Shinzō Abe seeks military mandate. Australia’s support for Iran deal. Germany’s far-right party splits. By Hamish McDonald.

United States hoist by its own dotard

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un delivers a statement in response to US President Donald Trump’s UN General Assembly address.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un delivers a statement in response to US President Donald Trump’s UN General Assembly address.
Credit: KCNA VIA KNS / AFP / Getty Images

It has got very personal between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un over the past two weeks, with each hurling insults and threats at the other.

If there is a method in Trump’s apparent madness, a Nixonian ploy to make a foreign opponent fear an irrational move, it’s not yet visible. He’s piling on the pressure to a regime that has only one response to pressure: raising the stakes.

So we had Trump’s September 19 address to the United Nations General Assembly – calling Kim “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea in response to any attack on the United States − which had most American friends in the chamber cringing with embarrassment at its crudity.

Four days later, Kim himself made an unprecedented appearance on North Korean television reading a personal statement in response, though without the audio. In the statement, Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” who had “denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world”.

Kim said he would consider taking the “highest level of hardline countermeasure in history”. The remark about totally destroying North Korea “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last”. Soon afterward, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, suggested the countermeasure might be “the biggest ever hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific”.

Trump’s tweeted response to Ri last Saturday: “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” That night, the US Air Force flew two of its B-1B bombers along North Korea’s east coast in a rare show of power north of the 38th parallel dividing the two Korean states.

Ri was not backing off. “Since the United States declared war on our country,” he said, “we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country.”

And so it goes on. The Trump administration insists it wants a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear challenge, yet it’s not waiting to see whether new trade and financial sanctions work, and is knocking back North Korean diplomatic feelers being made through academic channels. Analysts are also pondering a remark made by Trump’s defence secretary, James Mattis, on September 18. Asked whether there are any options for the US military striking North Korea that would protect Seoul from a retaliatory barrage, he said: “Yes, there are. But I will not go into details.” When asked if this might include the use of lethal force, he replied: “I don’t want to go into that.”

Abe seeks to unleash military

Kim’s missile and nuclear tests have meanwhile given Japan’s old-fashioned nationalist prime minister Shinzō Abe the perfect excuse to call a snap election for October 22 and prepare the country for a more explicit strategic role.

His election manifesto will include a large fiscal stimulus, packed with extra family benefits. But he’ll also take a win as public endorsement of his recent proposal to insert new words into the constitution giving explicit legality to Japan’s military forces and their right to take part in joint operations with the US and other allies.

As political scientist Koichi Nakano told CNN: “Abe is aware of the fact that the people do not consider the revision of the constitution a priority issue. That’s precisely why he is hoping that if he sneaks the issue through in a snap election, he can then say that he has the popular mandate to go ahead with his plans.”

Amending the constitution needs a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Diet and a national referendum. Abe’s conservative coalition holds two-thirds of the lower house, and he’s hoping to maintain this, in elections a year early, while Kim’s belligerence gives him a lift in the polls.

Bishop on Iran deal

All this is fabulous news for Canberra, which can’t wait to embed more forces with the Americans and Japanese in the region. But the Turnbull government has quietly parted company with Trump on another nuclear issue.

Trump has got no traction from the other parties with his wish to dump the nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran by Barack Obama’s administration, along with Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China. Every three months, the US administration has to certify Iranian compliance to the US congress.

It’s a red-meat issue for US neo-cons and the Israeli right, and Trump is clearly itching to throw them some blood. In his UN speech he called Obama’s agreement an “embarrassment to the United States” and suggested it would somehow be amended.

In response, top diplomats from France, Germany, Britain and the European Union went public in New York to express support for the agreement and warn against American efforts to scuttle it. “The agreement is working as it is,” said French ambassador Gérard Araud. “What kind of signal would this send to countries like North Korea?” German ambassador Peter Wittig said. “It would send a signal that diplomacy is not reliable, that you can’t trust diplomatic agreements, and that would affect, I believe, our credibility in the West when we’re not honouring an agreement that Iran has not violated.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also came out to support the Iran deal. “It is the best available option to deal with Iran’s nuclear programs and we certainly wouldn’t want to see it break down in the absence of any viable or credible alternative,” she said.

Alternative for AfD

Germany’s election result was a pyrrhic victory for Angela Merkel. She has gained a fourth term as chancellor but voters drifted from her Christian Democratic Union to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in slightly bigger numbers than the polls suggested.

She will need a coalition of disparate elements, and at some point the CDU will be looking for young leadership blood. It will be hard for her to deliver the increased fiscal role for the European Union that new French president Emmanuel Macron is seeking. Germany wants to hunker down and look after its own.

But just as it has made its leap into the Bundesrat, where its 12.6 per cent of the vote looks set to deliver about 94 of the 598 seats, the AfD is experiencing a split. Its co-leader, Frauke Petry, and her husband, Marcus Pretzell, said they would not be sitting with the party in the parliament.

To improve the party’s acceptability in coalitions, the pair has been trying to moderate its anti-immigrant policies to remove racism and to block the wartime nostalgia of some older members such as Alexander Gauland, 76, who declared during the campaign: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

“We tried to change course but you have to realise when you reach a point when that is no longer possible,” Petry said. “I have five children for whom I am responsible and ultimately you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

Europe’s political attention turns on Sunday to Manchester where the shakily ruling Conservative Party opens its four-day annual conference, and the question is whether Prime Minister Theresa May has placated her hard-Brexit elements with her latest proposal for a two-year transition period after the March 2019 exit from the EU that essentially leaves everything much the same. Is it time for Boris Johnson to join Donald Trump in the Anglophone world’s leadership?


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2017 as "United States hoist by its own dotard".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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