North Korea is once again provoking the international community as the rogue nuclear regime seems to be on a collision course with the United States. While the situation is not as dire as some in the media may suggest, there is a real risk to global peace and stability developing on the Korean Peninsula. The Peninsula has long been the site of conflict, with the authoritarian North and the democratic South barely maintaining the ceasefire that came into place in the 1950s at the end of the Korean war. The rival countries still see skirmishes along the border between them and relations are almost always tense.
North Korea has not been shy about its nuclear program, flaunting its missiles and warheads and gladly using them to threaten the United States as well as South Korea and Japan, both close US allies. By all accounts North Korea does not have the capabilities to strike American soil with any nuclear weapons, though the country can still target American allies and interests. To deter North Korean aggression, the United States has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea and another 50,000 stationed in Japan, both of which are under the American nuclear umbrella. Therefore, a North Korean attack on Japan or South Korea would draw the United States into active conflict in East Asia.
The United States, remembering the harsh lesson learned in the Korean War, is trying to avoid a war that would be incredibly costly in personnel and civilian deaths, as well as be potentially devastating to the environment. But the United States will not stand a North Korea capable of and willing to strike the United States. North Korea is getting closer to this objective and is becoming more provocative. This week saw North Korea hold one of their largest ever artillery drills. This is especially concerning because Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is close enough to the border to be within range of North Korean artillery fire. Last week saw the regime test a ballistic missile that failed immediately after launch and a large military parade flaunting what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles. This month the authoritarian regime tested a medium range ballistic missile that flew 40 miles off the country’s eastern coast before falling into the sea. This is the most recent in a series of tests, including the testing of four ballistic missiles last month and a 250 kiloton nuclear test last fall, that have alarmed the international community as North Korea aggressively asserts itself as a nuclear power.
The United States is watching what is happening in North Korea very closely and making their intentions clear to the regime. President Trump ordered the deployment of a carrier group and an Ohio-class submarine armed with cruise missiles to the region. The regime promptly threatened to target the carrier. This week, UN ambassador Nikki Haley refused to rule out the possibility of a strike against the regime if it intensifies its aggressive actions. The United States is also in the process of installing an advanced missile defense system in South Korea to protect the country from its aggressive neighbor.
Amidst the international outcry in response to North Korea’s actions last month, President Trump suggested that the United States would be willing to take on North Korea alone, without Chinese support. This, however, is infeasible. All actions against North Korea must be undertaken with the aid of China, given that Beijing exerts the most influence over the regime. The North Korean economy exists solely because of China, who supplies 85% of North Korean imports and receives 83% of their exports. Furthermore, as North Korea’s most powerful ally, the Asian superpower also provides humanitarian aid to the regime. This is especially valuable given the high rates of starvation inside the country, as the government chooses to invest most of their GDP in defense, rather in their citizens. Bilateral sanctions, imposed on the country by the United States and China, could potentially defuse the situation peacefully. While it may be impossible to bring the regime down through economic sanctions, they could potentially bring North Korea to the bargaining table, where more realistic goals such as halting missile tests and ceasing further missile development could be pursued.
Any significant military action would risk plunging the United States into an all-out war on the continent that could easily turn nuclear. However, North Korea is currently showing no indications that it is willing to negotiate. It places an incredible value on its nuclear program and seems to be increasingly confrontational instead of more flexible. The continued threats and the technological advances of the North’s nuclear program might force the United States and China to intervene in less peaceful ways.
For China to confront North Korea, however, it must believe the regime poses enough of a threat to the stability of the region for China to abandon their traditionally reactive foreign policy in favor of a more assertive approach. China tolerates the existence of North Korea because it has to their advantage to have the regime exist. South Korea is clearly under American influence, and China fears that a united Korea would be as well. A unstable, unpredictable, and aggressive North Korea provides a very effective deterrent. China is very invested in maintaining control of the area around their borders, already challenging international waters in the South China Sea. China will not act until it thinks that North Korea is more of a threat than the United States to what they see as their part of the world.
China is starting to crack down on its unruly neighbor. Last week it put its bombers on notice, seemingly in preparation for a potential strike, and it also ceased its shipments of coal from North Korea. This step shows promise for a US – China coalition in the face of the rogue regime but also shows that China is becoming increasingly concerned about their volatile neighbor. The world, however, must be cautious in dealing with North Korea. The last Korean War ended poorly for the United States, with North Korea still controlling half the peninsula and costing nearly 37,000 American lives. The United States should not ignore North Korea, or the underestimate the regime’s strong military capabilities. But they also cannot overreact to North Korea’s threats, taunts, and military provocations.
North Korea views its nuclear weapons as a defensive tool. The regime is convinced that without them they would be immediately deposed by the United States. For a regime that believes that it is on the brink of being attacked by enemies, the best strategy is one of apparent insanity. The best way for North Korea to keep the United States at bay is to do exactly what they are doing: make themselves seem so irrationally dangerous that the United States will keep its distance, fearing that they would be crazy enough to target the United States with nuclear weapons. The Trump Administration must bear this in mind when dealing with North Korean crises. Like a wild animal, the country will strike if it fears for its safety, but it knows that a strike would bring about enormous retaliation and mean the sure end of the regime. The regime knows this and is unwilling to lose the power they have kept since the Korean War.
There is a minimal risk of North Korea randomly launching a nuclear weapon just to cause global chaos. A conflict with the rogue state is most likely to come out of a series of misunderstandings and mistakes on each side. Neither side is trying to start a nuclear war, but both sides should be cautious. With an administration that prefers rhetoric to action, North Korea finds itself facing an enemy the same penchant for reckless language. Both sides should be mindful that in a conflict that will hopefully never end in actual action, speech is all that we have. Speaking as if we are looking for a fight usually gets us into one.
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