Could Donald Trump drag the U.S. into war with North Korea to save his presidency? If Vladimir Putin has his way.
In the 1997 satire, Wag The Dog, Dustin Hoffman played a political spin doctor who manufactured a made-for-TV war to rescue the flagging political fortunes of an incumbent president accused of fondling a young girl scout. The fictional scheme worked to increase the public’s support of the film’s president and turned around his political fortunes.
Fast forward 20 years and Wag’s satirical device is finding its way into the real and bizarre presidency of Donald Trump. This time, the war is real and threatens the lives of millions of people caught in the crosshairs. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is cast as villain but you don’t have to look far to see the strings connecting Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The ‘pravda’ about North Korea’s nuclear missiles.
Michael Elleman, a former Pentagon consultant, had three words to describe video of North Korea’s July 28 inter-continental ballistic test. “It shocked me,” Elleman told the Washington Post. “It seemed to come out of nowhere”. Not only does the new missile put Pyongyang’s nuclear program further ahead than anyone expected, it gives the regime a missile capable of striking most of the U.S. and Canada.
Elleman noticed something else alarming about the new North Korean ICBM. The Hwasong-14’s liquid fuel engines are very similar to a 1960’s-era Soviet missile RD-250. How did the North Koreans make these advances so quickly? Elleman and other are concerned they may have done so with Russian help.
Moscow’s support for North Korea dates back decades to the Soviet Union, a strategic alliance enabled by a shared border and ideology. As recently as 2015, Moscow allowed several North Korean nuclear scientists to work at Russian nuclear sites and study at its scientific academies. It’s also known that former Soviet-era scientists have been employed by the Pyongyang regime. In their 2014 book, “North Korea: The Politics of Regime Survival” Young Whan Kihl and Hong Nack Kim, are more definitive on Russia’s involvement:
“Some restricted arm and weapons material have reached North Korea from Russia. There is a danger that North Korea nationals working in the criminalized Russian Far East could become involved in smuggling nuclear material and technology. Russian companies have been among the suppliers of North Korea’s nuclear program”.
In 2017, Russia boosts trade and military ties to North Korea
This year, Russia has stepped up economic and military support for Pyongyang just as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have escalated. In the first two months of this year, trade between Russia and North Korea jumped 73% vs the same period last year. The Kim regime has begun talks to acquire a long list of Russian-made arms and Russia has moved its forces to its border with North Korea.
By increasing trade to the beleaguered regime, Vladimir Putin increases leverage over the isolated regime, and by extension the United States. This makes Kim Jong Un beholden to Vladimir Putin in much the same way Syria’s Bashar-al Assad is. With Donald Trump in the White House, Vladimir Putin has the kind of war he likes to wage. One in which he can play both sides off against each other so he controls the outcome.
“When you consider all the different flashpoints the United States and Russia have, this is a perfect opportunity for the Russians to sort of stick it to the United States a little bit more,” Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, told CNBC.
Fanning the flames of war.
“President Trump is really going to stand up to Kim Jong Un,” General Jack Keane told Fox and Friends this week. “It’s very scary for all of us Americans, especially when you learn that they can reach America,” the Fox News anchor opined. “Next week, it might not be a test, it might be reality.”
To be factual, nothing ‘nuclear’ could happen to the U.S. next week as North Korea doesn’t have the capability yet but the Fox News alarm seems to be building a Wag The Dog narrative for Trump. If Trump confronts Kim, Putin can play peacemaker. Everyone can be “greater” together. Former Bush ethics lawyer, Richard W. Painter, agrees. “Kim Jong Un is asking for it and Trump needs a distraction,” Painter tweeted. “China should stop Kim or this could end badly.”
What would a Korean conflict actually achieve? It would not only embroil the U.S. military in another far away place, endanger the lives of millions of people and provide a distraction for Russia to advance its troops into the Baltic states and the South Caucasus. The end result would be a disaster for the U.S. and only serve the strategic interests of Russia but it could also save the Trump presidency.
Wag The Dog ends with footage of a real war rising from the ashes of a fabricated one. The implication of this plot line is chilling in our current circumstance. Now that Trump has been forced to sign a new Russia sanctions bill, he will try blame congress for any escalation.
With an angered Russia, and an emboldened and unstable Kim Jong Un, the best laid plans of a war designed to distract can set off the tinderbox that is the Korean peninsula. This won’t be just because Pyongyang knows how to build a nuclear missile. It will be because Russia continues to play a destabilising role in the world. When it comes to North Korea, keep your eye on the ‘khobst’.