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Trump’s Dilemma in the Korean Peninsula

Trump's Dilemma in the Korean Peninsula

North Korea’s bellicose posture has reached an unprecedented peak after the recent threats of a thermonuclear war against the United States.

Last month, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the DPRK to the U.N. unleashed a new series of threats against Washington, determined to fiercely antagonize any additional implementations of the North Korea’s nuclear program. The program has  significantly accelerated since Kim Jong-un took the power in 2011.

For years, the threat posed by North Korea has been minimized. Now, the emergence of a more aggressive posture fueled by its leadership is not only undermining Washington’s influence in the region but also triggers the specter of nuclear proliferation in East Asia.

Pyongyang’s desire to conduct new missile launches has demonstrated North Korea leadership’s willingness to develop a nuclear-based offensive defense doctrine, improving the quality and the quantity of its nuclear arsenal. North Korea has already acquired a second strike capability, and by 2020 analyst expect that the country will be able to rely on nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In defiance of Washington’s warnings, Pyongyang carried out four ballistic missiles tests in the past two months, including the last on April 29th.

The new missile test comes just after the US Secretary of the State Tillerson has warned North Korea of the catastrophic consequences of pursuing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Washington has urged for a new range of sanctions increasing the economic isolation of North Korea.

It has also tried to convince China to increase the pressure on its erratic ally. For decades Beijing has maintained a close entente with Pyongyang, considered as a valuable ally and precious buffer zone from America’s sphere of influence. Yet, the unpredictable and dangerous behavior that has characterized Kim Jong-un’s leadership has certainly contributed to foster mutual mistrust, putting their relations in disarray.

In a recent report on the state media Rodong Sinmun, North Korean’s leadership has expressed a rare criticism towards China for its renewed closeness with Washington It highlighted the severe consequences of any major changes that could negatively affect the North Korea-China relations, such as a new round of sanctions under U.S. auspices.

The Chinese leadership remains extremely concerned about a potential escalation of the confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington and its implications for regional security balance. Although Beijing is considered as a critical actor in restraining North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has several times ignored President Xi’s calls to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. A

After months of hostile rhetoric towards Beijing, culminated in labeling China as a currency manipulator, the Trump administration has shown willingness to mend ties with the Xi government. After the reconciliatory summit between Mr Trump and his Chinese counterpart in Florida last month, Washington has repeatedly stressed the need for a wider engagement with China to clamp down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Many believe that this would represent a valuable opportunity for Beijing to fulfill its desire of emerging as a major power, demonstrating to the international community its ability to play a pivotal role in solving a delicate global security issue.

China’s economic leverage on Pyongyang is considered as a decisive tool to rein in its former protégé. Yet it is unlikely that Beijing will be pursuing drastic measures that could seriously jeopardize the stability of the regime.

Beijing, however, has bowed to the international community’s pressure and has undertaken significant steps such as joining Washington in imposing sanctions and also restricting of North Korean coal imports, considered as a critical source of foreign exchange revenue from Pyongyang. Aside from that, Beijing has maintained a certain reluctance to enforce unilateral economic and trade sanctions despite Washington’s continuous request.

The current U.S. administration claims to be prepared to act unilaterally against threat represented by North Korea. Certainly, the era of strategic patience has come to an end as reaffirmed by Vice President Pence during his visit to South Korea last month.

Yet, the risk of a dreadful military escalation could seriously endanger the regional order and eventually aliment the chance of a nuclear confrontation remains dangerously high. The Trump administration has harshly condemned the failed launch as an additional provocation from Pyongyang, stressing that diplomatic and economic pressure could be accompanied by significant military actions to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Trump's Dilemma in the Korean Peninsula

U.S. Vice President Pence visiting the DMZ during his recent visit to South Korea.

In addition, the Trump administration’s recent decision to deploy the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the Sea of Japan aims not only to reassure allies that the U.S. is able to defend them from the North Korea’s threat but also to display a more robust engagement in maintaining the status quo in the Korean peninsula. North Korean’s nuclear activities are per se an evident threat to Washington and its allies, but also could represent a significant disruption of the global non-proliferation regime considered as a fundamental pillar of the U.S. security policy.

Since the policy of strategic patience promoted by the previous administration has failed to bring about the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Washington is now determined to confront Pyongyang. Concerns from China, that perceives any shifts in the regional balance as a threat to its power projection capabilities, have exacerbated tensions with Seoul after the controversial decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense to deter missile threats from North Korea.

Previous administrations have failed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The program is considered not merely a bargaining chip at the negotiation table, but as a cornerstone of North Korea’s manifest destiny and ultimate tool to ensure the regime survival.

The Trump administration has inherited from its predecessors an increasingly aggressive North Korea, close to the final stage of acquiring ICBM capabilities and miniaturization technologies required to target the continental United States. Pyongyang’s decision to pursue an aggressive agenda aims at compelling Washington to accept Pyongyang’s nuclear power status as a fait accompli.

It is critical to understand that North Korea’s decision makers are determined to pursue the dangerous path of the nuclear power acquisition even if this could dramatically escalate in a military intervention in the Korean peninsula, marking the end of the regime. Acquiring a strong deterrence against any military threat and other external pressure is a keystone for the core leadership that is adamant in ensuring the regime survival at any costs.

North Korea’s perpetual state of war against the imminent threat posed by Washington and South Korea and the pursuit of a self-reliant defense system (Chawi) as enshrined in the Juche ideology has represented a dominant narrative for its people but also the ultimate source of legitimacy for its ruling elites. In the past notable example of pursuing similar outcomes such as the Military First Policy (Songun Chongch’i) under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il led to an economic breakdown and to an extensive famine in the attempt of revitalizing its core leadership whose legitimacy was rapidly eroding in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, exposing North Korea to a similar fate.

North Korea leadership strongly understands the importance of retaining its nuclear capabilities either to bolster domestic stability or as an effective deterrence tool to prevent any military threat. Albeit, Pyongyang has neither the military power nor a direct gain in attacking the United States and its allies without fearing dreadful retaliations that would undermine Kim’s regime, North Korea remains still committed to the reunification of the Korean peninsula on its terms. Since 1950’s invasion of the North and the conflict that inflamed the peninsula, North Korean leadership has rejected the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and still perceives Seoul as the most immediate source of destabilization for the regime.

Over the decades, North Korea has increased the level of confrontation with Washington over its interference in the Korean peninsula, demanding the end of the US nuclear umbrella, the withdrawal of the US forces stationed in South Korea and the end of the joint military exercise with the ROK Forces and more important the ultimate acceptance of North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power nation.

The recent impetuous shown by Trump administration to define the new contours of Washington’ strategy, saluted by the maximum pressure and engagement approach and the adamant rejection of any compromises regarding North Korea’s additional steps towards nuclear power status have not yet produced the expected results.

Aside from resorting to any military options that could eventually jeopardize Washington’s renewed commitment and role in the region, the chance of a successful diplomatic action that could resolve the dangerous standoff also relies on China’s role to convince Pyongyang to pursue a different direction under “the right circumstances” such as Washington’s reassurance of not pursuing any attempt to depose Kim’s leadership or encouraging any military interventions in the Korean peninsula.

While tensions have been high for months, Trump Administration has recently shown a certain inclination to engage Pyongyang in new talks. In the past, North Korea used the nuclear crisis to pressure Washington to normalize the relations, but this time the priority for its leadership has markedly shifted.

Undoubtedly, Pyongyang is still perceived as an unreliable actor with a proven record of violations and deceptions and all the diplomatic efforts to bring back North Korea to the negotiation and frame a longstanding deal that could prevent any additional dangerous shifts in the Korean peninsula have produced no tangible results so far.

The Trump administration is preparing to face a daunting challenge putting real pressure on North Korea to protect Washington’s role and strategic interest in the region. It could develop an appeasement policy toward Pyongyang to temporarily defuse the situation, but with no guarantees about the resurgence of the North Korea nuclear program in the future, this seems unlikely.




Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito