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Tomgram: Rajan Menon, A Second Korean War?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Honestly, how many times in your life have you ever run across a headline like this: "Top general says he would resist 'illegal' nuke order from Trump"? That was Air Force General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, the present commander of American nuclear forces, speaking at a conference in Canada last November. I mean, this has assumedly been an issue with every recent president for whom the nuclear "football," aka "button" -- actually a relatively mundane briefcase -- was always on hand. Any of them had the singular ability to order the American nuclear arsenal into play (a deeply inappropriate word for what would follow but in the spirit of "football").

We've just taken a step or two back from a potential fire-and-fury moment on the Korean peninsula, with most eyes focused on North Korea. There, a strange autocrat with a bizarre hairdo has been bragging about the nuclear "button" on his desk, while overseeing his country's testing of long-range missiles and what may have been its first hydrogen bomb. It's the sort of thing that could leave anyone edgy. And if that makes you nervous, consider this: on the other side of the planet, a strange figure with autocratic tendencies and a bizarre hairdo, a "very stable genius," has been bragging about his own "button" and, unlike the North Koreans, we know that the nukes in his arsenal are quite capable of hitting their targets.

Worse yet, as the Guardian reported recently, that arsenal, already the biggest on the planet, is about to be made significantly more "usable" in the age of Trump. His administration's upcoming Nuclear Posture Review, the first in eight years, will reportedly lift constraints on the kinds of situations (including non-nuclear ones) in which American nuclear weapons might be used, while focusing on producing a new, low-yield, more "usable" warhead and other so-called tactical nukes. This is frightening stuff for an arsenal already undergoing a 30-year, possibly $1.7 trillion upgrade. Mind you, the saddest story of all is that while The Donald has openly exhibited a strange fascination with nukes and their power to destroy, he's otherwise been in remarkably good company. After all, our last president -- you know, the one who gave that 2009 speech about a "world without nuclear weapons" and got the Nobel Prize for his abolitionist stand -- somehow managed to oversee the launching of that 30-year nuclear "modernization" program before leaving office.

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So, yes, worry about North Korea and its unnerving leader. But worry more about whether General Hyten would really find an order to use nukes "illegal" and resist it. And while you're at it, join TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon in considering the most anxiety-producing place on the planet right now, that focus of tweet storms (and possibly storms of a far more consequential kind), the Korean peninsula. Tom

Avoiding Armageddon in Korea
Or Launching a War for the Ages
By Rajan Menon

Most people intuitively get it. An American preventive strike to wipe out North Korea's nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, or a commando raid launched with the same goal in mind, is likely to initiate a chain of events culminating in catastrophe. That would be true above all for the roughly 76 million Koreans living on either side of the Demilitarized Zone. Donald Trump, though, seems unperturbed. His recent contribution to defusing the crisis there: boasting that his nuclear button is "bigger and more powerful" than that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

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The president's high school locker-room braggadocio provided rich material for comedians and maybe for shrinks. Meanwhile, there remains the continuing danger of a war in the Koreas, whether premeditated or triggered accidently by a ship seized, an aircraft downed, a signal misread... you get the picture. No serious person could dismiss this scenario, but even the experts who track the evidence closely for a living differ on just how probable it is. In part, that's because, like everyone else, they must reckon with a colossal wild card -- and I'm not talking about Kim Jong-un.

The Pessimists

On one side are those who warn that President Trump isn't blowing smoke when he talks, or tweets, about destroying North Korea's nuclear warheads and missiles, the infrastructure supporting them, and possibly even the whole country. By now, it's common knowledge that his national security officials -- civilian and military (the distinction having blurred in the Trump era) -- have been crafting plans to strike before that country's nuclear arsenal becomes fully operational.

No one who listened to PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff interviewing National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster just after the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy in December could simply dismiss the warnings as those of so many Cassandras. McMaster dutifully summarized that document, which included a pledge to "respond with overwhelming force to North Korean aggression and improve options to compel denuclearization." When Woodruff then asked whether he believed war was becoming more likely by the day, he agreed, adding that "the president has asked us to continue to refine a military option, should we need to use it."

Others who should be in the know have offered even scarier prognoses. During an interview with ABC News on the last day of 2017, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen claimed that, while McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis had stayed Trump's hand so far, their ability to continue to restrain such a "disruptive" and "unpredictable" president was diminishing. "We're actually closer to nuclear war with North Korea and in that region," he concluded, "than we've ever been."

Then there's Trump himself. He has long since moved from saying, as he did last May, that he would "be honored" to meet Kim Jong-un "under the right circumstances" to warning, in August, that if North Korea threatened the United States, it would "be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." In September, he upped the ante again in a speech to the U.N., declaring that he would "have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea" if that were needed to defend the United States.

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Left unspecified was Trump's definition of "defend." Would additional North Korean nuclear and missile tests pose a sufficient threat for him to order a preventive war? Was his red line a fully operational North Korean nuclear force? Or did he mean that he would retaliate in kind only if Pyongyang were to attack the United States, Japan, or South Korea with nuclear weapons? If either the first or second scenario represents his threshold, then Mullen's dire assessment can't be discounted as hyperbole. If it's the third, the world can breathe a bit easier for now, since there's no conceivable reason for Kim Jong-un to attack a country with nuclear weapons, least of all the United States, except in response to the potential destruction of his state.

In his latest gyration, having failed to scare Kim into denuclearization, Trump has welcomed talks between Seoul and Pyongyang that he had only recently discounted and, predictably, taken credit for a turn of events that has sidelined him. He even suggested that the United States could eventually join the negotiations, meant in part to prevent a conflict during the February Winter Olympics in Seoul, and reacted positively to the possibility that they might continue even after the games end.

Of course, this president can turn on a dime, so such words mean next to nothing and should offer no solace. After all, on two occasions he derided Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to defuse the crisis through negotiations, declaring, "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he's wasting his time trying to negotiate with little Rocket Man. Save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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