While visiting the DMZ between North and South Korea, with tensions mounting and ongoing militarization by either side, United States Vice President Mike Pence declared an end to the American strategy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea. As the US begins to work with China to develop a cohesive strategy in the region, Pyongyang has warned that it is “ready to hit back with nuclear attacks” if provoked.
Pence made his comments during a diplomatic trip to South Korea meant to reaffirm the alliance between the two countries, arriving in Seoul mere hours after North Korea tried and failed to launch a ballistic missile. The unsuccessful launch was attempted during celebrations of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and is one of several such tests in the past few weeks. Pence referred to the missile test as part of a larger “pattern of provocative and destabilizing and threatening behaviour”, emphasizing that though the US wants to achieve security on the Korean peninsula through nonviolent negotiation, “all options are on the table.” With 1,000 American airmen currently conducting training exercises in South Korean airspace, it would seem that his verbal threat is backed by physical gestures.
Lieutenant General and US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster added Sunday that America was in the process of bilaterally developing a “range of [responsive] options” alongside China. He later confirmed to ABC News that China agreed with the US government that the situation in North Korea must be stopped. President Trump himself, though an ardent critic of China while on the campaign trail, soon confirmed this strategic partnership. McMaster highlighted the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of a hostile regime as the driving force behind current American policy towards North Korea.
North Korea, for its part, has met these foreign threats with those of its own. “We’re prepared to respond to an all-out war with an all-out war” emphasized second-in-command Choe Ryong-hae. He continued, “We are ready to hit back with nuclear attacks of our own style against any nuclear attacks.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, warned caution as “conflict [in the region] could break out at any moment”, while United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson emphasized that Pyongyang must comply with United Nations resolutions prohibiting its missile tests.
The last time North Korea tested ballistic missiles, Chinese Foreign Minister Yi called for the US to remain “cool-headed” when responding. That China is now actively working with the US to develop policy signals a shift, though whether the end result will evidence the moderation for which Yi urged remains to be seen.
Of course, non-military resolutions also remain available. Following the previous round of missile tests, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that “the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures.” Though the United Nations and certain individual countries already have sanctions on North Korea, more targeted economic pressure might prompt a more explicit response. Of course, the new US-China partnership complicates this, as many of the specific institutions that experts suggest be sanctioned are Chinese enterprises. John Nilsson-Wright of the Chatham House think-tank, for instance, identifies Chinese banks and Chinese oil exports as two prime points of monetary weakness for Pyongyang; that Beijing would be willing to hurt it’s own assets seems unlikely, but such actions may be necessary if China’s wish for a nonviolent resolution to this crisis is to be resolved.