A leading expert on the North Korean nuclear threat says President Trump’s condemnation of the communist regime through powerful stories also served as an American declaration that it’s time for a regime change in Pyongyang, but warned that military action would be a big mistake.
During Tuesday evening’s, State of the Union address, Trump focused his final foreign policy item at the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and punctuated it by telling two gripping stories
First, he recounted the story of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for stealing a political poster and was returned to the U.S. in coma last year. Warmbier died days later. His grieving parents were in the gallery for the speech.
Next, Trump detailed the harrowing account of North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, who was also present for the speech.
“In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs.
“He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves — permanently stunting their own growth,” said Trump.
He then fast-forwarded to Ji’s courageous escape from North Korea.
“Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had — and he resolved to be free. Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom. Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death.
“Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most ‑- the truth. Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all,” said Trump.
According to North Korea expert Gordon Chang, Trump was not just exposing the horrors of the Kim Jong-un regime but declaring it is unacceptable for Kim to remain in power.
“What President Trump did last night was really landmark. He made the case for regime change in North Korea. Of course he talked about the threat to the American homeland, but he linked that back to the nature of the Kim family regime.
“He did that by telling those two stories, the one of brutality towards Otto Warmbier and the other of the triumph of the human spirit, which is the escapee Ji Seing-ho. That really was, for me, the most inspirational moment of the night, when Ji held up his crutches in his right hand in a signal of victory,” said Chang, who is also author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World.”
“That was just so important, because what President Trump is saying is, ‘This is the regime that is threatening us,'” said Chang.
While the precise timetable is unknown, Chang says North Korea is getting closer and closer to its ultimate goal.
“The ambition for them now, as it was from the very first day of North Korea, is to take over South Korea. That is the core goal of the Kim family and is considered by the Kims to be essential for their own survival. You’ve got two Koreas, one rich and one poor and side-by-side of course and the people in the poor Korea are not going to put up with this forever,” said Chang.
“If the Kim family can’t do that, poor North Koreans are not going to sacrifice indefinitely,” added Chang.
But if Kim is inching closer to attacking South Korea and regime change is required, what is the best way to achieve that? Chang says Trump is off to a good start by going after the money.
“From the beginning, the Trump administration has tried to cut off the flow of money to North Korea. We’ve seen this for example in his landmark Sept. 21st executive order, which said if you do business with North Korea or you handle their money, you’re not doing business with the United States. That’s important.
“Also, last year the Trump administration pushed through three sets of UN sanctions. That’s a very sound policy,” said Chang.
Trump also got the Chinese to make promises to clamp down financially on Kim as well. But Chang says the commitment from Beijing is still inconsistent.
“They’re getting more serious, but they’re also violating UN sanctions. They’ve been doing that almost openly since October. We’ve seen these ship-to-ship transfers of oil. Also, North Korean ships that are under sanctions, in other words are not allowed to visit ports outside North Korea, they’ve been turning on their transponders in Chinese ports.
“When all of this activity occurs, with China smuggling commodities in and out of North Korea, it also means that Chinese financial institutions are almost surely involved. It’s up to the Trump administration to hold China accountable. It signaled that it would do that, but it really has yet to apply the full weight of American pressure to protect the American people,” said Chang.
Chang says if China was truly serious about defusing the North Korean threat, it would be acting much differently.
“They would cut off all financial transactions with North Korea. The Chinese banks would get out of the business of handling North Korean money. Also, we would see China not buying and selling commodities that are prohibited by UN sanctions. We would basically see an end to commerce between North Korea and China,” said Chang.
But while Chang and most in the Trump administration prefer to tighten the economic screws on North Korea, there are people calling for more aggressive actions.
“There are voices in the administration that are thinking that this is not a time for sanctions, this is a time to strike North Korea. That is something where I think the administration has not decided on what to do,” said Chang, who strongly discourages that course.
“I think it would be an exceedingly bad idea, but right now there are a lot of voices (advocating military action). This is where the contention is, both inside the administration and outside the administration,” he said.
Chang also hopes the State of the Union message puts an end to the efforts of some Trump critics to suggest Trump and Kim are on a similar level of malevolence and instability.
“I’ve never bought that narrative. That is really a false equivalence. President Trump is trying to contain the Kim family. The Kim family has been a threat, not only to the United States, but to the rest of the international community well before Trump became president,” said Chang.
“North Korea did not become instantly dangerous on January 20th at noon of last year. This is a problem for the entire planet, and Trump is doing his best on a very dangerous situation,” added Chang.
Next week, the Winter Olympics will commence in South Korea. In recent weeks, leaders from north and south have agreed to cooperate on some aspects of the games, including having their athletes march in to the opening ceremony together and have a joint women’s hockey team.
Chang says the cooperation has some positive elements, but fears the South Koreans are doing too much to accommodate the regime that wants to conquer them.
“South Korea should not be paying for North Korea’s team, which it is doing. And there are a lot of these inter-Korean Olympic projects, which look like violations of UN sanctions. The U.S., for a variety of reasons, has allowed this to continue, but the South Korean public is starting to rebel against this jointness, especially this joint women’s ice hockey team.
“South Korean athletes have been turfed off their own team to make way for the North Koreans. That’s played very poorly in South Korea,” said Chang.
Nonetheless, he still hopes some good comes from this moment on the world stage..
“I’m happy to have the North Koreans participate in the Olympics. It gives an opportunity for them to see the outside world and to defect,” said Chang.