A Korean War of Words

The conflict in Korea has often been called America’s “forgotten war.”

That may be because there was really no resolution or peace treaty  — no winner, no loser.  Instead, a 1953 armistice left a dictatorship in the North and a democracy in the South.

For years, the Korean War stayed in the background for many Americans — a conflict only real, in some respects, to those who survived the fighting and the family and friends of those who died.

But now the specter of an outbreak of hostilities is greater than ever before. And the stakes are higher… much higher.

North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. When the United Nations Security Council unanimously (and that means with the blessing of China and Russia), imposed tough sanctions, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded like a cornered animal, threatening retaliation against the United States.

It seems President Trump heard that rhetoric from Pyongyang and decided to answer in kind, with a threat of his own to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea.

The words were classic Trump — the kind of thing he would say to energize his political base. But it was not necessarily the most diplomatic response; especially coming on a day when reports surfaced that North Korea may now have a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on the tip of a ballistic missile.

The North Koreans seemed only too happy to get into a shouting match with the President, and countered with a new threat to attack U.S. military facilities on the Pacific island of Guam. Then Trump responded via social media, retweeting news coverage of his earlier remarks.

It sounded discordant…like two bullies going back and forth. As noted U.S. presidential historian Michael Beschloss told the Associated Press: “It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme words in a crisis.”

Within hours, there were statements of concern from around the world. In Germany, for example, the foreign ministry warned of “rhetorical escalation” and “saber rattling” and urged restraint. In Beijing, a Chinese spokesman made similar comments to America’s CBS television network.

Let’s just say a lot of people probably had a sleepless night after all that — including, perhaps, the three retired generals who now serve at the top of the Trump administration: White House chief of staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

As for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, well, it fell to him to dial back the rhetoric. Speaking to reporters at the tail end of a trip to Asia, he said Donald Trump was speaking “in language Kim Jong-un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”

The exchange with the press took place during a flight to a scheduled refueling stop in — of all places — Guam. Tillerson said he never thought about changing his route, adding “I do not believe that there is any imminent threat.” He also said Americans can sleep well.

So is all this “fire and fury” just Trump being Trump?

Fareed Zakaria, a foreign policy analyst and CNN program host thinks so. He said the President’s remarks on North Korea are “empty rhetoric” that will not be followed by deeds. Meanwhile, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight web site — a statistician known for his on-target political predictions — tweeted “I worry that Trump might think it’s good politics to provoke a conflict.”

Whatever, it now appears that those “fire and fury” remarks — delivered by President Trump at his New Jersey golf resort — were improvised on the spot. The New York Times says among those taken by surprise was White House chief of staff Kelly, who has been with the president throughout his “working vacation.”

It’s the talk of the town right now in Washington. A lot of people are speaking out including all those analysts, historians and the like.

But there are some voices that can’t be heard and I wish they could.

I found them the other day on a run along the Potomac River. It was almost evening in that golden hour right before sunset when I deviated from my waterfront route and reached the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall.

The memorial is made up of a series of larger-than-life statues of soldiers trudging through a field, weighed down by the burdens of battle. I saw those faces and thought of the men and women on all sides that fought and died in this war that never really ended.

As I slowly walked by, I noticed that these faces in bronze were a bit damp — the result, perhaps, of an earlier rain shower.

But I prefer to think of those droplets as tears from those who gave so much. They must be worried about the Korean “war of words” of today.

About the Author

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Paula Wolfson
Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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