North Korea calls threats by President Trump “the sound of a dog barking.” Here’s why.
For decades Pyongyang has threatened, captured and killed Americans (and our South Korean allies) without ever suffering a significant U.S. military strike in return. At every crisis, America’s foreign policy Mandarins have insisted the danger of a massive North Korean response was too great, that while America is capable of military self-control, Pyongyang somehow is not.
So America’s reply to bullets and shrapnel has been words, military exercises and, in recent years, cyber-attacks and economic sanctions. The last two caused pain, and President Trump has finally ramped sanctions enough to get Beijing’s attention. But none of this seems to be convincing the homicidal Kim Jong Un that his prized nuclear assets, or his life, are finally in danger.
Take Kim’s response to recent U.S. threats. President-elect Trump tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!” It did.
Despite having the unquestioned military capability to eradicate the threat all along the way, America’s leaders have allowed a fratricidal, America-hating dictator the power to threaten massive destruction not just beyond the DMZ, but in our very homeland.
In August, the president warned: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” Kim remained on path to threaten American cities with nuclear destruction.
Days ago, the President promised to “totally destroy” North Korea. Kim’s foreign secretary calmly countered: "Our rocket's visit to the entire US mainland [is] inevitable…" and later threatened to shoot down American military aircraft in international airspace.
That threat to a U.S. plane has special significance. Unlike most Americans, Pyongyang’s leaders remember -- and trumpet in their propaganda to this day -- how they once downed a U.S. military aircraft in international airspace and got away with it, along with other outrages.
Let’s hope President Trump and his advisors know this history, starting with the “Second Korean War,” waged by Pyongyang against the U.S. and South Korea from 1966-9. Fought on orders of Kim Il Sung, grandfather and doughy doppelganger of the current despot, the conflict killed or wounded some 150 Americans and an estimated 800 of our South Korean comrades-in-arms.
It started with increased attacks against American patrols and installations along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the Koreas. In early 1968 Pyongyang launched a suicide squad into South Korea with orders to chop off the head of the South’s president, then seized the reconnaissance ship USS Pueblo in international waters. One American crewmen was killed and the other 82 imprisoned and tortured for almost a year. President Johnson called the capture an “aggressive act” that “cannot be accepted.” South Korea’s leader, who’d come uncomfortably close to losing his head, urged the U.S. to launch a punitive strike against the North. Instead, Washington issued a groveling apology to Pyongyang in return for the Pueblo crewmen. The North kept the blood-stained ship itself as a propaganda trophy; it’s now a tourist attraction.
“There isn’t going to be another Pueblo,” promised President Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign. “We are not going to let that happen.” Not long after Nixon’s election, North Korean fighters blasted a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane out of international airspace, killing 31 aviators. The new president asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a military response. After dithering over the risk of a broader conflict, Nixon opted to respond with a symbolic show of force.
Pyongyang was not impressed. “The Americans don’t want to continue this fight,” Kim Il Sung boasted to a fellow communist leader in 1971 about the responses to the Pueblo and EC-121. (More new insights on North Korean history can be found at the indispensable Wilson Center North Korea International Document Project https://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/north-korea-international-documentation-project)
If American presidents had no appetite for a fight, Kim and his poisonous progeny still did. North Korean soldiers bludgeoned two Americans to death and wounded other GIs and South Koreans during a 1976 ax attack (the U.S. response: yet another show of force). They shot and beat others during DMZ skirmishes and downed U.S. helicopters, claiming more lives. Attacks against South Korea resulted in greater casualties, from the bombing of a South Korean airliner to a massive blast that missed the South Korean president but killed 21 others. During the 1990s, North Korean commandos infiltrated America with orders to attack nuclear power plants in the case of war, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence report. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean Navy vessel, slaughtering dozens, and shelled a South Korean island, taking several lives. Two years ago, a North Korean land mine ripped through the legs of two South Korean soldiers.
Meanwhile, North Korea steadily moved to obtain nuclear weapons for its struggle against the hated “Yankees.” Our presidents declared this was “unacceptable” and would never happen. Once again, military action was ruled out on the advice of foreign policy mavens, who claimed the risk of a massive North Korean response against the South was too high. They often relied on overblown casualty estimates for a conventional North Korean artillery attack against the South Korean capital of Seoul, arguing in effect that the risk to South Korea’s capital now outweighed preventing North Korea from being able to attack America’s capital in the future.
Presidents Clinton and Bush tried negotiations, bribery, threats and sanctions, all to no avail. By 2006 North was testing nuclear weapons and accelerating its missile program. It even rented out experts to build a nuclear plant in Syria (which Israel destroyed after the U.S. refused to act.)
Pyongyang grew bold enough to strike America itself in 2014 with a major hack against Sony Pictures, plus threaten an “11th of September”-type attack against U.S. movie theaters. “They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond,” pledged President Obama in 2014. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” What was that place, time and manner? Aside from limited financial sanctions, all that’s known for sure is that North Korea marched on. Before leaving office last year, Obama promised once last time "to demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences to its unlawful and dangerous actions." Kept classified by Obama: Just how close the Koreans were to a nuclear strike capability against America.
Now President Trump has inherited a situation once unthinkable, perhaps especially to U.S. troops who’ve faced and sometimes fought North Korea these long years with the mission of stopping them at the DMZ. Despite having the unquestioned military capability to eradicate the threat all along the way, America’s leaders have allowed a fratricidal, America-hating dictator the power to threaten massive destruction not just beyond the DMZ, but in our very homeland.
President Trump must now make tough decisions his predecessors ducked. Maybe more sanctions, negotiations, bribes and cyber-attacks will finally work this time, perhaps in combination with previously unacceptable pressure on China and efforts to undermine Kim, such as providing his citizens with phones, radios and flash drives carrying the truth about his regime. He can listen to the chorus of foreign policy experts, who now that North Korea has nukes argue the regime can be controlled through traditional nuclear deterrence.
But in the end, our new president may have to decide: Does the danger military action poses to South Korea today outweigh a potential nuclear attack against America tomorrow?
In whatever actions he chooses, Trump might take counsel from the regrets of President Nixon, who years afterward described North Korea’s strategy this way: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw. I had feared in our handling of the EC-121 incident in 1969 the Communists may have thought they encountered mush.”
As the Korean proverb goes: “A barking dog never bites.”