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Asia-Pacific / North Korea

North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy is Working

The past few weeks have been unnerving in the international arena, with North Korea having conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date on September 3rd and yet another missile test on September 15th. On September 15th, North Korea launched its second intermediate-range ballistic missile over the northern coast of Japan, this time in response to tougher sanctions imposed by the United Nations. With relations already fraught between the United States and North Korea, these developments have only served to add to the uncertainty of what will happen in the next few months. To make matters worse, President Trump once again hopped on Twitter to chastise South Korea for “talk of appeasement with North Korea,” just hours after the nuclear test on September 3rd had taken place.

As is so often the case with President Trump, his tweets lack context and shroud the situation in mystery. Following the missile test on September 15th, Trump sent out an even more ambiguous tweet than before:

With regards to Trump’s first tweet, his use of the term “appeasement” seems to refer to the Democratic Party of Korea’s so-called “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea. The Sunshine Policy is an approach that involves diplomatically engaging with North Korea rather than being confrontational. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, came into office this past year on the premise of seeing the Sunshine Policy come to fruition, but has also been very pragmatic in dealing with North Korea. Following each North Korean nuclear or missile test, Moon Jae-in has responded strongly by implementing military plans and upgrading South Korea’s defensive capabilities. However, even after North Korea’s most recent tests, Moon Jae-in has refused to remove diplomatic options from the table, and this seems to have irked Trump. As a result, Trump has taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure over South Korean actions. Unfortunately, the scary truth is that engaging in this sort of Twitter diplomacy has ramifications beyond simply angering a key ally; it may mean that North Korea’s strategy with nuclear weapons is working.

Although many have theorized as to what North Korea is seeking to achieve by developing nuclear weapons, no one truly knows what the country’s ultimate goal is. The prevailing explanation seems to be that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s head of state, has continued to expand and develop his nuclear arsenal in order to prevent regime change in the future. A nuclear realist would similarly argue that we need not worry too much; North Korea is simply developing nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence. However, this way of thinking ignores the fact that North Korea’s advancing nuclear program is in direct opposition to the U.S.-led nonproliferation regime that arose a few decades ago. It is also important to recognize that there is still significant uncertainty as to whether Kim Jong Un is a rational or irrational actor. While it is certainly possible that the nuclear realist theory applies in the case of North Korea, there is a lesser-known theory that is more compelling. The other theory, postulated by those in the State Department who have negotiated with North Korea in the pastsuch as Ambassador Christopher Hillstates that North Korea’s true goal in developing nuclear weapons is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies, namely South Korea.

The hegemonic struggle between the U.S. and China for control over the Korean Peninsula has been brewing since the Cold War and has reached new levels with the military build-up in the South China Sea. Although South Korea has grown to be a major economic power in Asia and is now able to exert much more influence, North Korea, despite wallowing in poverty, has been able to maintain an international presence through Chinese support. Given this fact, if it is true that North Korea’s primary goal with nuclear weapons is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, one could infer that it is also one of China’s primary goals. Thus, it is similarly possible that the discussions surrounding Kim Jong Un’s rationality have been orchestrated by China in order to create further tension between the U.S. and its allies.

Taking all of this into account, it is easy to imagine what kind of damage a simple tweet can cause. In fact, it has been reported that Trump is heavily considering terminating a previously established free-trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea. Standing firm with your allies during geopolitical crises should be common sense, but this is apparently not the case for Trump. Even if North Korea’s main goal is not to erode the relationship the U.S. has with South Korea, Trump’s statements following North Korea’s most recent nuclear test are still incredibly troubling.

It is very possible that North Korea’s purpose in developing nuclear weapons is simply deterrence, and it is just as possible that Kim Jong Un is a perfectly rational actor. Maybe North Korea only recently pivoted toward driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies, because it felt that it would be dealing with a much more impressionable leader in Donald Trump than in previous U.S. presidents. In the same way that the U.S. views Kim Jong Un as a potentially irrational actor, North Korea may be thinking the same of Donald Trump and acting accordingly. The problem is that we simply do not know. As recently reported by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker, the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea has prevented any sort of real intelligence from being gathered on a very dangerous adversary. Until a true channel of communication is established, the current administration will have to rely on what is essentially speculation. In such an unpredictable environment, supporting our allies should go without being said.

Laying out a comprehensive strategy for dealing with North Korea is beyond the scope of this article, but there are still some important things to keep in mind going forward. Ultimately, diplomacy should be the primary method for dealing with North Korea. The Iran Nuclear Deal has shown us that effective diplomacy can bring about concrete, peaceable agreements. There is no question that negotiations with North Korea will be far more difficult given that the country already possesses nuclear weapons; but establishing some degree of communication with the country can potentially unearth some valuable intelligence. Additionally, if Kim Jong Un is truly an irrational actor, we might be able to determine his state of mind with concrete intelligence instead of relying on what Dennis Rodman tells us. Even with all the fiery rhetoric, it will be on Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to keep Trump in check. With China also wavering slightly in its support for North Korea recently, the U.S. has been presented with options in diplomacy that it never had before. Our leaders would do well to explore these options, so as to prevent the situation on the Korean Peninsula from deteriorating further than it already has.