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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reelected to her fourth term in office yesterday as federal elections were held across Germany. Her victory appears to be pyrrhic, however. Her Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) garnered only 33% of the vote and will be allotted 246 seats in the Bundestag. Even though these numbers represent the largest share of the vote it will not be enough to form a majority government. To complicate matters even more, the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s share of the vote was 13% and it will hold 94 seats in the Bundestag. This is especially staggering since before yesterday AfD held no seats. Now it is the third largest political party in Germany.
Merkel’s victory speech was muted. She stated that she’d expected and hoped for a ‘better result’ indicating she understands completely how murky the election results are for her and her party. The Bild, a German tabloid, labeled it a ‘nightmare victory’ and financial markets have responded negatively to the election results. The euro is currently down against the dollar and investors could be getting antsy at the prospect of a convoluted political future for Germany. The German Chancellor now has to form a coalition government with smaller parties, or attempt to run a minority government. A minority government is the least likely scenario seeing how German politics are driven by consensus and always have been since the end of World War II.
Merkel’s power will be severely eroded by yesterday’s results. She’ll be left walking a fine line between the quicksand traps of policy uncertainty and an unstable government. If she loses her balance and either one become a reality, early elections will likely be called, signaling the end of the Merkel era.
To the surprise of many political observers, the populist wave that was rolling across Europe in 2016 and early 2017 and appeared to dissipate when Emanuel Macron claimed victory in the French elections earlier this year, came to life yesterday. Anti-immigration sentiment in Germany is high, and many voters are tired of Merkel lecturing them that it is Germany’s ‘duty’ to take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian immigrants. Crime has spiked in the Federal Republic over the past twelve months, and across Europe terrorist attacks are on the rise. These actions have convinced many German voters that a change is necessary.
Germany’s ‘Trump Moment’ came yesterday. It arrived not in the form of a Brexit-like tsunami, but instead, like a thief in the night. And it could very well be the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s rule.
With President Trump essentially calling him out in front of the UN earlier this week, and the sanction noose tightening even more so, it was only a matter of time before the world heard from Kim Jong Un. In a recalcitrant personal statement released Thursday, Kim resorted to a creative blend of name calling. He referred to Trump as a ‘mentally deranged US dotard’ and claimed he was greatly insulted by the president’s speech to the UN General Assembly. Responding to Trump’s promise to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea should it launch a nuclear missile at the US, Kim vowed to take the ‘highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.’
Not long after Kim’s statement, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho delivered prepared remarks from his hotel in New York City. He hinted that North Korea might possibly conduct the ‘biggest ever hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.’ It is not likely that the North has perfected a hydrogen device yet. Even if North Korea had a hydrogen weapon in its possession staging an atmospheric nuclear test is far beyond that nation’s current and future projected capabilities. The threat itself, though, remains significant as it marks an escalation in the current deadlock with the United States. By issuing a personal statement in his own name, Kim Jong Un transformed the crisis into an affair of honor between himself and President Trump.
He has now staked his reputation on confronting Trump and the United States, making Kim more unlikely to back down. Kim will probably now use the escalating rhetoric as reason to conduct more ballistic missile and nuclear tests. These will be seen by the US as proof of the continued progress of the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Further, additional tests at this point will portray Pyongyang as being indifferent to the economic and diplomatic penalties that have been placed on North Korea. That is where the true danger is right now. If sanctions and diplomatic pressure are not working effectively, it only brings the military option closer to being put in play.
This is brinkmanship combined with the cult of personality surrounding the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nothing good can come of this. Right now, the chances of a peaceful resolution to the North Korean crisis are just below fifty percent and dropping.
President Trump’s first address to the UN General Assembly came at a point in time when a sizable portion of world leaders have been wondering what shape America First foreign policy will take. They received an answer this morning, and as an added bonus the world was also given an brief glimpse at the pillars of a potential Trump Doctrine. The US President’s speech contained blunt language and was missing the diplospeak and doubletalk that is common in world leaders’ addresses to the General Assembly.
North Korea was the main talking point. First off, to be clear, his referring to Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man’ once again did not belittle, or minimize the urgency surrounding the North Korean nuclear crisis. Trump made it clear that the US will welcome UN efforts to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He followed up by letting it be known that if the crisis continues on its current trajectory, the US may be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump’s words were not an idle threat, or a rambunctious boasting of US military capabilities. Should North Korea launch an ICBM at US territory successfully, Trump will have no choice but to turn North Korea into the world’s largest sheet of glass. The North’s UN ambassador did not watch the speech in person, unfortunately. He opted to leave the chamber before the US President began speaking.
Iran was also in the crosshairs today. Trump dismissed the nuclear deal between Iran, the US and other world powers. Just as he did on the campaign trail last year, Trump blasted the deal as an embarrassment to the US and hinted that it will be revisited in the future. In fact, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the deal and next month the president plans to announce his intentions with regards to its future.
Venezuela was another target of Trump’s criticism. He hinted of a coming expansion of the already wide economic sanctions now in place on Venezuela if Nicolas Maduro continues to impose authoritarian rule. He did not repeat an earlier threat to consider military action as such a move would not receive support from most Latin American allies of the US. Nevertheless, by affording Venezuela as much attention as North Korea and Iran, Trump made it clear how important the US considers the crisis in Venezuela to be.
World leaders and journalists at home will spend the next week dissecting the speech in an attempt to determine what Trump was saying between the lines. The effort will prove to be an exercise in futility. Today’s address was clear, concise, painstakingly honest, and made an indelible impression on America’s allies and enemies alike.