Threats of annihilation and other inflammatory rhetoric play well with the home crowd and can be sold as “deterrence,” but in the case of North Korea are far more likely to provoke and escalate conflict. Given how clear this is from experience, McCain’s threats seem intended to do just that.
With the U.S. touting another round of unanimously-passed sanctions as the cure-all for the situation in North Korea (DPRK), there are grounds for concern that President Donald Trump himself may pose a major hurdle to their successful implementation. On Sunday, Trump told reporters that the sanctions were “just another very small step” and that they “are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen,” echoing his earlier rejections of diplomacy in favor of military force.
However, President Trump’s rhetoric and promises of escalation pale in comparison to recent statements made by the notoriously trigger-happy senator, John McCain. During a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” – his first public appearance since beginning treatment for brain cancer – McCain called for the U.S. to take more aggressive action towards North Korea, while simultaneously stating that further “aggressive” acts by North Korea would lead to the country’s complete annihilation.
McCain told the show’s host, Jake Tapper, that we need to “make sure that Kim Jong Un knows that if he acts in an aggressive fashion, the price will be extinction.”
The senator, who continues to hold his influential position as the chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, also called for increasing South Korea’s missile defenses as well as other capabilities — such as deploying nuclear weapons to South Korea.
“The Korean defense minister just a few days ago called for nuclear weapons to be redeployed,” McCain stated, adding he thought “it ought to be seriously considered.” The Korean defense minister, however, had not in fact called for the redeployment of nuclear weapons, instead stating that “the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons is an alternative worth a full review.”
For his part, Tapper seemed to find nothing wrong with any of McCain’s comments, including his overt call for genocide, and soon after changed the subject to Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA).
Watch | McCain’s entire interview with CNN
Deterrence or provocation?
While Trump and McCain claim that further shows of military force are necessary to convince North Korea’s leadership to renounce its nuclear weapons program, it is no mystery that such measures – as well as lighter measures such as tougher sanctions – will only further provoke the isolated nation and reinforce its sense that a nuclear deterrent is necessary to its preservation.
Indeed, after the latest round of sanctions was passed, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced:
The adoption of another illegal and evil ‘resolution on sanctions’ piloted by the U.S. served as an occasion for the DPRK to verify that the road it chose to go down was absolutely right. . . . The DPRK will redouble the efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and right to existence.”
This outcome was predicted by Russian President Vladimir Putin last Tuesday, when he stated:
The North Korean government is not going to change their policy, whereas millions of people will suffer” as a result of further sanctions.”
He later told reporters that North Korea “will eat grass but will not stop their [nuclear] program as long as they do not feel safe.”
North Korea has been open about the fact that it regards its nuclear weapons program as a deterrent to U.S. aggression, a consequence of the bloody Korean War of the 1950s that arbitrarily divided Korea in two, left millions dead, and installed the U.S. military as a permanent presence on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula. Despite its fear of U.S. aggression against it, North Korea has stated its willingness to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and its ballistic missile program if the U.S. were to stop its annual war games with South Korea and Japan hard by North Korean territory.
China and Russia have attempted several times to broker a diplomatic solution in which the U.S. would cease its semi-annual war games with South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s dismantling of its weapons programs and observing a development moratorium for years. The U.S., under Obama, and now Trump, has rejected that possibility at every opportunity.
Thus, diplomacy over the North Korean crisis has failed precisely because the U.S. has repeatedly chosen to let it fail. North Korea, long a U.S.-designated member of the “axis of evil,” has been targeted for regime change since the Korean war ended in a “stalemate.”
Essentially, McCain’s warning of “aggressive” acts and threats of annihilation appear intended not to deter but to provoke North Korea — pushing the tense situation to the brink of war, something McCain himself has long been rooting for.
Top photo | Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., walks from his Senate office as Congress returns from the August recess in Washington, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)