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March 28, 2017 15:12

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17:12 22 February 2017

OPINION: Trump tweets and nuclear risk on the Korean Peninsula

By Jeffrey Lewis
MONTEREY, Calif., Feb. 22, Kyodo

A decade ago, U.S. diplomats were repeatedly frustrated by then President Bush's off-the-cuff remarks about Kim Jong Il. Bush said he "loathed" Kim, calling him a "pygmy" and a "tyrant." Bush ruined so many negotiations that Jack Pritchard, one of his top diplomats, told people that Bush suffered from an unusual disease called "Kim-Jong-Il-itis" -- "a rare form of Tourette Syndrome in which, in an uncontrollable and unexplained manner, he will just explode and talk about Kim Jong Il; perhaps as his chief negotiator is, oh, say Tokyo, Beijing, talking up the advantages of a policy."

What a president says carries an enormous amount of weight. So, yes, Donald Trump can start a nuclear war with a tweet.

Today, North Korea is now on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons for its arsenal of ballistic missiles. North Korea plans to use those nuclear weapons first in a conflict, against any U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan, hoping to shock the United States and block an invasion.

The United States and South Korea, on the other hand, don't plan to wait for Kim to give that order. Washington plans for a massive, preemptive use of force to eliminate North Korea's leadership before it can use nuclear weapons.

And Seoul, not quite trusting the United States, has its own plan to use ballistic and cruise missiles to kill Kim if Seoul thinks the United States is moving too slowly.

Think about this for a moment. Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington all plan to go first in a conflict. In fact, each of them has a war plan that depends on being first.

And yet two of these leaders are wrong. That means that any crisis on the Korean Peninsula could escalate very quickly, since no one wants to go second. This is a very delicate situation. Now add Donald Trump.

In February 2016, Donald Trump was asked about Kim Jon Un. This is what he said -- "I would get China to make that guy disappear in one form or another very quickly."

No one paid much attention to the threat. Trump wasn't the president and there was no crisis at the time. But now he is president.

And there will surely be at least one crisis with North Korea.

Now imagine that Kim Jong Un is deciding whether to use nuclear weapons to repel an invasion and worried that the United States or South Korea plans to kill him.

What if Donald Trump tweets, at that moment, that he plans to make Kim Jong Un disappear? If you were Kim, would you wait to find out if he's bluffing?

Or would you use your nuclear weapons before it is too late?

I don't want to find out.

(Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey)




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