On 4 April, the Syrian government used chemical weapons on civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria. On the morning of 7 April, Donald Trump’s government responded with a cruise missile attack on the Syrian airbase which the US military believes was used to launch the chemical attack. Trump has also sent a navy battle group to the waters off the Korean coast.
Trump’s actions carry a number of advantages for the US government beyond destroying the targets and intimidating Assad. By showing a willingness to use military force Trump ramps up pressure on North Korea and North Korea’s reluctant ally, China. The rational element of this shift in US policy is to press China to deal with North Korea.
North Korea’s bizarre and totalitarian regime, led by Kim Jong-un, is developing nuclear weapons and — apparently —missile systems that within a decade may be able to reach the US. The North Korean state tested a missile system on the eve of the recent US-China summit. The US believes a further nuclear test is planned for Saturday 15 April, the anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
The US has refused to rule out a first strike on North Korea. However, a Syrian-style US cruise missile attack against North Korea, or an air strike on North Korean targets, would produce a very different response. The Syrian state has not yet made a response to the US missile attack. If North Korea is bombed the minimum likely response is a North Korean attack on the South. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is only 35 miles from the border with North Korea.
A wide-range of sanctions are in place against North Korea — imposed against its development of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s weapons programme has been condemned by states in the region, including China. China has reportedly moved 150,000 troops to the border with North Korea. While the Chinese state is worried about its well-armed neighbour, it also believes that the collapse of the North Korean state would pose risks for China. In particular China is worried about enormous numbers of refugees fleeing North Korea.
Trump’s bluster and posture in “foreign affairs” mirrors how he behaves in domestic policy. But these actions, notwithstanding the “provocation” of regimes like Kim Jong-un, are forging a dangerous global situation.