After proving it can deliver ballistic missiles to locations thousands of kilometres from Pyongyang, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un confirmed to the global community last week that he’s in possession of nuclear weapons, detonating what experts believe is a 100-kiloton-plus thermonuclear device.
Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, which provoked a magnitude-6.3 earthquake after an underground detonation, will probably be followed by further intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, potentially even today, as Kim’s regime celebrates the 69th anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The ball appears to be in US President Donald Trump’s court, but it’s not entirely clear he knows what to do with it. As has been graphically obvious since Trump took office, his administration’s response to complex situations has been completely dysfunctional. Trump himself has called Kim a “smart cookie,” threatened to respond to provocation with “fire and fury,” and most recently indicated that – while all options remain on the table – diplomacy would be his preferred path of resolution.
If it’s not alarmingly clear to all parties involved that diplomacy is the answer then we should be more concerned than we already are. It’s not common to hear Russian Premier Vladimir Putin moonlighting as the voice of reason. At a conference in Vladivostok — less than 700 kilometers from Pyongyang — and sitting alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Putin asked Trump not to play along with Kim and his provocations.
“Since I started studying North Korea, in the mid 1980s, and made my first visit there, in 1996, my conclusion is the US has played an important role in helping the Kim family stay in power,” explained Mitsuhiro Mimura, a senior researcher at Japan’s Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia whose been to North Korea 45 times since 1996. “When the outside world threatens the North, it makes DPRK stronger. People rally and come together to find a way to confront the threat — including the threat of sanctions.”
Several international experts agree Trump is playing to Kim’s strategy, which isn’t nuclear war but to push the US out of the Korean Peninsula. “The end game isn’t nuclear war, which would lead to the destruction of North Korea and the end of the Kim dynasty, but driving a wedge between the US and its allies, especially South Korea,” wrote Andray Abrahamian on 38 North, a news and analysis site supported by Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.
As Trump seeks to “make America great again,” he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and has called the Korea-US free trade agreement “unacceptable” and “horrible.”
The US president has also called on South Korea to pick up the tab on the US$1-billion anti-missile battery system named Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) that is currently being installed around the rural town of Seongju. “If the economic relationship is not advantageous and the strategic one imperils their country,” suggesting Trump could walk away from “extended deterrence” to avoid a North Korean strike on Western United States, “what is the value of this alliance anymore,” ponders Abrahamian.
If South Korea and Japan were no longer under the US nuclear umbrella, would that push them to pursue their own nuclear deterrents? And, if that occurred, what message would that send to US allies in the heavily militarised and armed conflict-prone Middle East?
The 300-pound gorilla in the room is China. Trump’s strategy is to press the People’s Republic of China to put serious financial pressure on Kim. China shares a 1,400-kilometre border with North Korea, provides it with “most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for upwards of 90 percent” of its total trade volume, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, DPRK’s complex financing techniques — which include “cybercrime, military equipment sales, currency counterfeiting, narcotics, and even wildlifetrafficking,” according to a report by C4ADS — are mainly channelled through China.
While North Korea’s nuclear weapons are unsettling to China’s leadership, the prospect of regime collapse and thus losing a buffer with US-backed South Korea means continued, albeit reluctant, support for Kim.
It all comes back to Trump, who has tweeted things like “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will!” It is now painfully clear that Trump’s reality show-rhetoric has emboldened Kim, frightened the United States’ allies, and injected further instability into the region.
President Trump, it’s time to stop tweeting and engage in some serious diplomacy.