“North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test,” US President Donald Trump recently wrote on Twitter. “Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”
North Korean belligerence seems to have the Hermit Kingdom on a collision course with the United States, as it becomes clear that something has got to give in a situation that poses plenty of uncomfortable questions and no right answers. What could go wrong?
They’re definitely one of the strangest nations on earth: an isolated communist dictatorship with an impoverished population, all of whom have known nothing but three generations of a crazy personality cult that has built and continues to maintain an eery alternate reality. For years this rogue regime has been seeking nuclear weapons, all the while holding the rest of the world in an uneasy stalemate.
North Korea is reaching a tipping point on its quest for nuclear relevance. Their parallel programs to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles are progressing faster than expected, and soon the day will come when they can marry those to create a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States. Until this happens, the rest of the world sits and waits, unwilling to spark an international conflict to stop them, forced to watch them creep closer to their stated aim.
Analysis of Kim Jong Un’s desire for nuclear relevance often arrives at a simple conclusion: He wants to protect and maintain his regime. For all the bluster, nobody wants to see Korea, let alone the world, become a nuclear wasteland. The same is true of Kim, whose ultimate fear is losing his power. Having seen the fates of other dictators who surrendered their nuclear ambitions, Kim is not willing to go down the same path as, for instance, Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator whose decades in power ended by being beaten to death in the streets by his own people. For Kim, nuclear weapons are about scaring off anyone who might take away his throne.
South Korea is very much the victim in any scenario that looks likely to play out. If things get ugly, they will bear the brunt of it. While all the focus is on the North’s attempts to build a rocket that can reach the United States, their southern neighbour is very much within striking distance. Seoul is essentially 10 million hostages. North Korea doesn’t need any technological advances to make their threat on the capital real, because the amount of conventional artillery it can rain down on the bustling metropolis would devastate the city.
Despite all the talk about putting America first with isolationist and anti-globalist foreign policy, the Trump administration knows that it will have to do something about the rogue nation. While the president threatens, the rest of his administration is trying to keep a peaceful solution on the table, but whether the way forward is diplomatic or military, the White House will be the ones making that call.
America needs to save the day here, but it’s responses are limited. By essentially holding Seoul hostage, North Korea is protecting itself against the full force of America’s military. The US could easily overwhelm the North, but simply charging in, guns blazing, will get lots of people killed. And so America must figure out how to neutralise the threat without risking the hostages.
Not as close as South Korea, but very much still within range, Japan will surely also play a role here. North Korea recently fired a ballistic missile over Japan in an act of provocation that will remind the island nation (not that it needs reminding) that they, too, are within range. Japan has a pacifist constitution that forbids any offensive military capability, but in light of these new threats, they may be seeking to change that. Ideally, Japan will remain unarmed and let America deal with the danger, but as the threat from North Korea increases and their trust in the US decreases, they might want to reconsider their pacifism.
When people talk about a realistic solution to North Korea, they always talk about China. Korea’s neighbor to the north seems to be the key to any diplomatic solution. As the North’s most important ally and by far their closest trading partner, China is the only country able to put the choke on North Korea. Their recent partnership with the US in sanctions was a promising step, but there remains uncertainty that the Chinese are keeping up their end of the deal and actually halting all their trade with the North. If the move is to strike at Kim Jong Un’s purse strings, then that apparently needs to be done through Chinese banks.
It’s impossible to guess what China really wants from the situation. It could well be that they want to retain the status quo. It seems clear that what they definitely don’t want is to see a unified Korea fall into America’s sphere of influence. That is what would happen if Kim is taken out and South Korea absorbs the North, and China then has a major US ally on its border. They like having North Korea as a buffer between them and South Korea, but at the moment that buffer is looking a bit too belligerent. It is probably safe to assume that China will want to expand their influence in the Korean peninsula, and any acceptable resolution for them will have to end with Chinese control over North Korea.