A nuclear war with North Korea seemed improbable only a year ago. Possible? Yes. Unlikely? Also, yes. We’re facing a completely different situation today. As reported by many newspapers, North Korea tested several missiles with the ability to strike the continental United States over the summer. Furthermore, North Korea could possibly mount nuclear warheads on those missiles, with the regime expressing its desire to do so multiple times. How worried should these developments leave us?
Moderately worried. North Korea has threatened waging nuclear war several times, under both previous and current administrations. Kim Jong-Un is following what seems to be an established pattern of behaviour in conveying his intentions. North Korea has strategically abided by the requests of the international community while also breaking promises along the way. This has bought time to further develop their nuclear capabilities.
The U.S., on the other hand, used a combination of punitive measures and diplomacy to direct North Korea towards denuclearization. This approach has failed multiple times. North Korea has been explicit: their foreign affairs minister declared they would under no circumstances give up their nuclear weapons program, nor let it be subject to the scrutiny of the international community. Many believe North Korea’s nuclear program is designed to provide some modicum of protection against the U.S. and will therefore never be abandoned.
North Korea has a specific negotiation strategy. Even before they sit at the negotiating table, the state attempts to gain something first, a price for their attention, generally setting a precondition to bargaining without ever having the intention of assenting to any terms. The state also gives the appearance of infighting at times when that may not actually be the case in hopes of diverting an adversary’s efforts towards leveraging illusionary dissenting factions. They also use brinksmanship as a strategy, escalating tensions and defining negotiations to obtain maximum concessions. They have played that game brilliantly, sometimes creating a parallel crisis to divert attention and increase their maneuverability.
Furthermore, the DPRK has demonstrated its ability to isolate the U.S. from its allies in Asia. However, these relationships shift over time, particularly depending on the different interests at stake. It also aims at gaining support from allies such as China and Russia, which endangers U.S. efforts to ensure the participation of both states when sanctioning North Korea.
Pyongyang’s real goal lies in escalating tensions slightly over time to gain more from diplomatic solutions. This buys them time to improve their nuclear weapons program. Kim Jong-Un has two main options for the time being: continuing his weapons testing and returning to the negotiations table after having developed and demonstrated nuclear capabilities (currently ongoing). The option of denuclearization, regardless of what their ministers or Kim Jong-Un say, is always open. They have proven to be shrewd negotiators, who rarely demonstrate their true intentions publicly if at all, albeit these are not difficult to discern.
What does the future hold? A peaceful outcome would certainly require a period of tense negotiations. Although Donald Trump has stated he would respond to further nuclear testing with “fire and fury, the likes of which this world has never seen before”, several people at the White House are advocating for a very different approach, one of tactful negotiation and probing. Whether he will listen to these people is anyone’s guess.
All things considered, military escalation from the U.S. is unlikely due to the vulnerability of the city of Seoul right across the border to North Korean artillery fire. Tactful diplomacy here is the key to peace. Pressures by the U.S and its allies cannot be misinterpreted, neither can a calm approach behaviour towards the DPRK. In other words, more of the same. Escalation will impose a cost on all parties involved. Seoul is a constant hostage of the DPRK and whether Trump accounts for these considerations is an important component of a peaceful resolution to tensions on the Korean peninsula. We can hope that policy leaders and members of the military will be able to offer good council and which their leader in turn would heed.
What we can see here, however, is that there is a method to North Korea’s approach to dealing with the U.S. Although NK’s ability to strike the continental US with a nuclear warhead is inconclusive at best, the regime retains a degree of unpredictability. What is worrisome however, is the U.S. response to provocation. While Trump’s predecessors have adopted the tactful strategy of negotiation and diplomacy, a different approach seems to be considered by the Trump White House, and that is alarming. We know how North Korea responds to tactics traditionally employed by U.S Presidents. What we do not know is how they will react to a strategy of escalation and provocation akin to their own.