Why is Donald Trump targeting North Korea

How Trump misjudged North Korea and Iran

The US president has taken striking steps with both rulers Kim and Iran's regime. He has not come any closer to solutions.

It's like a little reminder - like a bizarre greeting message with the content: We are talking to each other, but nothing has yet been clarified between us. And I can still cause trouble. This message to the neighbors - and the USA - has now been conveyed by North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-un, in the form of two short-range ballistic missiles that his military has fired into the sea. It is true that the situation on the Korean peninsula can no longer be compared with the dangerously tense situation two years ago. But the ruler in Pyongyang is openly trying to sabotage the relationship between South Korea and the USA with his small, pinprick-like provocations.

At the same time, it becomes clear that the media-effective meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump have calmed things down. But above all they were a PR success for North Korea's rulers, which was politically upgraded as a result. There is still no solution to the nuclear dispute with Pyongyang. And finding this is just as difficult as before: The North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons and armament with missiles as the strategic reassurance for its survival - and a means of pressure with which one can repeatedly extort economic aid for the ailing system. Kim Jong-un doesn't think about giving it away so easily.

The problem with North Korea's dictator is just one of the US President's foreign policy issues: Another is the crisis with Iran. It is true that none of the parties involved wants a major war. But the situation is dangerous: what if Iranian units want to stop an oil tanker again - and this time American or European warships try to prevent it? A test by hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to see how far they can go can quickly slip away. And a minor military incident can quickly turn into a major armed clash.

On another front there is already little fighting between Israel and Iranian elite units in Syria. Israel sees Iran's soldiers on its border as a threat and repeatedly bombed them with its air force. Iranian missile attacks from Syria have neutralized Israel's air defenses. So far, Tehran has apparently also been afraid of an escalation. But if the bombs hit Iranian territory rather than Syria, that could change quickly. A conflict would spread in the region and fuel proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia - as in Yemen - further.

Washington is also aware of the danger that initially limited military action against Iran and its nuclear program could expand. Both representatives of the US government and the Iranian regime - despite all tensions - are offering talks. And Iran's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, agreed on Wednesday to enter into a "dialogue" with arch-rival Saudi Arabia.

The crux of the matter: Even if negotiations are now to take place, the fundamental problems will not change very quickly: The US under Trump has withdrawn from the - imperfect - nuclear agreement with Tehran without having any useful replacement. This will not happen anytime soon. And on the ground, talks about restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile armament are difficult. Tehran is also showing little willingness to cut back on its military engagement in the region. In view of the economic sanctions, this is becoming more and more expensive. But at the same time Iran can use this influence outside its own borders as a weapon against the USA.

With both North Korea and Iran, Trump has taken striking steps: once on friendly gestures in front of the world, without having made any progress in the matter beforehand. And once on the destruction of an agreement without a good alternative in hand. He has not come any closer to solutions.

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("Die Presse", print edition, August 1st, 2019)