Troubles ahead?

map: hsfk.de

map: hsfk.de

A new U.S. President has been elected, and this time the world’s most powerful job went to, should we say, a rather unconventional person. Indeed, a former real estate tycoon and TV celebrity is not the type of individual we expect to see in the Oval Office. But such was the will of the people, and the outside world must adjust to this new era.

To what extent Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policies will follow the rather wild promises he generously delivered on the campaign trail remains unknown. Some economist friends are optimistic that some of Trumps’ proposals may work well. We will have to wait and see. Inhabitants of this rather small peninsula in Northeast Asia, however, have good reason to feel uneasy about the next four, perhaps eight years.

What little is known about Donald Trump and his world view does not bode well for stability on the Korean Peninsula. During his campaign, Trump offered clues about his approach to North Korea. First, he said in an interview, rather casually, that he would not mind talking to Kim Jong-un ― or, to be more precise, to meet the North Korean leader over a hamburger (but not at a state dinner). Second, the real estate mogul argued that China should be somehow forced to “make that [North Korean] problem disappear.” Third, he expressed his admiration for Kim Jong-un’s skills in taking and maintaining power against tremendous odds. And, of course, Mr. Trump has expressed his belief that South Korea is, to an extent, a free rider in the U.S.-ROK alliance and may be better off with a nuclear arsenal instead of 28,000 US soldiers.

These are rather discombobulated signals, which might indicate a willingness to talk and search for compromise, but at the same time a desire to leave things as they are (that is, to continue President Obama’s “strategic patience”). Both options are certainly possible, but so is, unfortunately in equal parts, a dangerous escalation of hostilities and instability on the Korean Peninsula.

The central problem is that Kim Jong-un and his circle remain determined to acquire the capability to strike the lower 48 states with a nuclear warhead. At present there only two countries capable of this (excluding longtime U.S. allies) ― Russia and China. North Korean may join this group soon and, judging by the speed of its advances, it might happen while Donald Trump resides in the White House.

This will be the foremost national security challenge of his administration, and one can only wonder how President Trump will react to it. In the past, dramatic revelations of North Korea’s nuclear advancement were likely to provoke illicit conciliatory action from the international community with some additional (not particularly effective) diplomatic gestures or pressure. However, the unpredictable Donald Trump may well consider something that has been taboo since, at least, the early 1990s ― an offensive preventive strike against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities.

Similar actions, undertaken by the Israelis against historical enemies Iraq and Syria, have been successful ― at least, both countries never again approached comparable nuclear technology after their facilities were wiped out by the Israeli air force. There is some reason to believe a similar scheme may work in North Korea: one well-planned strike could theoretically halt North Korea’s advancement for many years.

Such options have been similarly dismissed by U.S. central command (even when South Korea wanted to mount some sort of counterattack, as was the case following the Cheonan sinking in 2010).The conventional wisdom is that any attack on the North would spill in to an all-out war, straining U.S. alliances and threatening international stability.

North Korea is highly unlikely to retaliate against the U.S. directly following an attack on their nuclear facilities. This is simply beyond their capabilities, and they will hardly wish for more airstrikes from a vastly superior air power that would target the Kim family compound and those of Pyongyang power brokers. However, that doesn’t mean North Korea wouldn’t do anything. The vast majority of Northern firepower lies at or near the DMZ and is pointed directly at Seoul, less than 60km away and home to nearly half of South Korea’s 51 million people. Until now the tremendous risk of civilian causalities has tabled any serious discussion on strikes against North Korea. But will President Trump and his advisers make the same considerations? He has said himself the United States should be “unpredictable.” Alliances ― military and economic alike ― seem to be arbitrarily dismissed one day and embraced the next.

Admittedly, this is treading towards a worst-case scenario. A lot of things will have to happen to get us to that point. And many actors will have to be involved ― the incoming administration has over 4,300 positions to fill. There are entrenched D.C. elites and a vast Asia-focused bureaucracy to navigate and overcome, should Trump depart radically from the current path. A lot will depend on those close to him, his diplomats, security advisers and the like. We have no way to know whether he is serious about his earlier promises. Nonetheless, an unpredictable Trump White House forces us to consider once-taboo policy scenarios.

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