In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, Kim Jong-Un called US President, Donald Trump, “mentally deranged” and warned him that he would “pay dearly” for issuing threats to the regime during his maiden UN general assembly speech on Tuesday—in which he referred to Kim Jong-Un as “Rocket Man”. He also described the US president as “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire,” while drawing a critical comparison between Trump and his predecessors in the White House, calling him unfit to hold the position of commander in chief. “Far from making remarks of any persuasive power that can be viewed to be helpful to defuse tension, he made unprecedented rude nonsense one has never heard from any of his predecessors.” The direct statement, aimed directly at President Trump and the international community, is believed to be the first of its kind by any North Korean leader since the country was established in 1948.
It is now feared that this statement is a prelude to another nuclear test by Pyongyang involving the “detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific”, as suggested by the country’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho. In carrying out such a threat, North Korea would significantly escalate what is at present, a tense situation for all concerned parties, especially for North Korea’s immediate neighbours, namely Japan, South Korea, and China; it would be the first time it conducted such a test beyond its own borders. Such a possibility carries with it many risks. Chief among them is the possibility of something going wrong during the detonation process. According to Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prospect of Pyongyang launching a test of this kind “is truly terrifying” especially “if something goes wrong.” The atmospheric consequences would pose a risk to shipping, aircrafts, and nearby populations.
Earlier in the day, President Trump issued a new executive order, expanding US sanctions on North Korea’s shipping, banking, ports and manufacturing. It was also announced that China’s banking system had shut down business with the country, despite no official confirmation from the Chinese government itself. Nevertheless, this latest move from the US represents a concerted effort to add pressure to a regime, which has so far refused to halt it nuclear missile tests.
Most recently, Pyongyang launched a missile over Hokkaido, Japan—which crashed into the sea about 1,200km to the east—on September 14th in defiance of new U.N. Security Council sanctions banning its textile exports and capping imports of crude oil. It was a follow-up from a hydrogen bomb test carried out by the regime on September 3rd. These moves not only indicate that North Korea is willing to defy growing international pressure, it also demonstrates the hermit country’s ever-improving nuclear capabilities. Its most recent launch drew worldwide condemnation and on the eve of the annual UN General Assembly meeting this past week, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, stated that the UN Security Council had run out of options on containing North Korea’s nuclear program. Speaking to CNN, she added that the Council had “pretty much exhausted all the things that it can do at this point” and that she was perfectly happy to turn the matter over to the Pentagon and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Her comments, along with those of President Trump seem aimed at further cementing the notion that the United States is willing to engage in military action against North Korea—despite the numerous pitfalls that such an option would pose.
Military action, of course, is complicated by one fact in particular: North Korea is a self-declared nuclear weapons state. That much has been clear ever since it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006—a status which is acknowledged by most if not all international observers. It carried out that test while being fully aware that under the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), which it first ratified and later withdrew from, that the only recognized/legal nuclear weapons states are those that declared nuclear programs when the treaty was written in 1968. The five ‘originals’, namely the US, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China happen to be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the same international body tasked with drafting and agreeing to the latest package of sanctions aimed at isolating and containing North Korea. Those sanctions, though, like all previous ones, seem to have had little effect on Pyongyang. Rather, they seem to have bolstered its resolve. And that much seems clear if Kim Jong-Un’s latest (and most direct) statement is anything to go by. All of which leads one to question the wisdom of possibly carrying out a military attack, directly or indirectly, on a nuclear state whose stated goal is to achieve nuclear equilibrium with the United States.
At the very least, the latest comments reflect a growing escalation in tensions between the US and co. and North Korea, in what is surely a worrying time for the most Pyongyang’s rivals in the region—Japan has had to watch nervously as Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile over its territory earlier this month. Despite landing in the Pacific Ocean, that experience coupled with any future missile tests will do little to allay the fears of both the US and its allies, who are at the moment bent on stopping North Korea’s “reckless” behaviour. The tests and the all-too-familiar (and bellicose) statements emanating from the Trump administration and Pyongyang are a worrying indicator of how far apart both sides are from resolving the current crisis, which, in all honesty, could do with a little more prudence and cool-headedness from both Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
The need for caution doesn’t negate the fact that North Korea’s provocative (and at most times dangerous) activities throughout the past year require a firm, yet measured approach from the international community. Based on what we are witnessing at the moment, it appears that most of the world’s leading nations, such as Russia and China, are pursuing a path to dialogue built along those lines. In doing so, they can at least avoid adding more fuel to an already toxic crisis—a crisis which could do with a little less belligerence and goading (as mentioned previously). All of which leads me to my next point: incentives for negotiating.
Amid all the talk over the lack of good options available to the US and its allies in the present crisis, a key (and somewhat ignored) facet of the crisis, is the absence of incentives which could serve to compel all of the affected parties to engage in much-need-dialogue. By identifying and providing possible incentives for Kim Jong-Un’s regime to denuclearize (as the US and its regional partners hope it will), the international community would at least lay the foundations for such talks. These talks would require both sides to act in good faith and make good on the promises and collective objectives to be outlined during said discussions. And from what we now know of previous attempts to bring North Korea back into the fold of an international system governed by shared norms and practices, the successful conclusion of the proposed talks would require all sides to put aside their longstanding hostility and mistrust for one another. In doing so, they would be putting foundations into place for future relations which aren’t defined by the plethora of “military options” that one side has over the other.
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