North Korea’s foreign minister bemoaned former US President Barack Obama in a recent statement, saying that his successor, President Donald Trump, judging from his tweets and statements, appears evil. Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran had the same feeling when he attacked Trump, saying his election was a bad turn. When the US president warned Tehran that it was “playing with fire,” Khamenei responded defiantly that Trump’s statements did not frighten Iran. This was, however, before the Tomahawk missiles struck the Assad regime air base in Shayrat.
It is natural that the North Korean foreign minister should be nostalgic for Obama’s presidency. He looks back at an eight-year snooze in which evil regimes such as North Korea and Iran enjoyed a period of prosperity, developing their capabilities and expanding influence at the expense of others. The result was that North Korea dared to threaten Japan for the first time since World War II; it developed its nuclear and missile capabilities and became a global threat. Iran, meanwhile, took over Syria and Iraq, and is trying to do the same in Yemen.
Washington is trying to protect its two most important allies in the Far East: Japan and South Korea. Thus it has sent Vice President Mike Pence to the South Korean capital of Seoul as well as stationing an aircraft carrier nearby. Despite its internal political uncertainties, the US remains the largest force on the ground, with some 19 aircraft carriers, including 10 large ones. Russia, on the other hand, has only one, as does China.
Military might alone is not enough as the US is fighting far from its territory against neighboring states willing to sacrifice a million soldiers with no obligation of internal accountability. China this week raised its readiness and sent 150,000 soldiers to its border with its ally, North Korea, which also shares a border with Russia. Geopolitically, defending South Korea is a challenging task, as its capital Seoul is only a few kilometers away from the border with its evil northern neighbor. And North Korea has promised to obliterate Seoul and its 11 million people, which is precisely why the US built the world’s most heavily fortified buffer zone.
I do not wish to dwell on the subject of the American-Korean conflict except on the matter of similarities in terms of challenges to the international community. North Korea is very much like Iran; both are states under totalitarian rule with most policies centered around building a huge regional power in contrast to neighboring states.
At a time when South Korea developed socially and economically, and has become among the top countries industrially and technologically, its neighbor on the Korean Peninsula lives in debilitating poverty and under the control of a self-obsessed ruler who spends all the state’s revenues on his ambitions to enhance military force. The situation is similar in Iran. The country is no less rich in natural resources than its Gulf neighbors, but rather than following suit and focusing on developing its economy, Tehran has chosen to expend its resources and base its policies on hegemonic efforts in the region.
The US is keen to protect its areas of influence and self-interest, but under Obama’s administration, it let go of too much. Today, the US administration believes limits for Syrian and North Korean behavior must be clearly set, and it is sending a clear message that it is ready to defend its interests against Russian and Chinese actions. Since the 9/11 attacks, the US has been struggling to restore its image as a powerful and mighty country, but has not really achieved much. The Iraq war was admittedly unsuccessful, and under Obama’s leadership eight years passed during which the US retreated. Today, Washington is facing a changing world in terms of limits and influence.