NGV Friday: A New Year and a New North Korea?

Nathan Smith NGV

The reclusive regime over on the Korean peninsula created what would be one of the most intriguing and dangerous stories of 2017.  With an economy and a government centered around the might of its military, North Korea terrified the United States and its allies with their threats.  Kim Jong Un was not afraid to attack President Trump, threaten the contiguous United States, and even the naval base at Guam.  The failure of past administrations was clear as North Korea was able to finally display the nuclear weapons they had acquired through the years.  The Clinton administration had originally reached a deal in 1994 to deter the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.  The hasty agreement was quickly proven to be a mistake.  During the Bush administration, the North Koreans first tested their weapons with subsequent launches over the next few years.

The Obama administration was not willing for the regime to continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but the policy of “strategic patience” proved not to be the most effective.  There was not any productive dialogue during the Obama years and little visible cooperation with South Korea and Japan.  Regardless, North Korea continued their policy of “military first” as the rest of the nation suffered.  The change of leadership did not change this reality.  Kim Jong Un had taken over after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011.  He, like his father, maintained his iron grip on the nation by continuing his work to preserve the military strength of North Korea.

As the United States waged their own internal war over its next president in 2016, the threats of war and destruction by the hostile North Korean regime began to increase.  During the presidential primary debates within the Republican Party, the topic of North Korea was frequently brought up.  How would each of the candidates deal with a missile launch from the rogue regime?  What was the proper military response?  As many analysts realized, the situation was far more complex than originally thought.  Any military action that was taken by the U.S. would cause a disastrous response that would severely threaten South Korea.  Even a strike to destroy all of the nuclear launch sites was risky.  Lack of credible intelligence, retaliation from the regime and general uncertainty posed a real problem for any military action.

The U.S. presidential election eventually took place and Donald Trump was left with quite a challenge from the rogue regime.  However, unlike his predecessors, instead of waiting and relying on diplomacy, the new president focused on engaging with the dictator on social media, threatening to destroy the nation, and pressuring China to act.  This was a completely new approach, but it did not guarantee success either.  Many politicians and media figures thought that provoking the regime would be dangerous to national security.  Thus far, it has not triggered a catastrophic response from the dictator, but has kept the fighting on social media and not with nuclear missiles.

With the ushering in of the new year, Kim Jong Un seems to have lessened his posture.  After spending the past year being under the international spotlight for the wrong reasons, North Korea might be finally deciding to reform its approach.  Although they most likely want to be respected by the world, the regime may have realized that its threatening posture was not producing the desired results.  Similar to India, Pakistan, and Israel, North Korea claimed that the reason for possessing nuclear weapons was to ward off any country (especially those from dominant figures such as the U.S. and China) that they felt threatened their national security.  Thus, giving up their arsenal to an organization sent by the United Nations or having them destroyed by the United States was not a viable option.

Ironically, the Winter Olympics are being held in South Korea this year.  As the competition approaches, the regime has been leaning towards dialogue with the U.S. and its allies.  The Trump administration and the South Korean leadership have been cautious with this new development.  They cannot afford the major consequence of being tricked into a situation in which Kim Jong Un has the upper hand.  It should be the mission of the U.S. and its allies to find out what the regime is seeking during this “thawing of relations” period.  The powerful Chinese government, however, has refused to take any action that disrupts the North Korean government.  The only encouraging sign was their recent vote in favor of strong economic sanctions on North Korea in the United Nations Security Council resolution on the matter.  Despite the challenges, the U.S. should continue their diplomatic dialogue with China with the hope that they will eventually use their influence on North Korea to lessen the threat level.

As with any complex international affairs crisis, avoiding war should always be the most important focus.  However, strong diplomacy should always backed by a powerful military (as Reagan did).  With the Trump administration, any diplomatic action that the U.S. takes will come with the promise of a strong military response if a reached agreement is not carried out.  This turn of events could be promising in that war could be avoided, but it will take time for U.S. to acknowledge a regime that starves and tortures its own people in the pursuit of military dominance.


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