2017 has seen President Trump‘s administration make a marked departure in how North Korea is “handled” by the United States. Whereas past administrations were more predictable, waiting for North Korea to act bellicose before they acceded to relief from sanctions, the Trump administration has done no such thing, instead choosing to implement more sanctions on the North Korean regime following its weapons tests.
It seems that more than anything, North Korea has been left confused as to why it hasn’t received the “relief” from the US that it has in the past:
While in the past North Korea has traditionally participated in strategy meeting with foreign power on neutral soil such as Geneva, Singapore and Malaysia, since Trump’s election in November, the North Korean representatives have been predominantly interested in figuring out the unconventional president’s strategy, according to almost a dozen people involved in the discussions.
While early in Trump’s term, the North Koreans had been asking broad questions – Is President Trump serious about closing American military bases in South Korea and Japan, as he said on the campaign trail? Might he really send American nuclear weapons back to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula – the questions have since become more specific.
And while Trump’s UN speech left the world thinking he was preparing to undertake military action against North Korea…
…others think this is part of a broader strategy of Trump “bluffing” on his intentions:
In fact, I have a different take these days: all the hot rhetoric might just be a giant bluff, using the threat of military action to get North Korea to back off.
Clearly a war of choice against North Korea would be a giant mistake that could cost millions of people their lives. Therefore, when it comes to Kim’s nuclear and missile programs, a policy of containment and deterrence make the most sense. It’s time for the Trump administration to stop bluffing and get serious.
Unlike the majority of the mainstream media who are far too focused criticizing Trump rather than evaluating his strategy, I don’t think this is a “bluff” at all – this appears to be the administration’s way of containing North Korea without “paying” the nation in sanction relief.
The Trump administration’s North Korea strategy appears to be functioning as follows – to give North Korea no rewards for its grandstanding, and continue to make North Korea aware of the consequences of any potential military action they may undertake against US interests.
For starters, if the US was actually considering air strikes against North Korea, there would have been no better time than mid-November, when three US carriers were conducting exercises near the Korean peninsula:
The USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz and their multi-ship strike groups are participating in the four days of exercises, which are expected to end Tuesday. A South Korean Defense Ministry official said the three US carriers held drills on either side of the waters separating the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Exercises closest to the Korean coast involved US and South Korean ships, while those closest to Japan involved US and Japanese ships, the official said.
While these exercises served as a reminder to Kim Jong-Un that the US can deal with any threat from his regime, they also served as a reminder to the rest of the world that the country is not prepared to use military force, unless the North Koreans use military force first.
In the absence of any North Korean military strikes, and with the US content to remind North Korea of the consequences of action, the status quo will likely remain – North Korean grandstanding and weapons testing, and subsequent US inaction, with “reminder” exercises of US military power from time to time.
In fact, if something were to change politically on the Korean peninsula, a more likely scenario would be the North Korean regime collapsing from within, possibly with the Chinese and/or Russians replacing the regime with a more pliable and less belligerent ally. As Charles Smith has covered in the past, the Chinese have far more reason to “handle” North Korea than the US does:
China’s supreme leader Chairman Mao Zedong took the threat of land invasion so seriously that he ordered (at enormous expense) the relocation of critical industrial plants from coastal areas into the hinterlands, the better to distance them from invasion.
China has effectively subsidized and supported the North Korean state for the past 70 years as a buffer against a land invasion from South Korea. China supplies North Korea with fossil fuels and other essentials and protects it diplomatically.
A lack of relief from sanctions could push the North Korean regime into economic collapse. If this were to happen, the Chinese and Russians would look to fill the void quickly to maintain the “Two Koreas” status quo. A “unified” Korea could create an economic powerhouse that would rival and possibly surpass Japan, as well as many other large economies. The US and other global interests would likely be keen to avoid this scenario, and would possibly allow North Korea’s neighbors to facilitate a “replacement” regime if the DPRK became defunct.
Without any impetus from world powers to “change” North Korea, and in the presumed absence of any US or North Korean military action, it can be expected that the current pattern of North Korean grandstanding, followed by US inaction, will continue in 2018.
While Asia and the world would be better served by a less problematic North Korea, the simplest and most likely course of action is to merely stand by and make sure North Korea doesn’t cause any problems for the rest of the world.