Although I was researching a post on solar and hydro-electric energy in North Africa, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to invade both North Korea and Venezuela last week and I thought that perhaps I would focus on that instead. Reading through the comments of other administration officials, one gets the sense that Trump is making this up as he goes without deep analysis.
The two situations are very different and far away from each other but have to do with the changing geo-political balance in the world and the role of the United States in that evolving landscape.
The current issue with North Korea is that they are developing a series of missiles that could potentially deliver nuclear warheads to the United States. The latest twist is the announcement by the country’s defense minister that they are developing an operational plan to demonstrate their capability by firing four such rockets, the Hwasong-12, at or close to Guam, an island in the pacific which is U.S. territory, home to Anderson Air Force base.
According to Stratfor’s Rodger Baker, the United States will do everything it can to stop North Korea from building a credible capability to threaten the United States. Together with South Korea, the U.S. routinely runs military training exercises and overflies North Korea with planes from Anderson.
The apparent logic of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is that with a credible nuclear threat, the United States will not invade his country. This is the lesson that he appears to have drawn from the invasion of Iraq and the fate of Saddam Hussein.
To the dismay of his own military advisors, Secretary of State, and the South Koreans, Trump made an apparently improvised threat to meet any North Korean aggression with “fire and fury like the world has never seen ..”.
As can be expected, South Korea is very much alarmed by the situation. I have been to the capital of South Korea, Seoul, which is only 35 miles from the North Korean border. While experts question whether North Korean rockets could really make it all the way to Guam or even Alaska, Seoul could clearly be destroyed in the event of war.
Although the internal situation in Venezuela is terrible, it is far from clear how the opposition and the government of Nicolàs Maduro will ever find common ground. In a post on the topic I argued that the best solution would be for the Organization of American States to intervene but expressed the concern that if the United States were to do so it might generate sympathy for Maduro and his gang.
In another set of apparently unprepared remarks, Trump made reference to the terrible situation in Venezuela and said three times that his administration was looking at a military option. Later on he refused to take a call from Maduro. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence is in the region and was told by Juan Manuel Santos that “the possibility of military intervention shouldn’t even be considered” according to CNN.
While I will leave the detailed geo-political calculations to people Rodger Baker, the most concerning aspect of these two issues is that the President’s remarks appear to be improvisations and both came at news conferences which were supposed to be about different things. Journalists ask questions about current events but world leaders need to respond in a measured way, especially when talking about war and peace.