As the pressure cooker that is the Korean peninsula continues to heat up, a new wrinkle in the ongoing geopolitical tension has emerged with the detention of American citizen Kim Sang-duk, a lecturer visiting North Korea. This development comes alongside threats by the North Korean government that it is “ready to sink” an approaching US aircraft carrier and in the wake of a series of North Korean missile tests.
Sang-duk, who also goes by Tony Kim, was in the process of leaving North Korea following a few weeks of guest lecturing at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology when he was arrested. North Korean officials have yet to announce what grounds he was taken in on, although Pyongyang University stated that it was for reasons “not connected” to the school. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reports that Kim had travelled to North Korea for discussions around “aid and relief programs to North Korea,” a topic with which he has been involved in the past. The US State Department declined to respond to the situation beyond acknowledging that it was aware of reports that the detention had occurred, citing “privacy concerns.” Kim is now the third US citizen being held in North Korea against his will, alongside Kim Dong-chul (62) and Otto Warmbier (21).
At the same time, military threats have been issued by both the US and North Korean governments as the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier approaches the latter nation by command of President Donald Trump. The ship was sent out following North Korean missile testing and subsequent warnings by the US that its era of “strategic patience” towards North Korea was over. Last week Trump said that a Vinson-helmed armada was being sent to North Korea, but it turned out to actually be heading in the opposite direction; this time though, he appears to have made good on the same claim. In response to the military movements, North Korea’s state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, warned that the nation’s “revolutionary forces are combat-ready” and that the Vinson could be sunk “with a single strike.” This echoes previous claims made by the publication following comments by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, wherein the paper warned of a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike” that could wipe out, not only US forces stationed in South Korea, but the US mainland itself.
The US has been adversarial with North Korea since the Korean War, which hardened the division between the North and the South that had been drawn by America and the Soviet Republic after the second World War. America’s close alliance with South Korea created tension between the two and North Korea, their mutual enemy, all the more fractious. This long-running rivalry has been worsened in recent months after North Korea tested new rocket engines and ballistic missile technologies, which prompted fear of its potential nuclear capacity. According to US Vice President Mike Pence, the American government wants to stabilize the Korean peninsula “through peaceable means [and] negotiations… but all options are on the table.”
The situation has also seen a shift in circumstances as of late with regards to China, which has historically been more closely aligned with North Korea but recently began to work with the US to ameliorate these tensions. The US National Security Advisor has stated that there is a consensus with China that the situation cannot continue on as it is now, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently expressed a “serious concern with recent trends about North Korea’s nuclear and missile development” and a “commitment to realising the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, maintaining the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, and continu[ing] to solve matters through dialogue and negotiations.” This follows earlier statements by Foreign Minister Wang Yi urging the US to remain “cool-headed” when dealing with North Korea.
What began as a war of words between the US and North Korea is actively devolving into something with far more potential to become legitimately threatening. Now, with a third American citizen in jail on unclear charges and a US aircraft carrier barreling towards North Korean waters, the immediate future of the region is unclear. Though one or both sides could be posturing (and certainly would be acting in line with historical trends in doing so), both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump have been criticized as being impulsive and even irrational leaders. With that said, if there ever was a time in which the situation on the Korean peninsula could boil over into a full-blown crisis, now would seem as good as any.