Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are playing a very dangerous game of nuclear poker, argues Paul Connew. But does either leader have the cards that could avoid destruction?
There’s an obscure 12-year-old promotional video in which Donald Trump pontificates ‘expertly’ on how to win at poker. Later he admitted he wasn’t an expert at all and didn’t really even know the rules of the game.
The video dates back to the days when The Donald was hyping himself as the ‘King of the Casino World’ before a series of scandals, misjudgements and four Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings finally killed his ill-starred gambling empire in Atlantic City.
What makes that old footage so fascinating and significant in 2017 is that Trump is now President of the United States and locked into the world’s biggest and most dangerous poker game with nuclear war and the deaths of millions the potential price of playing a bad hand.
Across the table facing America’s pretend poker ace is a similarly volatile opponent, North Korea’s youthful, tyrannical leader and perceived demigod Kim Yong-Un.
Does Kim play poker? We don’t know for sure, but we do know he takes a big interest in it. According to South Korea’s Financial Security Institute (FSI) he’s raised millions of dollars to help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons development strategy via sanctioning mass cyber-fraud assaults on international online gaming sites, particularly poker.
And there are US intelligence chief seriously worried that Kim Yong-Un may just be a smarter poker hand than POTUS in the most dangerous game of global bluff since Kennedy faced down Khrushchev in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
In that confrontation, a young, novice POTUS in JFK famously put US nuclear bombers on highest alert using a radio frequency he knew the Soviet Union could tune into. It was a daring play that helped force Khrushchev into removing Soviet missiles from Cuban soil, a decision that averted a Third World War and saved millions of lives – although folding his cards did ultimately cost the ageing Soviet leader his job.
So, who is bluffing who in the great 2017 nuclear poker game between a 71-year-old POTUS and his 33-year-old North Korean opponent? If nothing else, the duo sport the worst haircuts ever seen in the history of international poker.
Haircuts aside, the terrifying thought, shared by many Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, not to mention the political leaderships and intelligence communities in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Seoul and across the EU, is that neither Trump nor Kim Yong-Un hold the stature or diplomatic poker skills of Kennedy and Khrushchev.
As one senior US intelligence figure put it to me candidly: ‘Donald Trump has a long business history of bluffing badly and being caught out. Kim is totally aware of that and probably figures he can call the President’s bluff time and again. But when you’re playing political poker with nuclear weapons on the table then the potential for catastrophic miscalculation runs high. Contrary to popular myth, Kim isn’t insane, but he’s a born gambler who might just overplay his hand and call Donald Trump’s bluff once too often.’
All the more terrifying, of course, in the wake of last weekend’s apparent underground testing of a thermonuclear H-bomb by North Korea that triggered an earthquake measuring six on the Richter scale with the tremors reaching Moscow and Beijing as well as the South Korean capital Seoul, and with the threat of further provocative ballistic missile tests to come.
Developments that have inevitably sent the Korean Crisis temperature soaring and left the world nervously holding its breath. The Pyongyang regime claim they have the capacity to attach H-bombs to IBMs capable of reaching the US mainland – although Pentagon and CIA experts are divided over how close they really are to that.
All the more significant is that now it’s not just a notoriously narcissist POTUS and his inflammatory Twitter feed ratcheting up the rhetorical heat.
The usually far more measured US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (touted by many as a future US president) told the Security Council that the North Korean leader is ‘begging for war’ and warned: ‘War is never something the US wants … but our country’s patience is not unlimited. We’ve kicked the can down the road long enough … there’s no more road left.’
While the highly-respected US Defense Secretary General Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, a man who previously hasn’t been slow to contradict his President’s more warmongering missives and argue the case for diplomacy, has sounded more Trumpian since Kim’s H-bomb test and boasts of more ballistic launches to come.
Standing outside the White House as the political fallout from the Pyongyang H-bomb boast reverberated globally, Mattis urged Kim to ‘de-nuclearise’ the Korean peninsula and warned that any strike against US territory, including Guam, or America’s South Korean and Japanese allies would trigger a ‘massive military response’, adding: ‘We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but we have many options to do so.’
That said, President Trump’s military options for solving the escalating problem look as limited now as they were before Kim played his H-bomb ‘ace’ in this most tense of poker matches.
The most recent US Department of Defense analysis predicts that around 300,000 US and South Korean military personnel would be killed within the first 90 days of a new Korean war, with at least three times that number of South Korean civilians perishing. And that’s based on a conflict involving North Korea’s conventional and chemical weaponry and not its growing nuclear arsenal.
But a similar study conducted by South Korean military and intelligence analysts puts the likely death toll at around two million within the first 24 hours or so of a full-scale clash.
Meanwhile President Trump’s erratic tweet approach to the escalating crisis has sown confusion within America’s South Korean allies. Most of all the one that went: ‘South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!’
That ‘one thing’, presumably, is war and America’s military might being turned on the Kim regime. But, for the recently-elected liberal South Korean leadership, Trump’s rash accusations of ‘appeasement’ amount to a dirty word, given the human carnage levels described above.
Trump’s harsh words toward America’s South Korean allies may also be linked to his renewed interest in scrapping the existing free-trade deal between the US and South Korea on economic grounds. But the President’s trade message and its timing is known to have left US diplomats, and under-pressure Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tearing their hair out.
Meanwhile Kim Yong-Un’s successful H-bomb test and burgeoning ballistic missile capability has left Washington’s South Korean and Japanese allies sweating over the US’s ability to defend them if the North Korean dictator does dare take the game beyond the aggressive bluff stage.
‘If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco’, Andrei Lankov, a distinguished North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University told the New York Times this week. He’s not alone in expressing that fear and, although they won’t air it publicly, it’s one shared by some senior figures in the South Korean government.
While, back in Washington, there are some senior Capitol Hill Republicans who are not particularly supportive of Trump but who privately acknowledge that – as Kim Yong Un’s nuclear missile muscle grows – the US government could before too long face the ‘regional stability versus homeland security’ question. Read that as a euphemism for taking out the Kim regime even if it costs hundreds of thousands of South Korean lives and potentially in Japan, too.
Not that those voices yet favour war above finding a diplomatic answer. But there is a growing hostility to the notion that China and Russia would be willing to accept a deal that would accept Kim’s North Korea on the international stage as a nuclear power free of economic sanctions and the beneficiary of generous international aid in return for embracing nuclear non-proliferation norms.
Whether President Trump, or Congress itself, would be willing to buy into any such scenario, or trust Kim Yong-Un to abandon his family dynasty’s ambitions to rule the whole Korean peninsula is another matter.
But economic warfare as the weapon to bring Kim to heel and ultimately to the negotiating table doesn’t look so good either this week. President Trump’s threats of ceasing trade with any nations trading with North Korea look unrealistic and counter-productive.
Quite apart from the potential global recession it would trigger, Russia and China have quickly signalled it might well reverse their support for the current UN sanctions regime against Pyongyang – something, ironically, Trump was hailing as a personal triumph for himself a few short weeks ago. Moscow and Beijing (China is the one country with the realistic economic/military clout to pressure Kim) have already made it plain at the UN that they don’t consider even tougher sanctions as any solution and favour ‘diplomacy and dialogue’, difficult as that might be, as well as hard to swallow for Trump in full ‘fire and fury’ Twitter mode.
The timing of the current crisis is also particularly bad news for Chinese president Xi Jinping as he prepares for a vital party congress next month designed to cement his political legacy. Being seen to try and discipline his ‘naughty’ young leader next door and being rebuffed would be humiliating.
So would giving the impression he’s dancing to an American President’s tune, especially one as despised by Chinese public opinion as Trump. While, worst of all, any military conflict on the Korean peninsula would send millions of North Korean refugees pouring across the Chinese border on a scale that would dwarf anything Europe has faced from the Middle East and Africa.
Last month The New European ran a brilliant cover cartoon which went viral showing POTUS and Kim facing each other in a missile-bearing, willy-waving contest, with the headline: ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction.’
Hopefully that’s still the best bet. But after this week, as the nuclear poker game stakes have risen so much higher, the odds on distraction turning into destruction have undoubtedly shortened.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former Sunday Mirror editor. As the Mirror Group’s US Bureau Chief he met and interviewed Donald Trump several times.