Global Watch

Trump escalate danger of nuclear war

Donald Trump.jpg

Trump’s warning that North Korea faces "total destruction” if the US is “forced to defend itself or its allies” signals a dangerous escalation of a possible nuclear exchange.

The irony was unmistakable.

Last week’s 72nd session of the United Nation’s 193-member General Assembly (UNGA) was intended to mark the beginning of a new era in the world’s history in the opposite direction.

After years of protracted, at times difficult negotiations, is was to signal the start of the ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – attending heads of states, or their representatives, signing the treaty to ultimately free the world of nuclear weapons.

Ironic and overshadowed

Ironically, some would argue fittingly, the historical event took place against the backdrop of a nuclear stand-off and associated tension last experienced in 1962 during the Cuban Missile crisis.

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, during his opening address at the UNGA session, warned that the threat of a nuclear attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War with the "nuclear peril" the main threat to world peace.

Overshadowing the celebration of the putting together of the TPNW was, however, US president Donald Trump’s first appearance and speech at the UN.

Fitting for the situation the response went ballistic.

For is supporters it was one of the best ever by a US president at the UN. For his critics – by far in the majority – the worst ever.

The Swedish Foreign Minister described it as “the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.” For the Iranian foreign minister, whose country was heavily criticized by Trump, said “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times — not the 21st Century UN.”

The speech

Dissected word by word, his reference to “America first,” and rejection of globalism and emphasis on the benefits of sovereignty, nationalism, and patriotism led to much commentary, however, his warning to North Korea of "total destruction” if the US is “forced to defend itself or its allies” was met with the strongest reaction.

Equally contentious was His reference to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, as “a rocket man on a suicide mission for himself and his regime."

Kim took it as a personal insult and vowed to take the “highest level of hardline countermeasure in history.” Since an exchange of insults followed, which could have been comical if was two school boy bullies arguing.

Significant

Significantly, both South Korea and Japan, the two countries that will suffer most should a nuclear exchange materialize, were supportive of Trump.

Particularly so, South Korea’s President Moon – Jae In, who came to power in May this year on a platform of more engagement with North Korea, and guarded of Trump’s belligerent approach towards North Korea, after the impeachment of his predecessor.

Moon said the speech "… clearly showed how seriously the United States government views North Korea's nuclear program and reaffirmed that North Korea should be made to realize (that) denuclearisation is the only way to the future through utmost sanctions and pressure."

Japan’s responded even more forthright. While “greatly appreciating President Trump’s approach to changing North Korea’s policy stance” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “there is not much time left” to take action on North Korea.

 Rallying behind Trump, Prime Minister Abe, certainly influenced by the fact that North Korea recently fired a series of missiles over Japan, also declared that “the time for dialogue is over” and warned that "all options are available to deal with North Korea.”

Stark contrast

In stark contrast, and revealing the existing rift amongst America’s allies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not hold back, stating that she was in "clear disagreement” with President Trump over his threat to destroy North Korea.

“We believe that any kind of military solution is completely deficient and we support diplomatic efforts, she said and gave notice that Germany “would not watch passively as the North Korean crisis unfolds.”

Trump and Merkel are not the best of friends, and although their personal dislikes will most likely not sour relations between the two powerful nations, Merkel’s standpoint, and call for a diplomatic solution, with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a possible template, will certainly irk Trump after he called the Iran accord an "embarrassment" for the US.

French President Macron and UN Secretary-General Guterres share Merkel’s view, and the latter said a solution to the North Korean crisis must be political, saying: "This is a time for statesmanship" and warned that "fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings."

Downside

There is a downside to Trump’s aggressive talk personally insulting – locked into a path where he keeps issuing bombastic, vague threats – even downgrading Kim to  the “Little Rocket Man.”

Kim in turn, with his reputation at stake, is now far more unlikely to stand down and will continue to keep testing weapons because he knows it is almost inconceivable that Trump will unleash a nuclear attack.

North Korea’s foreign minister hinted at exactly this, saying in New York after the Trump speech, that his country might consider testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean soon.

Hydrogen bombs are far more powerful than atomic bombs, used by the US to force Japan’s capitulation in World War Two.

Testing a hydrogen device will signal a serious escalation. North Korea has so far conducted nuclear tests in underground chambers and ballistic-missile tests in the sky to contain radio – active fallout. A hydrogen test would be the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere in nearly 40 years, and besides the geopolitical implications, have a severe environmental impact with the release of uncontained radio- active material.

President Trump’s subsequent signing of an executive order, banning firms from operating in the US if they deal with North Korea, is a further attempt to tighten sanctions against North Korea, and proof that his finger is not yet close to pushing the nuclear button.

As the rhetoric and name-calling escalates the question, as the world holds its breath, remains – who is going to blink first?

by Garth Cilliers

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