WASHINGTON — Americans are so fixated on the issues of health care and Russia that tightening sanctions on North Korea almost escapes notice. One minute the networks are vying with one another on what passes as “analysis” on President Trump’s efforts to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare, and the next they’re covering the latest “revelation” of whatever Trump and his family members and friends might have asked or told the Russians.
Foreigners should be forgiven if they simply cannot understand what’s going on. Certainly Trump isn’t coming clean on all the ins and outs of his relationship with Russia while berating his attorney general, once a faithful ally, for having recused himself from the investigation and naming a special prosecutor, a much respected former FBI director whom Trump is also attacking.
And I would bet not one American in 1,000 or maybe 10,000 has a clue as to how Trumpcare improves on Obamacare and why Trump is trying so hard to ram it through a reluctant Congress.
As for expanding sanctions on North Korea, they come almost as an afterthought in a bill that the lower house of Congress passed overwhelmingly for one reason that has nothing to do with the North. The bill, while increasing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, would keep Trump from reducing them on Russia. The fear is he might want to soften anti-Russian sanctions in the interests of U.S.-Russian amity. It will be interesting to see if the Senate agrees and the bill becomes law.
The specter of a conservative U.S. president selling out to Moscow seems incredible to one who remembers the Cold War era when American rightists were accusing leftists of “Communist sympathies” and betraying the United States. Now Russia again is the American bogeyman, and Trump is a primary suspect in collusion. That fear may be totally unfounded, as certainly Trump insists, but it does show how the American mood has shifted over the generation since the demise of Communist rule.
So how does North Korea get into the act? The prevailing view here is that North Korea has many ways to evade sanctions and the bill would plug some of the holes by banning import of products made by North Korean “slave labor” while blockading ships from countries doing business with the North. The language is so vague, however, that these reinforced sanctions may represent very little change from existing sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
Nor is anyone saying what exactly the United States will do if North Korea, in defiance of all sanctions and threats, goes on testing long-range missiles capable of sending nuclear warheads to Alaska or even the U.S. west coast. At what stage will Trump give up totally on China restraining North Korea? Might he decide a pre-emptive strike is what’s needed to stop the North Korean nuke-and-missile program despite the danger of retaliation in the form of artillery strikes on the South?
The betting remains that Trump is not about to open Korean War II, but reports from China are alarming. For months now we’ve been hearing that China is building up its forces north of the Yalu and Tumen rivers just as they did in the fall of 1950. Credit the Wall Street Journal with summarizing current Chinese moves in a front-page article this week. The Chinese may not like the North Koreans, and vice versa, but they do place top priority on a “stable” North Korea as a buffer between China and U.S. forces in South Korea.
North Korea contributes to the unease with rhetoric that matches live-fire tests. The other day, North Korean propaganda said the Americans were plotting “regime change” and warned of the punishment that would ensue. I don’t know of anyone who realistically thinks “regime change” is about to happen even if U.S. forces play war games in which “decapitation” of the North Korean leader is the final goal. Never mind North Korea’s promises to rain death and destruction on the United States while Kim Jong-un tests his missiles.
It is hoped all this rhetoric is meaningless. It would not be nice for Washington’s quarreling factions suddenly to discover they had a war on their hands while they were busy reading the latest Trump tweet about the nasty media or his political foes. The latest sanctions should set off alarm bells about a deepening confrontation that most people here prefer to ignore.