On January 30, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell: Victor Cha, widely seen as the incoming US ambassador to South Korea, had been rejected by the White House for the job.
Cha, a hardliner, is well known both in Washington and within the South Korean political establishment for his unwavering faith in sanctions against North Korea. An academic by training, he served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council during the Bush administration.
Cha was not an ideal candidate from the perspective of the centre-left South Korean government, currently busy pursuing rapprochement with North Korea. But the report that Cha’s nomination was cancelled because he didn’t support the so-called “bloody nose” military option – inflicting limited damage as a warning to the regime in Pyongyang – came as a shock. It suggests that US President Donald Trump may be far more reckless than he has been perceived to be.
It’s fair to say that Trump has minced no words regarding North Korea since taking office one year ago. He has called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un everything from “a sick puppy“ to “Little Rocket Man“ to “short and fat“, prompting Pyongyang to unleash its own official diatribe.
Beside the Twitter insults, there have been intimidation tactics employed against the regime. Trump has threatened to unleash “fire and fury“ on North Korea and has called negotiation a waste of time. Trump has also mobilised warships and bombers to patrol close to North Korean territory. And South Korea and the US held “huge“ joint military exercises in August and December last year.
Washington also successfully lobbied for much stricter sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council, rousing Kim Jong-un’s ire.
The Trump administration’s behaviour until now, no matter how unwise, could still be rationalised to a degree given North Korea’s numerous missile launches and a nuclear experiment throughout 2017. One of those missiles was, according to the North’s own propaganda machine and many experts, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental US.
Trump is playing Russian roulette with Korean lives, not to mention lives of all others who live here.
But now it seems Trump is determined to take the standoff to the next level.
On January 1, international media were riveted by Kim Jong-un’s statement suggesting interest in sending a North Korean sport delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. The two Koreas held a meeting in the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) on January 9 and confirmed North Korean participation in the games. Since then, rounds of dialogue have helped reduce tensions on the peninsula, albeit causing displeasure in no small segment of the South Korean population over what is seen as excessive accommodation of an enemy.
Even though Trump is said to have called the resumption of inter-Korean engagement a good thing, the US vice president, Mike Pence, reportedly criticised the development, saying North Korea will “hijack” the Olympics for its own “propaganda”. It’s clear Washington wasn’t content with sitting back and watching inter-Korean affairs unfold without having a say.
The same day Cha’s predicament became public, Trump gave his first State of the Union address before Congress, where he discussed the tensions with North Korea at length. What many US commentators have noted is the similarity between that speech and the ones George W Bush gave in the early 2000s to justify the invasion of Iraq. Like Bush, Trump questioned the credibility and legitimacy of the regime, emphasising the threat it poses to the US and insisting that time for solving the issue may be running out.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on February 1 that the White House wants the Pentagon to come up with detailed plans for a military attack against North Korea – something the Department of Defense is reluctant to do for fear that Trump might actually use them.
I have said before that many in Washington think war is inevitable. And now a colleague of mine, Steven Borowiec, says the feeling is shared in his circle: “In Seoul, whenever journalists or diplomats gather for drinks after work, the topic of conversation is nearly always, not if, but when and how the Trump administration will initiate war with North Korea.”
Of course, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that Trump is warmongering in order to frighten Kim Jong-un into making concessions, but is Trump – a businessman who declared bankruptcy six times – really that good of a dealmaker? Or will his foolhardiness push the Korean Peninsula into war?
Trump is playing Russian roulette with Korean lives, not to mention lives of all others who live here. “[T]here are 230,000 Americans in South Korea,” wrote Victor Cha in a January 31 opinion piece for the Washington Post. “The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size US city … on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of US kinetic power,” he added.
Part of South Korean media appears to be in a state of disbelief, judging by the articles that insist – citing some “high-level American government official” – that Victor Cha’s dismissal was not over differences in policy opinions, or quote the US Department of State spokeswoman as saying Cha had never been nominated for the ambassador post in the first place. And I cannot blame such outlets for wanting to ignore reality.
Now, the onus is on Korean President Moon Jae-in. Despite largely supporting the US-led pressure tactics on North Korea since his election last May, Moon was the one who invited North Korea to join the Olympics so that there would be a reduction in tension. He has also had the common sense to say there can be no war without South Korea’s consent, meaning no war at all. But it is not entirely clear if he actually has the ability to stop the US, should Trump want to launch an attack or to bring both Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiations table – which is what domestic media are saying Moon intends to achieve in the near future.
Trump might be right about one thing: Time is running out. Not for stopping North Korea from having an ICBM with a nuclear warhead, but for stopping the US from possibly starting another foolish conflict in the world. “[I]n the meantime, we’ll get through the Olympics and maybe something good can come out of the Olympics. Who knows,” said Trump on February 2.
That’s a narrow window of opportunity. After the games, all bets are off.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.