Just six months into the administration of President Donald Trump, the war of words and nuclear threats between the United States and North Korea have escalated, and a peaceful resolution to the escalating crisis is more difficult than ever to achieve.
Both leaders need to immediately work to deescalate the situation and direct their diplomats to engage in an adult conversation designed to resolve tensions
On 1 January, North Korea’s authoritarian ruler Kim Jong Un vowed to “continue to build up” his country’s nuclear forces “as long as the United States and its vassal forces keep on [sic] nuclear threat and blackmail.” Kim also warned that North Korea was making preparations to flight-test a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Two days later, Trump could not resist laying down a “red line” on Twitter, saying, “It won’t happen.”
Pyongyang has responded to the US statements and military exercises on North Korea’s doorstep with its own, even more bellicose rhetoric. Following press reports that a US carrier strike group was being sent toward the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations warned on 17 April that “a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment” and that his country is “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the United States.”
After an interagency review, Trump and his team announced a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” to try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and its ballistic missile program. So far, the approach has been all “pressure” and no “engagement,” with US officials calling for North Korea to agree to take concrete steps to show its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
In response, North Korea has accelerated its pace of ballistic missile tests, including flight tests of missiles in July with ICBM capabilities. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted on 5 August the toughest UN Security Council sanctions yet imposed on North Korea. Yesterday, the Korean Central News Agency lashed out, warning that it will mobilise all its resources to take “physical action” in retaliation in response to the UN actions.
Trump, in turn, said “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump’s attempt to play the role of nuclear “madman” is as dangerous, foolish, and counterproductive as North Korea’s frequent hyperbolic threats against the United States.
Trump’s latest statement is a blatant threat of nuclear force that will not compel Kim to shift course. In fact, repeated threats of US military force only give credibility to the North Korean propaganda line that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter US aggression, and it may lead Kim to try to accelerate his nuclear program.
That should not come as a surprise. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, US “atomic diplomacy” has consistently failed to achieve results. The historical record shows that US nuclear threats during the Korean War and later against China and the Soviet Union, as well as Nixon’s “madman” strategy against North Vietnam, failed to bend adversaries to US goals.
The threat of pre-emptive US military action against North Korea is not credible, in large part because the risks are extremely high.
North Korea has the capacity to devastate the metropolis of Seoul, with its 10 million inhabitants, by launching a massive artillery barrage and hundreds of conventionally armed, short-range ballistic missiles. Moreover, if hostilities begin, there is the prospect that North Korea could use some of its remaining nuclear weapons, which could kill millions in South Korea and Japan.
US intelligence sources believe North Korea has already developed a warhead design small enough and light enough for delivery by an ICBM. North Korea’s may have a supply of fissile material for up to 25 nuclear weapons, but its fissile production capacity is likely growing and it may be ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test explosion, which would further advance ability to develop a reliable missile-deliverable warhead.
Trump and his advisers need to curb the impulse to threaten military action, which only increases the risk of catastrophic miscalculation. A saner and more effective approach is to work with China to tighten the sanctions pressure and simultaneously open a new diplomatic channel designed to defuse tensions and to halt and eventually reverse North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear and missile programs.
Better enforcement of UN sanctions designed to hinder North Korea’s weapons procurement, financing, and key sources of foreign trade and revenue is very important. Such measures can help increase the leverage necessary for a diplomatic solution. But it is naive to think that sanctions pressure and bellicose US threats of nuclear attack can force North Korea to change course.
Unless there is a diplomatic strategy to reduce tensions and to halt further nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests in exchange for measures that ease North Korea’s fear of military attack, Pyongyang’s nuclear strike capabilities will increase, with a longer range and less vulnerable to attack, and the risk of a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula will likely grow.