Should we worry about North Korea?

Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have increased, with Kim Jong-Un conducting the Norths 6th nuclear test on the 3rd September 2017. Increasingly heated rhetoric has taken ever more unprecedented forms; we have seen a flurry of insults with Mr Kim bringing the word ‘dotard’ into public discourse, and Trump declaring the NK leader to be a ‘madman.’ Threats of ‘fire and fury’ have echoed from the Whitehouse, and after Trump threatened to ‘totally destroy’ the people’s republic in a speech at the UN, Mr Kim stated the U.S. would ‘pay dearly’ for such remarks.[1] While Trumps use of twitter to state NK ‘won’t be around much longer’[2]  if threats continue certainly represents a unique approach to international diplomacy, and may appear concerning, it is important not to overstate the threat faced firstly by NK, and subsequently from Trump’s slapdash approach in confronting it.

Behind the rhetoric you should first observe the intentions of Pyongyang in pursuit of a nuclear programme. The number one goal of all states is survival; in international relations and from the perspective of offensive realism, states behave as rational actors with survival as the prime objective in an anarchical international system, when states can never be certain of the intentions of others.[3] As a result, rather than absolute power, states seek as much power relative to others as possible; because states are assumed rational, the best way to ensure your survival is to become powerful enough to deter an attack. As the BBC acknowledged, the North Korean government reasons that developing their nuclear capability ‘would protect the government by raising the costs of toppling it,’[4] which on some level appears rational. After all, from Pyongyang’s perspective, the U.S. has an estimated 35,000 troops in South Korea, 40,000 personnel in Japan,[5] a powerful nuclear arsenal and a track record of toppling state leaders.[6] Behind the rhetorical threats therefore, the actions of NK in attempting to acquire a nuclear capability likely reflects its wish for security, not a war which could have no benefit for anyone.

Secondly, while the tone and style of communication between Washington and Pyongyang has changed, we have experienced great tensions before and the position of the U.S. has always been clear. In 1994 during the Clinton administration, the U.S. nearly went to war with North Korea in order to halt its nuclear programme after the International Atomic Energy Agency was denied access to NK’s nuclear sites.[7] After despatching greater forces to South Korea, to the obvious alarm and mobilization of the North, the diplomacy of former president Jimmy Carter diffused tensions and avoided military confrontation.[8]

To be clear, this is a deeply complex issue with myriad contributing factors, effecting any calculation of threat potential. These include the role of North Korean identity politics, the potential desperate actions of Pyongyang in the aftermath of a maintained sanctions in the form of a boycott of North Korean trade, and possible miscalculations from Washington. However, diplomacy tends to win out, as neither side wants war, and while Trump’s correspondence with the north appears confrontational, the fundamental message remains consistent to his predecessors; diplomacy is preferred, but the U.S. will not hesitate to the American people and allies by any means necessary.

[1] BBC News, ‘North Korea: Trump and Kim call each other mad,’ BBC News, (2017) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41356836

[2] Julia Allen, ‘Donald Trump warns Kim Jong-un ‘won’t be around much longer,’ The Telegraph, (2017) Available Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/24/donald-trump-warns-kim-jong-un-wont-around-much-longer/

[3] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (U.S.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001) 36

[4] BBC News, ‘North Korea-US tensions: How worried should you be?’ (2017) Available Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-40882877

[5] Oliver Holmes, ‘What is the US military’s presence near North Korea?’ (2017) Available Online: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/09/what-is-the-us-militarys-presence-in-south-east-asia

[6] BBC News, ‘North Korea-US tensions: How worried should you be?’ (2017) Available Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-40882877

[7] Leon V. Sigal, ‘The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Understanding The Failure of the ‘Crime-and-Punishment’ Strategy,’ Arms Control Association, (1997) Available Online: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997_05/sigal

[8] Leon V. Sigal, ‘The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Understanding The Failure of the ‘Crime-and-Punishment’ Strategy,’ Arms Control Association, (1997) Available Online: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997_05/sigal

Article by Samuel Gee

Photograph – American Grit

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