Trump’s ‘new American moment’: Paving the way to a ‘bloody nose’ for North Korea?

Special to

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — Don’t count on the Winter Olympics as the moment for rapprochement on the Korean peninsula. That message came through loud and clear in President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. “Our new American moment,” as Trump called this turbulent time in U.S. history, does not mean happy talk and dialogue with America’s enemies.

In his speech, Trump saved his denunciation of North Korea for last, the climactic moment in a speech that lasted an hour and 20 minutes. Probably no moment in the speech was more memorable than the image of North Korean defector Ji Seong-Ho standing and waving his crutches as Trump hailed him as “an inspiration to us all” for the terrible suffering he endured, loss of limbs, the torture, the death of his father, before he finally made his great escape.

Defense Decretary James Mattis at the Demilatirized Zone on the border between North and South Korea. Jung Yeon-je / AFP via Getty Images

The story was a moving one, as was the tribute Trump paid to the memory of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was imprisoned in North Korea, then was returned near death to his home in Ohio, only to die several days later. The image of his weeping mother, standing beside his father, ranked along with that of Ji Seong-Ho as another incredible moment as Trump dramatized his speech with carefully chosen examples, none better than that of Ji’s ordeal as “a testament to the yearning of a very human soul to live in freedom.”

If the images were compelling, however, so was the realization that the perpetual near-crisis on the Korean Peninsula is not easing just because North Korea is sending an outsized delegation of cheerleaders, performers and officials, not to mention a few athletes, to PyeongChang and Gangneung next week. If Trump did not mention America’s alliance with South Korea, as he has often done before, it was only because he did not want to say a word that might invite a deluge of recriminations from the North that might actually jeopardize the Games.

The omission of South Korea from the speech was a concession to the sensitivities of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. In the run-up to the opening ceremony, any mention of the alliance, of standing fast together against the North, of the “ironclad” bond between the U.S. and South Korea would definitely not have fit in with the mood of the moment in Seoul.

Trump may also have toned down his words somewhat, at least not threatening to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, as he did in the United Nations a few months ago, but his words were still totally uncompromising.

“We face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia,” he said, but what about North Korea? Just as I was thinking he might go easy on the North, the words poured out. “No regime has oppressed its citizens more brutally than North Korea,” he declared. Promising “an extreme of maximum pressure,” he vowed not to “repeat the past mistakes of past administrations” ― a reference to his presidential predecessors for failing to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.

So what’s going on? How really tough is Trump willing to get? Hours before Trump’s speech we got some clues with news that Victor Cha, a distinguished professor at Georgetown who served in the presidency of George W. Bush as an adviser on Korean affairs, would not be named as the American ambassador to South Korea.

What happened? Why would Cha, the author of books and studies on the North, not get the job for which he seemed eminently qualified?

A conservative, Cha faced criticism from liberals for having appeared critical if not hard-line against the North ― just what the Trump team would have wanted.

In fact, however, Cha appears to have lost out because he wasn’t hard-line enough. It seems, he did not think a pre-emptive strike against North Korea would be such a good idea, and he had spoken out against giving North Korea “a bloody nose” by surgical strikes against its nuclear and missile facilities. That advice would seem quite realistic and reasonable, but evidently it wasn’t what those around Trump wanted to hear.

Oh yes, there was another problem too. Cha has warned against disrupting KORUS, the U.S. -Korea Free Trade Agreement.

Earlier in his speech, Trump remarked, “America has turned it back on decades of unfair trade deals. ” From now on, he said, “We expect trading relationships to be fair and very importantly reciprocal. ”

No doubt he had America’s huge deficit with China uppermost in his mind, but Trump also was signaling tough talks on KORUS with which Cha might not have been fully on board.

For Korea, the message is clear. Watch out. After the fun and games of the Olympics are over, we may be in for some tough times ― not just America’s moment but moments of tension for Korea and the region.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades.