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Trump and Kim Jong Un Trade Threats Risk Triggering Deadly Conflict in Korean Peninsula

Posted April 19, 2017

MP3 Interview with John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Scott Harris

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As North Korea celebrated the 105th birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, tensions rose to a dangerous level on the Korean peninsula. In response to a failed missile test and concern about a possible sixth nuclear weapons test, President Trump deployed a U.S. aircraft carrier task force to the waters off Korea and issued several threats against the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump accused the North of “looking for trouble” and ominously warned that if China did not assist in reducing the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program, then the U.S., he said, will solve the problem without them.

News reports later denied by the White House stated that the Trump administration was for the first time considering using conventional weapons to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, if the country was about to conduct another nuclear weapons test. In response, North Korea promised to retaliate against the U.S. with a nuclear weapon if Washington launched a pre-emptive strike. Later, Vice President Mike Pence visiting Seoul, South Korea’s capital, warned that North Korea should not test “the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” while also leaving open the possibility of negotiations.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, who discusses rising tensions between The Trump administration and North Korea that risks triggering a deadly conflict on the Korean peninsula and across the region. [Rush transcript]

JOHN FEFFER: cSo you know, everybody who, on this side of the Pacific who has been thinking about the Korean peninsula recognizes that a war would be devastating. Devastating not only for North Korea, but devastating to U.S. allies; South Korea and Japan would be a self-inflicted wound if the United States were to start such a war. I think everybody in North Korea realizes that the same holds true there, that an attack by North Korea against the United States manages to somehow do that, or against South Korea or Japan, would also be a self-inflicted a wound. And yet, despite that understanding, it's very possible for a chain of events to escalate and produce an effect that no one wants but which everybody blunders into much like, say World War I.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John Pfeffer, how would you assess the threat posed to the United States in U.S. allies in Asia by North Korea at this point?

JOHN FEFFER: Well, I don't think North Korea poses any threat to the United States because its missiles can't reach the United States. It can challenge, for instance, the 28,000-30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. It can challenge U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan. But a direct threat to the American homeland, no, not at this point. But it can be pretty devastating in its attack on South Korea. It has a huge of artillery positions stationed just over the border within firing distance of Seoul and that would be terrifying. There's approximately 20 million people who live in the greater Seoul area. So any kind of attack that would involve Seoul would be just catastrophic. So, I think that's one of the reasons why the United States has effectively avoided any kind of thinking about pre-emptive strikes against North Korea because it knows that any retaliation against South Korea would be – even if it didn't precipitate further war – it still would lead to enormous civilian casualties.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In a recent article, you talked about some of the ways that negotiated solution to the tensions in the Korean peninsula might be able to move forward. And I'm wondering if you'd summarize a bit of what North Korea's looking for and where some kind of deal might be able to be struck in the future.

JOHN FEFFER: Sure. Basically, North Korea wants to end its isolation. It doesn't want to be isolated militarily. It doesn't want to be surrounded militarily. It doesn't want to be isolated diplomatically. It wants to achieve international recognition as a legitimate state. And it doesn't want to be isolated economically. The regime of sanctions has prevented international capital from entering the country and helping rebuild the infrastructure, industry and the agriculture. So it sees the United States largely as the kind of key player in reducing its isolation.

The United States is the most powerful country in the world. It holds the keys to the international economy. If the United States were to recognize North Korea diplomatically, its allies would follow suit. So that's what North Korea wants. It wants a deal with the United States that could end its isolation. In order to kind of secure that with North Korea, however, the United States is going to have to step back from the pre-condition that the Obama administration placed on North Korea, and that was for North Korea to get rid of its nukes before it can even get to the negotiating table. That's a non-starter.

The other thing is that there has to be a gradual process with if there is demilitarization at this point because North Korea is not going to give up its single bargaining chip, it's single most important deterrent just on a promise that the United States will treat it fairly. So I think those are the kind of key elements for any negotiation going forward.

BETWEEN THE LINES: South Korea has gone through a lot of political turmoil in recent months and their conservative party leader has stepped down. There's a new election coming up and it's possible that a newly-elected South Korean president could be an advocate of the old "sunshine policy" which favored rapprochement with North Korea. How could the coming election in South Korea change or reduce the tensions on the peninsula there?

JOHN FEFFER: It's an important question. Basically, South Korea had ten years of conservative rule that ended with Park Guen-hye being impeached and thrown into jail on corruption charges. And those ten years were effectively a step away from the sunshine policy, a step away from engagement with North Korea diplomatically and economically. We're going to see a new president, probably someone of the center left, like Ahn Cheol-soo, or even more progressive like Moon Jae-in, both of whom I think support a much more engagement-friendly approach to North Korea. I think there's also a kind of well-spring public sentiment at this point to try something new. The last 10 years were not successful, really, in changing North Korean behavior or in advancing re-unification in any meaningful way. We saw the closure of some important projects like the Kaesong industrial complex - an economic cooperation program between North and South Korea. So I think people are saying, "Hey, you know, the hardline policies they didn't really work. I think it's time for something new."

For more information visit the Institute for Policy Studies at ips-dc.org, Foreign Policy in Focus at fpif.org and John Feffer's website at johnfeffer.com.

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