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With North Korea showing no signs to halt their nuclear weapons program, many have called for a change in strategy when dealing with the East Asian state. It seems the Trump administration is set to deliver such a shift. North Korea has been a popular area of discourse for key members of the administration in the past. Whether its National Security Advisor Michael Flynn hinting at North Korean ties to jihadism or CIA Director Mike Pompeo believing N.Korea is in an “evil partnership” with Iran, US discourse surrounding the state is predominantly negative and expressive of future economic and military action by the US. Despite this, a clear North Korean policy is yet to be laid out.
The recent North Korean ballistic missiles launch that landed in Japanese waters seems to have initiated the US’s shift in policy. The missiles were the largest produced yet and North Korea claims they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Many believe they represent a dangerous threat to the region and possibly the USA in the future. “The latest launches of ballistic missiles clearly demonstrate evidence of a new threat from North Korea,” said Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister. He added, “The launches are clearly in violation of [UN] security council resolutions. It is an extremely dangerous action.”
The latest moves by Pyongyang represents a worrying episode with regards to world peace. Equally, the recent moves and rhetoric employed by the USA seem to be far more aggressive than the past strategies. US drones with missile capacities are being permanently stationed in South Korea. This deployment and the development of THAAD anti-ballistic missile defences in South Korea represent a significant build up of US military force in the region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that “all options are on the table” with regards to action on the recent escalation in missile testing.
This increase in military material and conflict discourse by the US in response to North Korea is problematic. While the peaceful efforts of the past have been seemingly unsuccessful, the rapidity of the US response could lead to an unnecessary military escalation, especially as North Korea responded to US measure by stating “We have the will and capability to fully respond to any war which the US wants. If the businessmen-turned-US officials thought that they would frighten us, they would soon recognize that their method would not work.”
The possibility of a nuclear capable North Korea is worrying for international peace as they are considered to be an irrational power. Jeffery Lewis, the director of the east Asia nonproliferation programme at Middlebury Institute of International Affairs at Monterey in California outlines the nature of this instability: “The thing the North Koreans are most afraid of is that we’re going to kill Kim Jong-un in a decapitating strike and … that will strengthen their incentives to make sure that low-level commanders will have the ability to use nuclear weapons. It will make the North Koreans even more jumpy and have a way itchier trigger finger.”
The realities of a US military attack would be disastrous as it would surely equate a response by North Korea, which would put South Korea in serious jeopardy even if the US strikes eliminate the long-range missiles. The focus of the regime is to maintain power, thus any actions by the US and surrounding countries, such as China that suggest they want a regime change will cause the North Korean government to act in defence. Long-term bargaining negotiations would be most effective to coerce North Korea into reducing their threat to world peace.
While the Trump administration seems to believe negotiations and conflict resolution is ineffective, there remain some non-violent solutions before they resort to pre-emptive attacks. For example, a continuation of the cyber warfare efforts that were implemented by Obama or further increased trade sanctions could be effective. If the US can gain global support with stricter sanctions, they may be able to achieve similar results to those in Iran with the nuclear deal. Though many commentators have drawn attention to the differences between the two cases.
Thus, the next months will be decisive to the future relations between North Korea and the USA, as well, how the Trump administration handles the events may be indicative of the manner in which they deal with future threats. Let us hope that these methods are not through military force.