The Trump Trigger Finger

Two shaky fingers on nuclear buttons

opinionDecember 05, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

The fear is that Trump, now squarely in Kim’s gun sights, might try to be quicker on the draw

The latest missile test by North Korea last week has moved the world a step closer to war. The rocket capacity is more advanced than ever. The response from Washington remains inconsistent. While Pyongyang is being deliberately provocative, the other side could just as easily ignite the war.

Pyongyang tested its new missile, the Hwasong-15, last Wednesday, claiming it was a novel type of intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Washington DC – and anywhere else in the United States. A significant advance on the missile it launched in July, the Hwasong-15 was reported to have flown for 50 minutes on a nearly vertical trajectory, reaching 4,500 kilometres above earth before plunging into the sea west of Japan.

Experts estimate that such a missile launched in anger, on a lower trajectory, could fly 13,000km. Washington is 11,024km from Pyongyang. The potential range is a crucial factor. North Korea now claims it is a “nuclear state”, and experts elsewhere are not disputing this, some believing the North might have 60 nuclear warheads. Its nuclear capacity is advanced and powerful enough to trigger a global catastrophe.

Fortunately, the experts also seek to reassure us. They calculate that the North does not plan to start a nuclear war with the US or its allies Japan and South Korea. More likely, they say, Pyongyang wanted nuclear capability as a bargaining chip for whenever talks resume about the future of the Korean Peninsula. For the sake of world peace, we are advised to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, just as we do with the nuclear US, China, Russia, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel.

Unfortunately, such rosy assessments do not warrant complete trust. A horrific nuclear war could result from an accident, misperception or the personal volatility we see in the leaders of the two nations facing off right now – Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, both of whom appear to be as ruthless as they are irrational.

Kim has been shown to be an outright murderer, willing to order the execution of not just dissidents but even family members deemed threats to his hold on power. Trump’s favoured weapons against enemies are ridicule and the ability to sack anyone he dislikes, with a possible next target being Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose diplomatic efforts towards Pyongyang are ridiculed by Trump.

Most recently he called his national security adviser, Lt General HR McMaster, “a pain” for correcting an inaccurate point he made in a meeting. Then McMaster turned around and told reporters first that Trump is committed to de-nuclearising the Korean Peninsula and second that the risk of war with the North has increased. He did not elaborate. Vice Admiral Phillip Sawyer, commander of the US 7th Fleet, said on a recent visit to Thailand that diplomacy was an option for ending the showdown, adding that, “A man in uniform is the last person who would rely on using force to solve the problem.”

The mixed signals from America serve only to worsen an already precarious situation. We have no clear idea of Trump’s intentions.

All confidence rests with the international community pursuing a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the knowledge that either side could trigger a war. Before either Trump or Kim has a chance to do so, all parties involved must be pushed into negotiations.

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