Amongst the constant white noise that defines American news today, one could easily be pardoned for becoming deaf to any actual developments in our relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: the tiny, isolated regime run by a despot’s son. On a regular basis, they publicize another missile test and its implications for their endless crusade against US tyranny. Such announcements are prime fodder for the 24-hour news circuits who will ruminate endlessly on the possibilities and implications of such a launch, the success or failure of which in the short term is unimportant. To pundits, fear of the unknown is a far more palpable and marketable commodity. Americans have also become well-versed in the day to day conversation which often goes something like:
“I just heard, North Korea is testing another ballistic missile on Friday.”
“Oh really, they’re at it again? Kim Jong-un – he never stops!”
“Yes, but I seriously doubt they’ll ever reach American soil. They wouldn’t have the capability. Right?”
“Right. I think…”
It is a circuitous script about North Korea that we have memorized and acted out in all manner of settings. We can continue these conversations, partly in jest, because nothing has changed. But is that still the case? And what is our current administration’s stance on the issue? Are we safer with Trump in office? Understanding the events of the last few months will help. First, a brief primer on US-North Korean relations is in order. The United States and North Korea do not have an official diplomatic relationship. This has been the case since the nation’s formation along the 38th parallel in 1948. The US imposed economic sanctions on North Korea since they invaded the South in 1950. The following seven decades have seen little change in this pattern.
The prospect of nuclear war with North Korea has been a constant specter in global affairs. Ever present, ever looming, but rarely a viable threat to our country, much less to South Korea. President Obama, like many a commander-in-chief before him, maintained a policy of wait, see and sanction. Any missile tests or indications of nuclear weapon development was met with harsh economic restrictions, punishing a nation already in an international chokehold. This dance continued for some years, but 2017 did mark a notable shift in the normal state of affairs. This year alone, North Korea carried out 20 missile tests. In November 2017, Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that likely has the ability to reach the U.S. mainland, flying 500 miles higher than any previous test of its kind. According to military analysts, the missile, dubbed the Hwasong-15, can boast a maximum range of 8,100 miles. This makes any major U.S. city well within reach, and represents a watershed moment in how we must handle our diplomatic relationship.
On December 29th, North Korea’s state-run news agency proclaimed that the DPRK had no intention of stepping down its nuclear weapons development programs in 2018. Soon after, Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced his opinion that due to the “uncertainty” of President Trump’s leadership, we are actually closer to war with North Korea than ever before. Pyongong has always adopted a strategy of escalation, knowing that a direct or limited U.S. military invention would be unlikely and ineffective; a nuclear attack is the only viable American response to increased threats.
Will the United States finally go to war with North Korea in 2018? When Trump took office in 2017, our relationship with North Korea changed inexorably. The sad irony is that we may be in a far more dangerous place with Trump’s finger on the button of our nuclear arsenal. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent offer to “sit down” with North Korean leadership, Trump is insistent on his hardline policy that no talks can begin before guarantees of denuclearization are secured. Perhaps Trump is playing directly into the hands of a North Korean strategy to finally instigate an armed nuclear conflict with the United States. It is only a matter of time before Trump is forced to make a critical decision in the face of escalating military and diplomatic tensions. Are we certain that it will be the right one?