As North Korea launches its sixth most powerful nuclear test following recent missile launches that flew right over Japan, tensions are sharply escalating on the Korean peninsula. Recently, three short-range missiles were also launched from North Korea as the United States and South Korea engaged in their annual joint military drills. Even as the urgency of the National Security threat protracts, North Korea has dialed back its intentions to strike the U.S territory of Guam. Despite the recent implementation of strict new United Nations Security Council sanctions that targets North Korea’s oil industry, it’s improving nuclear and short-range missile tests are a reminder that North Korea will continue to be the top National Security threat the United States faces, regardless if it makes headlines or not.
Aside from the North Korean nuclear threat, the major problem now involving North Korea is the personality of the two leaders. Both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump have both shown their belligerent behavior and have gone tit for tat by spouting fighting words toward one another. For Kim Jong-Un, this is nothing new. The dictator has often made threats to destroy the United States but Donald Trump is a very different kind of American President, which helped contribute to his election. The brash businessman has not shied away from divisive rhetoric that is further exacerbated by his tendency to wander off script when trying to discuss serious policy. President Trump’s comments that he would raise “fire and fury” against North Korea if its leader continued to threaten the United States worried most North Korean observers as well as American allies, in particular South Korea and Japan. As the North Korea expert Bill Richardson, the former U.S Ambassador to the UN has argued, South Korea under their new progressive President Moon-Jae In, who favors dialogue with the North, has a positive role to play in easing tensions. Sure enough he did with President Moon recently saying at the backdrop of the negative rhetoric, “there will not be another war on the Korean Peninsula.” The U.S global alliance system particularly in the Asia Pacific is the most important component of U.S foreign policy. For the last seventy years, it was a bipartisan consensus but has recently been challenged by President Trump. Thus, other regional leaders such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping should continue, in conjunction with President Moon both through quiet and public diplomacy, to pressure the Trump administration and Kim Jong-Un to lower the temperature. The United States is often quick to point the finger at North Korea for not negotiating in good faith but the U.S itself hasn’t always taken the best diplomatic approaches. In order to do this the United States needs to work on incentives to get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table for a temporary suspension of its nuclear buildup, such as being open to suspending its military drills with the South and dropping the precondition that the North denuclearize before the start of negotiations. Not having a conflict on the Korean peninsula is something that rarely all parties agree on. China, as the North’s sole ally, has a responsibility to mediate and encourage dialogue as well as enforce the latest round of sanctions, which can truly strangle the North. However, there should not be a misconception that China “will resolve the North Korean issue for us”, as President Trump has stated. China will help as it pertains to regional stability and denuclearization of the peninsula but will not go the extra mile in terms of exerting too much pressure as to allow for the Kim regime to collapse, creating the potential to unite Korea under the American nuclear umbrella.
Times are changing; the situation on the Korean peninsula is becoming more dangerous and less likely to head any kind of resolution. Particularly after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, North Korea continues to hold three American prisoners while the U.S State Department has issued a travel ban for Americans to the DPRK. North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal given they see that as its only survival policy. And perhaps the issue that is most relevant at the moment is the current leadership, Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump. Both are unpredictable leaders which raises the likelihood of miscalculation. Mr. Trump’s recent announcements that it will hold military drills in the South China Sea and is likely to pull out of US-ROK trade agreement are also not helpful when both countries are needed to help solve the North Korean problem. In order to prevent that from happening, dialogue should resume between the United States and North Korea, such as through the New York channel at the UN as well as vis-à-vis other rational actors such as Japan, South Korea and even China who have no interest in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. They should step-up to lower the temperature and let diplomacy prevail.
Andy Laub is a Masters student at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, he also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.
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