Located on the Korean peninsula, bordering China, Russia, and South Korea, North Korea has always been sandwiched between major powers, and has been for decades a source of international tension and conflict. This status was cemented during the active phase of the Korean War (1950-1953), and has continued to this day with the border between North and South Korea often called “the most dangerous place in the world.”
In recent years, the danger posed by North Korea has grown in dramatic fashion, as under Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, the country has actively sought to develop a nuclear weapons program that threatens not only South Korea, but the entire Asian region, and even the US.
More specifically, over the course of this summer, North Korea conducted a number of successful tests of long-range missiles, as well as underground tests of nuclear weapons. It is due to the emergent threat to the United States that North Korea has become a hot topic in American media. As a result of these developments, most security specialists now agree that North Korea has the capability to launch nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can hit the United States. This is obviously is a serious threat, especially considering the volatility of the North Korean regime. This begs the question: What should we do to stop the development of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?
In the past, US presidents have dealt with North Korea by essentially keeping the issue in limbo in order to prevent the outbreak of war. This was visible during the Bush and Obama administrations as both tried to do as little as possible to provoke the country and its leadership. Simultaneously, they worked to hold Kim in check through working with the UN Security Council and placing extreme sanctions on his state. While effective in crippling the economic output of the nation, if anything, the sanctions have made the North Korean regime to further pursue nuclear capabilities to act as leverage in the tense balancing act of preserving their state.
Donald Trump inherited the problem of North Korea from his predecessors. It is not a problem of his making, but at the same time, his approach to the world in general appears to have made what was already a bad situation even worse.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, he has shown he has little understanding of foreign policy and the fragile nature on which key issues. So far, it seems as though every interaction the president has had with North Korea has been one of provocation. By stating that the United States would respond to North Korea with “Fire and Fury, the like of which the world has never seen,” Trump has effectively demonstrated his willingness to use nuclear weapons, and is further inciting the North Korean regime to make nuclear warheads.
We all know the devastation nuclear weapons bring to the table, but let’s just say Trump doesn’t. If he were to genuinely attack North Korea on a preemptive strike he would be killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, in addition to permanently scarring the environment of North Korea. To add to this devastation, the North would surely retaliate, not by striking the US mainland, but by attacking our allies in East Asia. Seoul, South Korea’s capital, lies a stone’s throw from the North Korean border, and tens of millions would be killed, thanks to American hotheadedness should this situation arise.
While actions by the North Korean regime may seem irresponsible and rash, they are tactical—Kim Jong-Un is simply aiming to continue his consolidation of power over the country. Sam Ellis of Vox states that “They saw the US invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein because they thought he might have nukes. . . . The Kim Dynasty is determined not to be next.” The motives of the Kim dynasty have been clear all along, and it is the job of the US president to react accordingly.
While it is important to note that Trump has taken action on a subject that his predecessors have avoided, many of the actions Trump has done or proposed would and have been catastrophic. He simply doesn’t understand the nature of the North Korean situation enough to make tactical decisions regarding the region. He clearly doesn’t understand that the regime’s pattern of boasting about nuclear capabilities and testing warheads is a power play to negotiate with the global community from a position of power.
Trump’s lack of understanding has created tensions with many Asian nations. He has criticized South Korea for not contributing enough financially to the United States, and has recently attacked them for not helping enough with the issue of North Korea. Despite the potential danger South Korea is in, they don’t have nuclear weapons, something Trump has come scarily close to stating a desire to change. Similarly, by not filtering his ideas on the matter, he has further aggravated China’s desire to maintain North Korea as a buffer between their borders and a close American ally in South Korea.
There are no correct answers to the issue of North Korea, but there are wrong answers. Trump has been rash in his decision-making regarding the contentious situation, and if the United States continues in the direction Trump has pointed us in, we may all have to face the consequences.