Howard Altman: Former South Korean commando leader liked Trump's 'fire and fury'

The former head of the South Korea commando forces defends Trump's response to North Korea nuclear threats.
In-Bum Chun
In-Bum Chun
Published August 17 2017
Updated August 21 2017

President Donald Trump kicked off a firestorm over his statement that a missile attack from North Korea would "be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

But one man, anyway — the former head of South Korea's commando forces — tells me the words, while harsh, may have had the desired effect.

After those comments, and new United Nations sanctions, it now appears that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un has apparently called off plans to fire missiles towards Guam, a U.S. territory. In-Bum Chun says Trump's statements "contributed in a good way" toward Kim backing off his threats.

"Kim Jong-un is a practical person, so I think he understood that this time he might have overstepped a little bit too far," Chun said in a phone conversation Wednesday. "There is an old Korean saying that a fighting dog does not bark. I don't use that often out of respect for dogs."

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I first met Chun a few years back while he was touring Veterans Memorial Park and Museum in Tampa. At the time, he was the three-star general in charge of South Korea's Special Operations Forces. I saw him again in February at the Global SOF Foundation symposium, where we talked about his concern over the growing North Korean ballistic missile capabilities.

Last week, as the tensions on the peninsula were at a boil, he expressed his concerns about someone as mercurial as Kim having intercontinental ballistic missiles and the eventual capability to equip them with nuclear warheads.

"I am very worried," he told me last week. "I've never believed Kim John-un was crazy. They have a rationale all their own, but it seems they are very close to a miscalculation."

At the time, Kim threatened to fire a missile toward Guam, a U.S. territory and home to a key military base. Trump's "fire and fury" statement seemed to stoke tensions. But to Chun, it was just a matter of speaking the language Kim understands.

"I am concerned about their stupidity and ignorance," Chun said. "If you are trying to talk to an ignorant and stupid person and you have a Ph.D., you have to talk on their level, not on your level."

Trump's remarks, said Chun, "were probably on their level."

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Chun, who retired in 2015 after 35 years in uniform and is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institute's Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said South Koreans were surprised by Trump's comments.

"My friends are pretty worried" about the increasing belligerence from Pyongyang, said Chun. "The population seems to be more concerned than before, as they should be, because now we have both sides of the Pacific exchanging very extreme words. It is nothing new from the North Koreans, but very new for the United States."

But one thing hasn't changed, he said. Tens of millions of South Koreans are still in range of the north's artillery and missiles.

"It's like having cancer," he said. "You live with it."

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Chun last week repeated his concern about the rapid development of North Korea's missile program and said he would not be surprised if the North Koreans were able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile with a workable re-entry system by the end of next year.

Top U.S. military officials say that diplomacy, which is underway, is preferred, but war plans are ready.

Chun declined to talk about South Korean capabilities or potential plans, but said his country is "prepared to execute."

Any attack on the north would be difficult at best, he said.

"They have been digging tunnels for the past 70 years," Chun said. "Not even the North Koreans know where all their stuff is underground."

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The Pentagon last week announced today the death of two soldiers who were supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.

Sgt. Roshain Euvince Brooks, 30, of Brooklyn, New York and Spc. Allen Levi Stigler Jr., 22, of Arlington, Texas died Aug. 13 of wounds sustained while engaged in combat operations in Iraq. Both soldiers were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 42 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 35 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; and one death under classified as other contingency operations as part of the global war on terrorism.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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