Just a few days ago, the US Secretary of State claimed the country must “prepare for the worst”, as a result of rising tensions between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. President Donald Trump has chosen to approach the situation with an aggressive posture, stating that the US might have to “totally destroy” the DPRK if it does not start cooperating in an effort to deescalate its nuclear program.
Tensions initially arose as a result of the DPRK’s testing of nuclear missiles and development of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). However, recent events have intensified the situation. In a show of force, President Trump ordered US bomber planes to fly near North Korea’s aerospace on the 23rd of September. In response, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho stated that there would be severe consequences if such actions were not halted. The Foreign Minister also stated that there will be no hesitation to shoot down US bombers “even [if] they are not yet inside the aerospace border of our country.” The possibility of these tensions culminating in armed conflict is becoming more likely.
President Trump repeatedly diminished North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, with statements such as his UN General Assembly speech on September 19th ,in which he stated that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” This attempt to personally ridicule North Korea’s leader inevitably sparked backlash from Kim Jong Un himself, who later responded that he is prepared to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” This ‘war of words’ is an uncommon and unprecedented exchange between world leaders. It could potentially be considered a testament to the lack of effective and responsible leadership by both parties. This has led to more uncertainty and, inevitably, fear amongst the public, with a CBS poll showing that 72% of Americans do not feel comfortable with the situation or the idea of going to war with North Korea.
President Trump’s approach to the sensitive situation has been criticized for showing a lack of knowledge and understanding of the intricacy of the issue and the implications of a failed diplomatic solution. The frustration induced by the president’s comments is reaffirmed through the DPRK’s leadership, with Foreign Minister Ri stating that Trump is the one who “committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets’ visit to the entire US mainland inevitable all the more.” It is important for President Trump to acknowledge that the implications of failure of diplomacy will have detrimental effects not only for the US mainland but also, the mainland of key allies such as South Korea. The potential bombing of densely populated Seoul would be disastrous and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
The fear of Trump disregarding the importance and potential effectiveness of diplomacy is prevalent within the international community – mainly as a result of his neglect of diplomatic precedent regarding pressing policy issues thus far. His choice of Twitter as a primary means of communication has been as much a factor in this situation as it has been in every other aspect of his presidency. On September 23rd Trump sent out a tweet warning that the supreme leader and foreign minister “won’t be around much longer!” Creating only higher tension and concern, this statement was received as a declaration of war by Pyongyang.
Criticism over Trump’s approach to Pyongyang has caused concern over his capabilities with regard to handling such a sensitive, pressing, and fast developing issue. MIT professor and nuclear weapons specialist Vipin Narang commented, “this is how war by miscalculations starts.” Trump’s approach can also be criticized on the basis of lack of support for a preemptive strike against North Korea by his own citizenry. According to a Washington Post-ABC poll, 67% of the US population would not support him in doing so.
Economic sanctions against North Korea were first implemented in 2006 after its first nuclear test, and have been the primary measure that has been adopted by many members of the international community in the effort to diminish the country’s nuclear capabilities. In light of recent events, the United States has increased the imposition of primary, secondary, and individual sanctions against the DPRK. However, both the US Secretaries of Defense and State have advocated for even tighter sanctions in an effort to avoid military conflict.
The current US administration appears to be engaging in diplomacy through international organizations such as the UN Security Council and other bodies. Nonetheless, President Trump appears to deviate from his administration’s overall trajectory, which makes an otherwise unlikely culmination of tensions in armed conflict a real possibility.