According to a recent NBC/Survey Monkey poll, two thirds of Americans are worried that President Donald Trump will lead the nation into war. In the beginning of Trump's term, most of the discussion centered on military action against Iran or the Islamic State group. Iran and terrorism were the major foreign policy issues in the presidential campaign. American wartime involvement throughout the past generation has been centered in the Persian Gulf or Afghanistan. Adding to this was Trump's stepped up military action in Yemen, and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan. However, given recent events, America's next war may be closer to home.
There were early signs concerning Korea. Secretary of Defense John Mattis' first foreign trip was not to the Middle East or Europe, but to Asia with North Korea topping his agenda. Shortly thereafter another trip to Asia was made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He said that pre-emptive military action against North Korea is an option, and further talks with them are not. Last month saw a failed North Korea missile launch, and four successful launches into the Sea of Japan. This month saw another failed missile launch, and new warnings by the Trump administration from various officials including Vice President Mike Pence's visit to South Korea.
There continues to be the hope that China could reign in North Korea since China does have an interest in a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. However, China has no interest in a destabilized North Korea that could flood its border with refugees, or a Korean peninsula unified under a pro-American government in Seoul. As a result, China finds itself implementing conflicting policies such as banning coal imports from North Korea while overall trade between these two countries has increased. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded by continuing to pursue its nuclear armament policy while sharply criticizing China.
In the meantime, China raised strong objections to both the U.S. and South Korean governments. The U.S. recently deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea. Several years ago, the THAAD system was deployed to Guam as a response to North Korea's rising missile and nuclear capability. The land in South Korea for their THAAD system was provided by the Lotte corporation which has duty free stores in Guam, and retail operations throughout Asia including China. In what has been viewed as possible retaliation, 74 of Lotte's 99 stores in China reportedly have been closed because of supposed violations of fire regulations.
U.S. and South Korea relations at this sensitive time have not gone smoothly either. After a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump commented that "Korea used to be a part of China," which is historically incorrect. For a host of reasons, including national pride, Trump's comment caused a huge furor in South Korea, including demonstrations at the U.S. embassy and a public rebuke to Trump by the South Korean Foreign Ministry. This incident came on the heels of yet another controversy that has rattled South Korean public opinion. The Trump administration had earlier announced that a U.S. Navy carrier task force was being sent to Korea when in reality it was heading in the opposite direction toward Australia.
Still, Kim Jong Un publicly claimed that his country was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States, and this month staged a vast military parade hinting at its capability. These actions, along with other provocations by North Korea, have led many in Washington to conclude that pre-emptive military action is the only way of stopping North Korea from threatening the region and America's West Coast with nuclear missiles. However, there is the concern that even a surgical military strike will lead to a full scale regional war with possible Chinese involvement. Negotiations may not be possible either especially if North Korea's price is not economic assistance, but an end to U.S. defense commitments to South Korea and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula.
Adding to all this uncertainty is Trump himself who, in the age of nuclear weapons, seems to see merit in being unpredictable even if that unnerves America's allies in the region.