Out of the menace, misery and geopolitical morass of North Korea, President Trump brought us a stirring moment Tuesday evening, in his State of the Union address. The president introduced a defector from North Korea, seated in the audience, Ji Seong-ho, and told the story of how Ji “traveled thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom.” Speaking to Ji, Trump said, “I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.”
Ji Seong-ho, who as a boy suffered the loss of a leg and an arm while trying to survive North Korea’s famine of the 1990s, stood up, clearly holding back tears, and held aloft his old wooden crutches.
As Trump summed it up: “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
It was not solely an inspiring moment, but also an in-your-face warning to North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un and his dynastic, totalitarian regime. On that score, Trump had plenty more to say. Devoting more than a dozen paragraphs of his speech to North Korea, Trump spelled out that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
He drew the connection between Pyongyang’s human rights atrocities and the threat of its nuclear missile program: “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.” He welcomed — also among the audience — the grieving family of an American victim of North Korea, Otto Warmbier, describing Warmbier’s parents and siblings as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.” Warmbier was an American college student who was arrested in early 2016 while on a tourist trip to North Korea. He was sentenced by North Korea to 15 years of hard labor, mortally mistreated in custody and finally released last June to be flown home to die. Trump told the Warmbier family — and the world — “we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.”
All this has induced a certain amount of alarm among a number of American commentators who are terrified that Trump might be itching for a hot war with North Korea. A prime example of this panic is Michelle Goldberg’s column in the New York Times, headlined “Trump’s Boring, Utterly Terrifying Warmongering.” By this account, Trump was using Otto Warmbier’s death “to propagandize for war” and exploiting the brave defector Ji Seong-ho, a Christian convert who now lives in Seoul, to enlist Trump’s “evangelical base” in a “crusade” to sleepwalk into “Armageddon.”
Please spare us. The problem here is not Trump, but North Korea — which has been arming itself with nuclear weapons, testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and threatening strikes on the United States and our allies. It requires no mind-reading abilities to see that Trump in his State of the Union was not urging us on to Armageddon, but striving to avoid exactly that.
In highlighting vital truths about the depravity and menace of North Korea’s regime, and warning that America will no longer consent to be threatened and played by Pyongyang, Trump was deploying one of the most basic tools for averting war. It’s called deterrence. It entails making credible threats in order to discourage your enemy from hostile actions.
In facing down North Korea, a major problem for the U.S. today is that Pyongyang has plenty of reasons to write off U.S. threats as bluffs, and discount America’s military — for all its might — as fundamentally impotent to stop North Korea’s rogue nuclear program. In this game of chicken, the U.S. over many years has repeatedly blinked.
The responsibility lies with a parade of previous U.S. presidents, each of whom kicked that infamous can down the road. But the can-kicking reached its zenith under President Obama, whose eight years in the White House were marked by precious little interest in deterrence, a great squandering abroad of American credibility and virtually no serious effort to stop North Korea. Obama snubbed America’s allies and stretched out his hand to America’s enemies, on an eight-year binge of apology and appeasement, from the 2009 “reset” with Russia to the 2016 secret shipment of $1.7 billion in cash to Iran. For purposes of dealing with North Korea — or, more accurately, not dealing with it — Obama largely sidelined the issue and packaged his neglect of American security as “strategic patience.”
North Korea, during those years of Obama’s “patience,” did not stand still. On the contrary, North Korea’s regime managed a transition of power in late 2011 from father (the late Kim Jong Il) to son (Kim Jong Un) and dramatically accelerated its nuclear missile program, carrying out four nuclear tests (in 2009, 2013, and two in 2016), honing its missiles, bulking up its nuclear arsenal and flaunting a program to launch nuclear missiles from submarines.
By the time Trump was elected, in November, 2016, North Korea had become so dangerous that Obama, on his way out of office, reportedly warned Trump that North Korea’s nuclear missile program was probably the most urgent problem he would face.
True enough. But you couldn’t have guessed it from Obama’s State of the Union addresses during those years in which the North Korean threat was becoming so dangerously urgent. Obama made brief mention of North Korea in his first two State of the Union speeches, in 2010 and 2011. After that, he simply scrubbed it from the SOTU radar.
Specifically, in Obama’s first State of the Union address, in 2010, his sole mention of North Korea came by way of lauding his administration’s diplomacy for having inflicted on North Korea “increased isolation and stronger sanctions.” In 2011, he devoted one sentence to North Korea, saying “we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.” After that, in his SOTU addresses of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Obama made no direct mention of North Korea at all.
The omission in Obama’s final State of the Union address, delivered on Jan. 13, 2016, is especially striking. Just a week before that speech, North Korea had detonated its fourth nuclear test (the third test on Obama’s watch), claiming it was a hydrogen bomb. Just 10 months later, Obama was busy warning president-elect Trump that North Korea was probably the most urgent problem on America’s foreign-policy docket. But in Obama’s final State of the Union address, the priorities appeared rather different. Obama lauded his global partnerships, touted his Iran nuclear deal and celebrated his restoration of U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba. North Korea just didn’t come up.
If the aim was to avoid inciting Kim Jong Un to further mischief, I think we can safely pronounce that approach a colossal failure. North Korea went on to conduct yet another nuclear test during Obama’s final year as president, along with a barrage of missile tests. By the time Trump took office last January, North Korea had progressed far enough in its nuclear ventures to be just six months shy of its first successful ICBM tests, which it carried out last July; followed last September by its most powerful nuclear detonation yet, which it advertised as a hydrogen bomb.
The urgent challenge for Trump is to stop North Korea — and, if there is any way still possible after all the can-kicking of his predecessors, to do it without starting a hot war. For this to have any chance of success, a vital step is to to claw back some power of deterrence; to demonstrate to Pyongyang that America is no longer bluffing, will no longer be played, is unwilling to blink. Short of attacking North Korea, how does he convince Pyongyang that he’s quite willing to do so?
It’s a tall order. But Trump’s decision to put North Korea front and center in the foreign policy section of his first State of the Union address was a strong move in the right direction. It was a break with the years of blinkered omission. It was, in its way, a brilliant show of force. The promise, to the Warmbiers, to honor their son’s memory. The defector from North Korea, standing up as a free man. The message from a president at the podium of the U.S. Capitol, to Kim Jong Un, that he’d better revise his calculus about American resolve.
It will take a lot more than words to end the North Korean regime’s monstrous threats to the world and oppression of its own people. But as far as words can matter, these were the right words.