A few hours before Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening, the news broke that the White House was scrapping its choice for ambassador to South Korea, a position that remains unfilled a year into the administration.
According to The Washington Post, the nomination of Victor D. Cha, a hawkish veteran of the George W. Bush administration, was very close to being sent to the Senate, but was derailed when Cha privately expressed reservations about a preventive U.S. strike on North Korea. The Financial Times reported that Cha was asked if he was “prepared to help manage the evacuation of American citizens from South Korea,” which would be necessary in the event of an American bombing. This is terrifying, because it suggests that Trump is serious about starting a war.
Indeed, Cha himself seems frightened; just before the State of the Union started, he published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing against a preventive attack. Apparently assuming that some readers would be indifferent to millions of potential Korean deaths, Cha emphasized that many Americans would also die in a military confrontation. “To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power,” he wrote.
Cha’s warning made Trump’s State of the Union bellicosity toward North Korea particularly frightening. More than an hour into an interminable speech, Trump said, “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.” He added: “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
Trump had in the audience the parents and siblings of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean forced-labor camp, and who died after being sent back to the United States with severe injuries. He seemed to be using Warmbier’s death to propagandize for war: “Tonight we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve.”
Also in the audience was Ji Seong-ho, a heroic North Korean defector who lost his left hand and foot during the country’s famine in the mid-1990s, and who was cheered as he held his crutches aloft. A Christian convert, Ji has argued that believers have a duty to destroy the regime.
A 2010 profile of Ji in The Christian Post, an evangelical publication, said, “Despite North Korea’s cruel imprisonment and murder of anyone who advocates religion in the country, there is a Christian responsibility to tear down North Korea’s wall against Christianity and religion so that North Koreans may begin to worship and find joy, he stressed.” Ji’s presence could signal that Trump is trying to enlist his evangelical base in a crusade.
America survived the first year of the Trump administration more or less intact. Tuesday indicated that our luck could be running out. If the country goes to war in North Korea, future historians will struggle to understand how we sleepwalked into Armageddon behind a man whose own Cabinet considers him contemptible.
This State of the Union was the third-longest in the past 50 years. Perhaps never before has something so soporific been so tremendously alarming.