Seemingly unabashed after North Korea's warning last week of an imminent "thermonuclear war," Vice President Mike Pence once again engaged in saber-rattling against the country on a surprise visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea on Monday.
"[W]e have plenty of reason to be frightened of Donald Trump's 'America First' foreign policy, which doesn't serve Americans, much less anyone else around the world."
—Christine Hong, University of California Santa Cruz"All options are on the table" when it comes to North Korea, Pence said as he stood alongside South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, in Seoul, and promised "an overwhelming and effective response" if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon.
"Just in the past two weeks we witnessed the strength of resolve of our new leader. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve," Pence added, referring to President Donald Trump's unilateral deployment of 59 cruise missiles to Syria and the U.S. military's use of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan.
Pence began a multi-country Asia tour with his planned visit to Seoul on Sunday, and surprised observers by also visiting the DMZ on Monday.
Earlier Monday, when Pence spoke from the DMZ, the vice president vowed that the Obama administration's "era of strategic patience is over." While he spoke, North Korean soldiers stood mere feet away on the other side of the border, and snapped photos of the vice president.
"President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change," Pence said.
"We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable," he continued.
Foreign policy and North Korea experts were highly critical of the vice president's comments.
"I think what we're witness to is a kind of revisionism both with Vice President Prence and Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson. They've made comments that [former president Barack] Obama's policy of strategic patience is a thing of the past, and I think that that fundamentally misconstrues what the nature of strategic patience was," said Christine Hong, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, on Democracy Now! Monday.
"Far from being a kinder, gentler, or even softer policy toward North Korea, Obama's policy toward North Korea was in point of fact one of warfare," Hong said, pointing out the Obama administration's cyberwarfare campaign against the North Korean regime. "Even the possibility of military action against North Korea [...] would be inconceivable if the Obama administration hadn't made the militarization of the larger Asia Pacific region one of its topmost foreign policy objectives."
"The fact is that American nuclear intimidation of North Korea goes back to the Korean War," added Bruce Cumings, author of North Korea: Another Country, who also spoke on Democracy Now! Monday.
"After the Korean War in 1958 we installed hundreds of nuclear weapons in the south, [we were] the first country to bring nuclear weapons to the peninsula," Cumings noted, adding that "President Obama threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons many times, by flying B-2 bombers over the South, dumping dummy bombs on islands, and so on. It's natural that North Korea would seek a deterrent."
Hong further pointed out:
The U.S. performs the largest war games in the world with its South Korean ally, twice annually. And in the course of performing these military exercises it actually rehearses a number of things. It rehearses a decapitation of the North Korean leadership, the invasion and occupation of North Korea, and it also performs a nuclear first strike against North Korea with dummy munitions. And so we have as one of the possibilities a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea. That is the nature of the unhinged foreign policy that we're seeing on the part of the Trump administration. Even though North Korea and Kim Jong-Un serves as a convenient foil, a kind of bad guy, for U.S. foreign policy within the larger Asia Pacific region, we have plenty of reason to be frightened of Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy, which doesn't serve Americans, much less anyone else around the world.
"What's so terrible about [the United States' pre-emptive strike threat] is that you essentially get a stand off, with North Korea having nuclear weapons, the U.S. having nuclear weapons, but the North Korea not being able to use them anywhere without being turned into a charcoal briquette," Cumings observed. "That was General Colin Powell's reference to what would happen if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon in anger."
Urging diplomacy instead of military action, Cumings continued:
I think the U.S. has quite purposefully ratcheted up the tension[...] I don't think Vice President Pence is right that what President Trump has done has showed strength and resolve. It's one of the easiest things to fling 59 cruise missiles into Syria; apparently the military has wanted to test this MOAB, "mother of all bombs," for some time, and they went ahead and did it. It's not clear what the outcome of either strike is. It seems that Mr. Trump, who ran on an anti-interventionist platform, is actually enjoying the toys that the military can provide to him, and perhaps using them in Korea, which would be a complete disaster.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also urged diplomacy on Monday, arguing that there is no military solution to the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In addition, Hong went on to argue that "we should all be mystified that successive U.S. presidents have tried to outsource their foreign policy in the Asia Pacific to China, as if they hold the same interests in the Asia Pacific region," and speculated that the "real target" of Trump's saber-rattling in the Korean peninsula is not North Korea, but China.
"Every single amplified and ratcheted up war game was justified in the name of a dangerous and unpredictable North Korea, but China understood full well what was happening, which was the encirclement of China," Hong said. "So North Korea has served as a very convenient ideological ruse for the United State's military industrial complex, but the real target is China."
Watch Cumings and Hong speak on Democracy Now! here: