Can you believe that the Pentagon did not know the US president was planning to bill the South Koreans for an advanced missile defense system that’s just been set up in Seoul?
Can you believe that the US president wants to charge an ally for defence against a madman (Kim Jong Un of North Korea) and the alternative will be war by a madman (Donald J Trump of the US)?
Buzzfeed has reported the Pentagon’s bewilderment, and if true, it just seems to show that President Donald Trump’s improvisational foreign policy is really quite outrageous. And dangerous.
On Sunday, April 30, he said he wasn’t sure if Mr Kim was “sane” but he certainly was “a pretty smart cookie”. And he said he was “not going to be very happy” if North Korea conducted further test, but wouldn’t say if that would mean military action. “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see,” said Mr Trump, probably thinking he sounded wise and impenetrable.
Instead, he sounded frighteningly blase about the prospect of firing missiles at North Korea, with horrifying consequences for South Korea and Japan.
Here’s why the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea is very worrying:
** Because South Korea is in the midst of a presidential election, which is scheduled for May 9. It’s unwise in the extreme to start demanding $1 billion for what Mr Trump calls this “phenomenal” system that “shoots missiles right out of the sky”. (He has also unilaterally declared he intends to “renegotiate or terminate” the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, irritating a key ally at precisely the moment he needs Seoul’s cooperation against North Korea.)
** The expensive new missile defense system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), is already politically divisive in South Korea
** The leading presidential candidate in South Korea, Moon Jae-in, is less of a fan of the US than the other party
** Mr Moon has already described paying for the US setting up THAAD an “impossible option”
** finally, and very clearly, as Buzzfeed puts it, the US and South Korea “don’t bill one another on a weapon-by-weapon basis”. There’s a 1953 mutual defense treaty that “says the two nations would come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack and allows the US to station troops on the Peninsula.” Also, the South Koreans don’t get to keep the THAAD permanently.
The end result of all this tough-guy pay-me-for-protection routine is that it could backfire. The South Koreans could elect Mr Moon, tell the US to take a hike (and its THAAD with it), cosy up to Mr Kim (and the Chinese) all the while laughing at American chagrin about its waning influence.
Or there could be war.
As David Sanger wrote in The New York Times on Saturday: “The fear is that small acts and mutual threats of war can lead to miscalculation. Only hours before Mr. Trump spoke, the North released a propaganda video showing the White House shattering apart in what looked like a nuclear blast. No one takes those videos seriously, but they indicate a state of mind in which every action has to have a reaction.”
As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker says: Mr Trump is “not necessarily insane, but potentially dangerous. His loose lips may have had no rival in presidential history. Thus, when he casually mentions that a conflagration with the crazier-than-thou Kim Jong Un may be imminent, I’m a tiny bit terrified.”