Trump addressed South Korea’s National Assembly in a rambling speech that contrasted the two Koreas by listing off familiar facts about both. Many observers watching it as it was being given last night were not impressed:
This is an objectively lousy speech, unstructured, repetitive at points, and of course delivered as if speaker is reading an unfamiliar text
— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) November 8, 2017
This is an inane speech. Could have been written for a high school newspaper.
— Frida Ghitis (@FridaGhitis) November 8, 2017
OMG. Now Trump is reading them the CIA World Factbook section on South Korea
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) November 8, 2017
There was little in the speech that was new or interesting. The part that mattered most rehearsed the administration’s dead-end approach to North Korea:
The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face [bold mine-DL].
North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves.
Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer — and we will do that — we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization [bold mine-DL].
A sky-top view of this peninsula shows a nation of dazzling light in the South and a mass of impenetrable darkness in the North. We seek a future of light, prosperity, and peace. But we are only prepared to discuss this brighter path for North Korea if its leaders cease their threats and dismantle their nuclear program [bold mine-DL].
This has been the administration’s official line for a while now, and it is wholly unrealistic. North Korea has said many times that its nuclear weapons and missile programs are not up for discussion. They consider them essential to their regime’s survival, and nothing Trump said in this speech would give them any incentive to give them up. On the contrary, Trump’s rhetoric implies that the U.S. might very well attack North Korea, which makes their nuclear arsenal and missiles all the more valuable to Kim as a deterrent. He said:
The world cannot tolerate the menace of a rogue regime that threatens with nuclear devastation.
Stating that such a regime can’t be tolerated implies that the administration is contemplating regime change. Trump claims to want “peace through strength,” but the demands he is making of North Korea strongly imply that he is open to waging preventive war.
Demanding “total denuclearization” and insisting that North Korea “dismantle” their program all together don’t convey strength, but show how divorced from reality administration policy is. Even Iran didn’t agree to dismantle their entire nuclear program, so it is foolish to think that North Korea would agree to much larger concessions in exchange for nothing. Trump isn’t interested in offering North Korea any incentives at all. He called on other countries to isolate North Korea, he endorsed more punitive measures, and imagined that it would be possible to force Pyongyang into capitulation through coordinated pressure from abroad:
We call on every nation, including China and Russia, to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, downgrade diplomatic relations with the regime, and sever all ties of trade and technology. It is our responsibility and our duty to confront this danger together, because the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows and the fewer the options become.
The governments that are most likely to heed this call are the ones that matter least, and the ones whose cooperation the U.S. needs will be the most likely to spurn it. Just as Trump has given North Korea no incentives to compromise, he has given these other governments no compelling reason to do what Washington wants. The president and his advisers seem to labor under the illusion that other states consider North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons to be as intolerable as they do and will therefore do whatever they ask in an effort to eliminate these weapons, but this is not the case. More to the point, it is not possible to eliminate those weapons without running an unacceptably high risk that some of those weapons are used in an avoidable war.
Trump’s speech was mostly forgettable, but the message he delivered to North Korea shows that the administration remains committed to pursuing an impossible goal at the risk of fighting an unnecessary and very costly war.