On Monday, during his annual New Year’s Day address, which was broadcast live on North Korean state TV, Kim Jong-un, warned the United States that his country’s nuclear forces are now “completed.” After a year in which he ordered a string of missile launches—including three intercontinental ballistic missiles—and the regime’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability is now a reality. “We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017,” he declared, before adding that his country needed “to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and accelerate their deployment.” He also warned that the “US should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my desk. This is not blackmail but reality.” Kim did, however, point out that the North’s nuclear arsenal played a purely deterrent role. “The entire area of the US mainland is within our nuclear strike range,” he said. He added that “The US can never start a war against me and our country. These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened.”
In the very same speech, he struck a different tone towards his country’s neighbour, South Korea, who will be hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics in February. Describing the sporting event as a “good opportunity to display the status of the Korean nation.” Kim also stated that his country was “prepared to take various steps, including the dispatch of a delegation” and that North Korean athletes could participate. These comments, it should be noted, came after South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, encouraged Pyongyang to send a delegation to the Games, hoping their presence would help ease tensions on the Korean peninsula—something that is much-needed considering the bellicose rhetoric coming out of North Korea throughout much of 2017.
A fact that cannot be disputed, though, is that North Korea remains as bellicose and defiant as ever. However, what remains to be seen, is what sort of response these comments will draw from Washington, considering the hardline attitude it has adopted towards North Korea in recent times. Nonetheless, recently, President Trump who was celebrating the transition into the New Year from Mar-a-Lago, has been quoted as saying “We’ll see, we’ll see” when asked about Kim’s claim that he has a nuclear button on his desk, and that the weapons can reach the U.S.
With that said, owing to doubts over North Korea’s actual nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration is likely to continue to pursue sanctions against North Korea, which makes the prospect of diplomatic talks between the two sides highly unlikely. In doing so, the United States would miss what seems to be a golden opportunity—provided by the aforementioned Winter Olympics—to open new channels of dialogue with Pyongyang. As well, in relation to the U.S.’ participation in those games, it seems wise to adopt a conciliatory approach that is more in line with the one taken by South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, who last month proposed that Seoul and Washington postpone annual joint military drills until after the Olympics. In addition, by sending its own delegation to meet with the North Koreans during the games, the U.S. could, at least, test out an alternative path in its pursuit of reduced tensions with Jong-un’s regime. Any semblance of progress born out of this effort would be an improvement compared to the more current approach that has been adopted by the US, which includes increased sanctions on Pyongyang coupled with bellicose rhetoric that has, so far, failed to stop Pyongyang in its bid to achieve full nuclear status. Worse yet, the U.S. seems to have strengthened Kim’s resolve. A continuation of this trend in 2018 is unsustainable and will likely set both sides on a collision course—a nightmare scenario for all sides involved considering the potential humanitarian, economic, and security issues this would cause.
But the abovementioned issues don’t seem to factor prominently in much of the Trump administration’s current thinking. This may explain why the U.S. has looked increasingly isolated from the rest of the international community in recent times. A case in point is how far apart it is from the rest of the international community on the question of how to ease tensions with North Korea—a fact that is magnified by recent breaches to UN sanctions and resolutions against the regime. For instance, on numerous occasions over the past three to four months, both Russia and China (who have been asked to do more to contain North Korea) have been put under spotlight due to the fact that ships and tankers, that are manned by their citizens, were found to be operating in direct violation of those sanctions. Meanwhile, in relation to the latest sanctions imposed to reduce limits on Pyongyang’s refined oil imports, the tankers in question are said to have transferred fuel to the regime’s tankers at sea, which is an obvious violation of the sanctions.
That said, the U.S. has every right to feel aggrieved since it was believed that Russia and China would live up to their commitment to curtail Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. However, a failure to understand why the breaches occurred in the first place is to ignore the fact that not all countries agree with the U.S. approach to the problem. That, of course, leads to an issue relating to credibility and a lack of a unified message in response to North Korea’s belligerence. How the U.S. and the rest of the international community manage to address this and the numerous issues relating to the North Korean denuclearization, remains an open question. Nevertheless, creating an environment conducive to healthy discussions with the North Koreans, though, should be at the heart of any approach to the crisis.
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