In recent weeks, relations between the United States and North Korea have sharply deteriorated, prompting panic as the world wonders if wildcard President Donald Trump is inclined to press the nuclear button.
This is not the first time a conflict has flared between North Korea and the United States. Hostilities were serious in 1993 during the height of the nuclear crisis and again after North Korea’s first nuclear test in the beginning of 2006. These and other crises ultimately ended in neutrality. Historical evidence indicates that the current crisis is also likely to end peacefully if the situation didn’t have one single important variable in Trump.
After struggling to gain traction domestically throughout his first year in office, Trump would benefit from a strong showing internationally. Maybe that’s why he has played up the United States’ readiness to strike if provoked by North Korea. At the same time, we know that Trump is willing to make big bets overseas, as he did when the Gulf Nations recently came into conflict with Qatar, a strong ally of the United States. Trump’s tough stances, coupled with his unpredictable persona, are certainly risky, but his bluffs paid off in the Middle East. Can the same thing work in Asia?
The U.S. and North Korea have exchanged threats regarding the use of preventive nuclear strikes for years, but thus far none of the tense discourse has dissuaded North Korea from actively developing a nuclear program and regularly conducting missile tests.
Pyongyang may not want to start a war, but Kim Jong-un tries to force the United States, Russia, China and other countries to recognize the autonomy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a nuclear state.
Even though the Korean peninsula, separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone serving as a buffer, is one of the most militarized places on earth, the chances of a full-scale war developing there are low. Neither the North nor South wants to see their country decimated, and superpower neighbors like Russia and China don’t want a conflict with the U.S. on their borders. In fact, many people have completely disregarded Kim Jong-un’s threats of an attack on places like Guam, where according to reports the popular tourist destination maintains a relaxed atmosphere, typical for the summer season.
President of South Korea Moon Jae-in has said that there will not be a second war on the Korean Peninsula, despite the lack of pledges from the North to abandon nuclear weapons programs and ballistic missiles tests. “The people worked together to rebuild the country from the Korean War, and we cannot lose everything again because of a war,” Moon Jae-in said at a press conference last month.
Moon Jae-in also said that he is studying the possibility of sending a special envoy to North Korea for talks if Pyongyang stops its missile and nuclear tests. He stressed that he received firm assurances from the U.S. that they would not take any military action without the approval of Seoul. “The United States and President Trump have already promised to sufficiently consult with South Korea and get our approval for whatever option they will take against North Korea. It’s a firm agreement between South Korea and the United States,” Moon Jae-in said.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accepted a “very wise and well-reasoned decision” to postpone missile launches toward the American territory of Guam. However, he also recently promised to inflict “fire and fury.” Considering Trump’s tough talk was met with a subsequent missile test over Japan, it’s clear that North Korea perceives the president’s threats as bravado and rhetoric.
North Korea boasts the fourth largest army in the world, but South Korea trails only slightly at the seventh largest. The South Korean military budget is also 25 times more than North Korea’s. This means Moon Jae-in’s statements have significant force behind them, so long as Trump maintains his assurances.
At this time, there is no mobilization of the North Korean army or preparations for ground operations. There is only increased combat readiness. For North Korea, it is important to reach nuclear potential by 2020 from 30 to 60 combat-capable charges. In addition to nuclear tests, North Korea is building a modern missile control system.
The United States wants to enlist the support of the Russian Federation and China to pressure North Korea, but both Russia and China refrain from making harsh statements. They have historical and military relations with North Korea, and actively cooperate. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the problem with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear program can be solved only through dialogue, and that threats and pressure are a way to nowhere. According to Putin, Moscow and Beijing have developed a roadmap for the settlement on the Korean peninsula, designed to contribute to the gradual reduction of tension, and the creation of a mechanism for lasting peace and security. Russia also said that they will react to any U.S. missile expansion in South Korea.
The most likely result of recent escalation is that the White House will seek to implement new sanctions against Korea. The U.S. is already calling for a UN vote on new sanctions, and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington will circulate a new resolution this week, with a goal of voting on it next Monday.
Although the Trump administration is planning new sanctions, it is unlikely that these sanctions will stop North Korea from nuclear development. The way out of the situation here can only be to sit at the negotiating table. Sanctions have not and will not lead to North Korea stopping the development of nuclear weapons. It is necessary to achieve an integrated settlement through negotiation mechanisms, which should be realized between Pyongyang and Washington, and between Pyongyang and Seoul.