Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON ― A lot of people here, from right to left politically, think war on the Korean peninsula is imminent.
Kim Jong-Un, they say, is eager to order a seventh nuclear test as well as test shots of intercontinental ballistic missiles. And would not President Trump love to stage a “preemptive strike” to frustrate Kim’s grand design — or at least attack in retaliation after Kim had already gotten away with a few more tests?
Maybe, but believe it or not the U.S. is in no position to risk Korean War II, to stage a “preemptive strike,” even if President Trump ordered one. His “generals,” of whom he’s been known to speak so highly, would have to advise him of certain realities. Those great U.S.-South Korean war games we keep hearing about, those flights of the dreaded B-1 bomber just below the North-South line, the spectacle of the world’s biggest, best aircraft carriers off the South Korean east and west coasts may all be impressive, maybe frightening, but they’re for show, for intimidation, for training.
The U.S. Department of Defense, it may surprise friends and foes alike, is running out of money. Pentagon planners are going crazy having to deal with “continuing resolutions” passed by the U.S Congress providing funds enough to pay and feed troops, keep bases open and cover the costs of all that equipment for about 15 days.
While the Congress debates a budget for slashing costs and expenditures, the U.S. armed forces exist on one resolution after another. In the meantime, the generals and admirals complain, dozens of planes are grounded and at least 15 warships cannot leave their home ports.
Moreover, even after a regular budget is adopted and Pentagon planners know how much they have to throw around, as retired Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson, who often visited Korea as commander of all the marines in Japan, reminded a small group of Korea-watchers, the U.S. would have to ship far more equipment, troops too, before Trump could go to war in Korea.
Gregson gives the impression he knows what he’s talking about as he enumerates the exact number of ships, planes and other costly items that simply can’t be used for lack of funding. In the meantime, he goes along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s declaration that “lines of communication” are open and we’re ready to talk to the North Koreans any time.
“Talking doesn’t mean we’re recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state,” he observed. “It just means we’re rejecting for the time being the option of a ‘preemptive strike.'”
In other words, while negotiators are at the table debating their positions, the U.S. is not going to attack the North. And if current policies and realities are any guide, the U.S. isn’t going to go on the warpath against North Korea, even if Kim sends more shockwaves around the world by testing another nuclear warhead or intercontinental ballistic missile. The logical conclusion is the U.S. is waiting for Kim actually to hit some American targets, maybe the new U.S. base complex at Pyongtaek southwest of Seoul, definitely within easy range of the kind of short-range missiles that North Korea exported in the good old days to Libya, Iraq, Syria and maybe a few others.
In a waiting game, one of the participants has to “do something” before another participant does “something” first. “We’re always searching for leverage,” said Gregson.
The waiting game will probably go on for quite a while. In the meantime, Gregson is calling for more emphasis on the issue of human rights, on diplomatic pressure, on building up the strength of South Korean forces. We’ve heard all that before, of course, but Gregson is confident there’s much more to do.
“If we’re going to start talking,” he said, “we need to talk from a position of undoubted strength.” Given that requirement, Gregson opposes suggestions for cancelling or cutting back on military exercises in return for North Korea agreeing not to test more nukes and missiles. “We’ve done these,” he noted. “They always cheat.”
It’s seen as highly unlikely, however, that Kim would be so stupid as to order a missile shot anywhere near any American base. He’s got to be fully aware that Trump would like nothing better than for North Korea to attack since he would then have the pretext for firing back — delivering the “fire and fury” promised in his UN speech a couple of months ago regardless of advice about what it takes to wage a sustained war.
Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades.