea was at one time (ratified in 1985) a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On January 10, 2003, North Korea announced they would be leaving the treaty and immediately kicked out the IAEA inspectors, citing US aggression as the reason for its withdrawal. What was happening in the world around that time?

    In January 2002, President George W. Bush called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq the “Axis of Evil.” Subsequently, The US began ramping up talk of regime change in Iraq on the pretense of weapons of mass destruction (which they did not have yet). The US invaded Iraq with conventional weapons in March 2003. Iran and North Korea both moved rapidly towards developing nuclear weapons.

    If a nation, any nation, has a fear of imminent invasion by conventional weapons from another nation for which they are incapable of making a strategic response (hitting that country directly, not just on the battlefield), nuclear weapons are an effective and relatively inexpensive way to deter this kind of attack.

    Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric is exactly what will provoke North Korea in the direction they are currently headed.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/07/2017 - 02:24 pm.

      Well said. Americans can’t see other nations clearly

      …because of the the ocean of propaganda that fills the public information space. But viewed from the perspective of No. Korea, its nuclear strategy is wise, as a response to US policy and actions – very effective.

      Likewise, China’s policies toward No. Korea are very sensible, given their shared border and the risks to China should the No. Korean state collapse. China must continue to protect No. Korea, as they have for many recent years – in China’s own best interests.

      So for the US to demand that both No. Korea and China should act against their fundamental interests – for OUR benefit – is…well, it’s just stupid, not to mention it ain’t gonna happen.

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/07/2017 - 11:02 am.

    Trump’s various positions on NK:

    In 2000, called for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

    In 2016, called for China to deal with the issue

    In 2016, called for sanctions on China if they didn’t deal with the problem

    In 2016, said SK should pay US for their protection from NK

    In 2016, said Japan and SK should develop their own nuclear weapons

    In 2016, said he would and then said he wouldn’t meet with Kim

    And this


    On June 1, 2016, a state-run news outlet in North Korea praised Donald Trump, calling him a “wise politician” and a “far-sighted presidential candidate.” Chinese North Korean scholar Han Yong-mook wrote, “There are many positive aspects to Trump’s ‘inflammatory policies.’ Trump said he will not get involved in the war between the South and the North, isn’t this fortunate from North Korea’s perspective?” The editorial praised Trump’s willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his threat to remove U.S. forces from South Korea unless they pay the United States more for their protection.[5][6],_2016/North_Korea
    (end quote)

    Gosh, isn’t the strategy of “confusion” that Trump advocates the perfect answer to this issue ??

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2017 - 10:31 am.

    I’m always taken aback….

    No matter how many time we go through this, our media never learns. How many times do we have to hype up some threat or another to justify military attacks that blow up in our own faces before we learn?

    Look, this “threat” is nothing new, and it’s no different than other “threats”. North Korea has had nuclear weapons for years now, and they don’t need missiles of any kind to deliver them to the US, so the missiles don’t change the threat. The most intelligent thing the North Korean’s would do is pre-position a weapon or two and threaten to set it off, all this noise about missiles could be a huge misdirection.

    Look again: North Korea is going to develop these missiles, and they’re going to put nuclear warheads on them, there’s nothing we can do about that as long as that’s something they want to do. For all we know they already have something pre-positioned off our coast, or the coast of Hawaii, so any kind of military strike could set off an grievous counter strike. I’m sure Trumps military has been explaining this to him, whether he’s smart enough to listen is the only question.

    We had a window to settle this back in the 90s, and the Republicans killed it. So that was it, the train left the station and this is one apple we’re not going to get another bite of. I wish the Republicans would get tired of being wrong all the time but there’s no indication that’s going to happen so we’re stuck with a nuclear North Korea.

    This emerging narrative that a military strike of some kind is inevitable, just when not if, is exactly the same crap that got us into Iraq, I can’t believe I’m seeing again.

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