Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.
Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.
The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.
Vigilant Ace 18 is underway in South Korea, and the large US-ROK exercise has not gone unnoticed by North Korea. Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise held to increase interoperability between the US Air Force, and RoK Air Force, though aircraft from the US Navy and USMC will also participate. As is the case with every major military exercise that takes place in or around Korea, this one has drawn the ire of North Korea’s leadership. Pyongyang labeled the exercise as a ‘grave provocation’ that could escalate tensions to ‘the brink of nuclear war.’ In a statement released by state-controlled media, it was noted this exercise is happening at a time ‘when insane President Trump is running wild.’ This sort of commentary is standard fare when US and ROK forces stage military exercises. The current crisis in the region adds a dramatic flair to the Pyongyang’s recent statements, of course.
With the rising tensions caused by North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test, the inclusion of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II aircraft in Vigilant Ace is quite possibly causing sleepless nights for many North Korean generals. Despite their propaganda boasts that suggest otherwise, North Korea deeply fears US airpower. A future US military action against the North will be heavily reliant on airpower, and include large numbers of the latest generation US fighters. The fact that a respectable number of these aircraft are now in theater gives Pyongyang food for thought.
In Washington over the weekend, remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seem to suggest the White House is resigning itself to the grim reality that the North Korean crisis will probably not be resolved favorably through peaceful means alone. The Trump administration has certainly allotted a respectable amount of time to pursue more stringent economic sanctions, and potential diplomatic resolutions. Sadly, there has been minimal progress on either front. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue ahead at full speed. Depending on how close Pyongyang is to reaching their goal of obtaining an operational ICBM, the United States could be forced to move militarily sooner rather than later.
The prospect of military action in the near future gives Vigilant Ace 18 added priority and deepens the sense of urgency which seems to be gathering around the crisis at the moment.
Not surprisingly, the media has been reluctant to grasp the message embedded between the lines of President Trump’s speeches, and remarks concerning North Korea on his Far East tour. It is apparent US patience is wearing thin when it comes to the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. However, Washington’s diminished willingness to endure is not the result of a personal restlessness on the part of Trump. It exists in view of the fact that the North Koreans are fervently working to produce a functioning ballistic missile that can reach US shores, along with a hydrogen weapon that can be attached to it. In the early days of the Trump administration it was made clear to him that North Korea has been moving rapidly in that direction, emboldened by US reluctance to effectively address his nation’s WMD programs over the past twenty years. Trump is not handling North Korea in the same manner as his predecessors did. Kim Jong Un has taken some time to digest the new reality and figure out a way to contend with the increased American pressure. His new strategy is to engineer a workable missile and weapon before the United States can stop him. In essence, Kim has turned the twenty-three year old marathon between the US and North Korea into a sprint to the finish line. President Trump, his foreign policy, and military advisers recognize this even though the media refuses to.
Trump is now in China for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean tensions will undoubtedly dominate their discussions. The two presidents have been working to handle the North Korean situation together, however, it appears as if that approach has earned a limited return. Trump will likely inform Xi that time is running out and if China is resolved to decisively influence the situation now is the time. Xi’s position is understandable. He does not want to see a war erupt between North Korea and the US and her allies in such close proximity to China’s borders. Nor does he want North Korea to collapse beneath its own weight and be replaced by unified Korea that is pro-US.
To avoid either one of these possibilities from becoming reality, any Chinese move needs to be centered around changing the North Korean regime internally. Despite the image of Kim Jong Un controlling every facet of the North Korean government, factions do exist in Pyongyang. There is a pro-China faction that, if cultured and funded properly, could serve as the instrument to remove Kim from power and replace him with one that is more moderate in tone, and does not pose such a flagrant threat to the US. A Beijing-backed coup attempt carries a host of potential dangers as well as rewards. Yet at this point in the game, if the choices for Xi are to do nothing or do something akin to playing with fire, the Chinese President’s best option may be to choose the fire option and accept the risks of being burned.
As the weekend approaches, a North Korean missile test on 9 or 10 October is appearing more probable. Analysts inside and outside of the US government have been examining the data coming across their desks and drawing conclusions. Although the data available to DOD, US combatant commands, and intelligence agencies is superior to what is available to external think tanks and agencies, the outside estimates are on par with their government counterparts . In short, a missile test is expected on Monday or Tuesday. Monday, 9 October is a holiday here in the United States and the anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. The following day, 10 October is the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers Party, a day of celebration in the North. It’s apparent to the world now that Kim Jong Un has a penchant for raising tensions with missile, or nuclear tests on symbolic dates. This is one reason why many in the West suspect a test will be coming early next week. There are solid indications lately of a test in the near future. Earlier this week, missile components, and other types of equipment necessary for a test launch were transported from Pyongyang north to areas that have been launch sites in previous tests.
President Trump contributed to the restlessness concerning North Korea on Thursday with his ‘calm before the storm,’ comment to reporters. Quite frankly, his words were accurate. North Korea has been suspiciously quiet in the past two or three weeks. This could indicate a heightened amount of preparations underway behind the scenes for a missile test, or something more destabilizing. Trump’s words also hinted that the US is possibly prepared to respond militarily to whatever action North Korea may take in the coming days. Going down this road would be inherently risky. However, at this stage in the game the military option is becoming the only remaining course of action to deny North Korea from fielding missiles with inter-continental range that are able to reach the US mainland. It could very well be Kim Jong Un’s intention to stage a test that showcases North Korea’s ability to do just that. Should that be the case, Un may find out very quickly that he has overplayed his hand.
The United States is withdrawing all non-essential personnel and dependents from its embassy in Havana. The move comes in response to mysterious attacks that have left diplomats and other embassy staff members ill. Since fall of 2016 over twenty embassy staff members have reported health problems that range from nausea and vertigo through to mild brain trauma. Washington suspects that sonic attacks are the cause behind these health problems. Two Canadian citizens were also affected by these attacks. A joint investigation involving the FBI, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Cuban authorities has been underway for some time, but has yet to uncover the guilty party. The US has let it be known that it does not believe Cuba is responsible for the attacks, instead believing it is the work of a third party. The US is appreciative of Cuba’s cooperation, but holds the Castro government ultimately responsible for the safety of American diplomats in Cuba.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez on Tuesday to discuss the situation. The meeting was the highest level of diplomatic contact between the United States and Cuba since the inauguration of President Trump in January. The State Department said the discussion was ‘firm and frank’ and Tillerson ‘conveyed the gravity of the situation and underscored the Cuban authorities obligations to protect Embassy staff.’ Both countries appear cognizant of the negative effect this matter could have on US-Cuban relations. Relations between the two nations are in a delicate spot right now. President Trump’s Cuba policy thus far has been centered around drawing back on the appeasement and reopening of relations undertaken by his predecessor. Even before Trump’s inauguration his view on the US-Cuba rapprochement was dim. As long as these mysterious attacks on US diplomats continue, it causes more damage to relations and diminishes the chances for a lasting peace between the two former Cold War rivals.