Trump and North Korea

Trump and North Korea

In this article, I shall discuss United States President Donald Trump and his international relations approach to the North Korean nuclear weapons issue. I shall discuss the history of Trump and North Korea, starting from his time before winning the presidency, to his comments during his term. We will also discuss Trump’s 2017 United Nations Speech as it pertains to North Korea (readers may also be interested in our article on the topic of nuclear weapons, as well as an article on North Korea and Nuclear Weapons).

The History of Trump and North Korea

In order to understand the situation regarding Trump and North Korea, it is important to look at his comments on North Korea and their nuclear weapons program before become President of the United States of America. For example, as reported on August 9th of 2017, Trump expressed his concern at North Korean threats against the United States, and said not only that they shouldn’t make additional threats, but also that “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” (CNN, 2017).

North Korea conducted one of the most powerful nuclear tests on September 2nd, 2017. This was the first test while Trump has been in office. After this took place, journalists asked Trump if he would respond with an attack, to which he replied, “We’ll see” (Al Jazeera, 2017).

Trump’s 2017 United Nations Speech

Below is Trump’s 2017 United Nations Speech on North Korea.

The part that troubled many people the most is the threat of destroying North Korea. Again, Trump said:

“…The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho responded by saying, “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a barking dog, that’s really a dog dream” (Li, 2017).

Many scholars have been quite critical of the language that Trump has been using against North Korea. For example, Alex Ward (2017), in interviews with eight experts on the North Korean situation, noted that “Several said that Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea was counterproductive and might encourage Kim to continue his nuclear and missile programs.”

Others felt that a clear position was not stated in Trump’s language; “Several also expressed concern over the ambiguity of the threat — that it wasn’t clear if what, exactly, Trump was willing to do” (Ward, 2017).

Shortly after Trump’s speech, Kim Jong Un offered a response, criticizing Trump. Kim stated, “I am now thinking hard about what response he could have expected when he allowed such eccentric words to trip off his tongue.” He went on to add, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire” (Berlinger & Ullah, 2017). Moreover, “Hours later, Kim’s foreign minister told reporters in New York that Pyongyang could launch a nuclear missile test in response. “This could probably mean the strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean. Regarding which measures to take, I don’t really know since it is what Kim Jong Un does”” (Berlinger & Ullah, 2017).

The hostile language increased even further when the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho spoke at the United Nations Security Council on Saturday, September 23rd, 2017. In his speech, he said that North Korea targeting of the United States would have to happen following Trump’s comments about Kim Jong Un. They also called Trump “Mr Evil President” (Choi & Nichols, 2017). Trump responded to Ri Yong Ho’s speech by taking to Twitter, where he remarked, “”Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”” (Choi & Nichols, 2017).

Some, such as Steve Mnuchin, who serves as US Treasury Secretary, attempted to retrain the comments a bit, saying “”The president doesn’t want to be in a nuclear war and we will do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t occur,” and then also saying, “”On the other hand, the president will protect the American people and our allies”” (Choi & Nichols, 2017).

Additional words have only elevated conditions between the US and North Korea. For example,  Choi & Nichols (2017) report the following comments said by Ri Il-bae, who is an officer within the Red Guards of North Korea: “”We are waiting for the right time to have a final battle with the U.S., the evil empire, and to remove the U.S. from the world,” KCNA quoted Ri Il-bae, a commanding officer of the Red Guards, as saying. “Once respected Supreme commander Kim Jong Un gives an order, we will annihilate the group of aggressors.””

Is Trump Open to Diplomacy with North Korea?

One of the questions that have been asked with regards to Trump and North Korea is whether Trump and his administration are willing to solve the problem through diplomacy. While the Trump administration has suggested a preference for this tactic, instead of using force, many have argued that the words used, and the actions taken thus far have been more towards the option of force rather than diplomacy.

Another problem that has been raised is that months into his presidency, Trump did not select an ambassador to South Korea. The reason that this matters is because South Korea needs a point person from the United States as it navigates the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis. Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations says that “The North Korea issue is such a high priority that it is imperative there is coordination between the United States and South Korea, and there needs to be a rock-solid channel of communication”. He goes on to add that “That is simply absent” (Nakamura, 2017). Now, while Trump himself has taken high level meetings on the North Korean nuclear situation, there are still questions as to why this selection for the ambassador position has not been taken (Nakamura, 2017).

David E. Sanger, in the New York Times raised another interesting point with regards to Trump and North Korea, and it actually has to do with his stated position on Iran. During the same United Nations speech, he spoke about the international nuclear deal with Iran, going so far as to say that “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”. He added, “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you have heard the last of it, believe me” (Chalfant, 2017). Why does this matter?

Well, resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis is in large part tied to how North Korea perceives the United States (and how the United States perceives North Korea). North Korea already has a distrust towards the United States (part of this seems to be a propaganda tool regarding domestic politics in North Korea). However, as Sanger (2017) argues, “If Mr. Trump makes good on his threat to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, how will he then convince the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that America will honor the commitment to integrate North Korea into the world community if only it disarms — the demand Mr. Trump made from the podium of the United Nations.”

So, Wendy R. Sherman, who was the chief negotiator of the nuclear deal with Iran, was quoted as saying that ““If the president pulls back on the Iran deal, given Iranian compliance…it will make diplomacy on North Korea almost impossible because U.S. credibility will be shot.”

Similar sentiments were made by Kingston Reif, who is the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. Reif said that “in trashing the Iran deal and threatening to unravel it, not only is Trump courting a second major nonproliferation crisis but he is putting a negotiated solution to reduce the North Korean threat even further out of reach. If Trump unravels the deal, Kim will understandably conclude that the United States can’t be counted on to live up to any agreement he might strike with it” (in Ward, 2017).

However, those in the Trump administration believe that the Iran nuclear deal is a sign of weakness for the United States, since much of the deal will run out 15 years after going into force. Thus, Trump may want to establish stronger (and more favorable) terms for the United States. This might be a message they also want to send to North Korea (Sanger, 2017).

Interestingly, reports came out on Sunday October 1st, 2017 that said United States officials were in direct conversations with North Korea. The reports indicated that United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was behind this. However, despite attempts by some in the Trump administration to speak with North Korea, Trump tweeted, saying “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…” and also “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” (Stableford, 2017). As Stableford (2017) writes, “Trump’s tweets appeared to undercut the work of his chief diplomat”.

Tillerson has stressed that the government wants to solve this nuclear weapons crisis diplomatically. In fact, during this time, he was quoted as saying “I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down. They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first” (in Stableford, 2017).

Trump and North Korea: Sanctions

Another strategy that Trump might use is to apply additional sanctions to North Korea. The United Nations Security Council have put sanctions on the North Korean regime for years, the most recent ones being in August and September of 2017. In fact, there have been a total of nine different sets of sanctions between 2006 and the September 12th, 2017 sanctions (, 2017). The September sanctions, which were agreed upon unanimously by the United Nations Security Council (a vote of 15-0), aimed to “curtail gas, petrol and oil imports. It will ban all textile exports, taking hundreds of million dollars from the export revenues that the North Korean regime uses to fund its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs” (in the Telegraph, 2017) (The full resolution can be read here on a United Nations page). The textiles ban is important since they equal 750 million dollars for North Korea in 2016, of which 80 percent were sent into China (Telegraph, 2017).

Following the last resolution approval for the sanctions in September, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was quoted as saying that the United States was not looking to engage in war with North Korea, and that North Korea still had “not yet passed the point of no return”” (Telegraph, 2017). She went on to say that “If it agrees to stop its nuclear program me, it can reclaim its future. If it proves it can live in peace, the world will live in peace with it…” (Telegraph, 2017).

The United States, under Trump, initially pushed for much more stringent sanction conditions on North Korea in September. But, eventually, “The United States, which had proposed banning all oil imports to the Asian country, watered down an initial tougher draft resolution to win the support of Pyongyang ally China and Russia” (Telegraph, 2017).

Yet, while these are very strong sanctions on North Korea, there is a belief by many that they are not enough to move Kim Jong-Un away from his current position on the nuclear weapons issue. For example, Andrea Charron, who is the Director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba was quoted as saying “I think a lot of people have the impression that we should be able to put on sanctions and instantaneously this is going to compel Kim Jong Un to rethink his life…”, but “”That’s unreasonable for any tool” she added” (Young, 2017).

One must not think that just because sanctions are in place that it will mean that North Korea still cannot try to find other ways to send their products; they can fly their shipments under flags of other countries, or they can have the goods smuggled into China, for example (Young, 2017).

Nonetheless, on Thursday September 21st, 2017, Trump announced that he would look to implement additional sanctions on North Korea (Pramuk, 2017). Again, this came days after the September 11th, 2017 sanctions passed through the UNSC.

Trump and North Korea: A Warning Shot?

One other idea that has been brought up regarding Trump and North Korea is for Trump and his administration to issue a “warning shot” to North Korea, a signal to suggest that a greater response could come if North Korea continues on this current path they have set out for.

Trump and North Korea: The Effects of A War

One of the largest concerns in international relations is the possibility of the United States and North Korea going to war with one another over this nuclear weapons issue. While the rhetoric for war seems to have increased recently, there are many reasons why neither side would be comfortable having a war. The most important is the cost of human lives if a US-North Korea war would take place. As Paul D. Shinkman (2017) writes in his US News & World Report piece “Trump Isn’t Going to War With North Korea“, if a war would happen, “

Tens of thousands of civilians would likely die in the first hours of a resumption of the Korean War, if only due to the conventional rockets Pyongyang has hidden in the mountains along the Demilitarized Zone and aimed at Seoul. That estimate does not include the 30,000 U.S. forces based on or near the border and the 200,000 American expatriates living in the capital city. The number also does not account for North Korea’s ability to employ nuclear weapons, which could put the overall death toll as high as millions.” Similar sentiment was given by Professor Charles Armstrong at Columbia University, who noted that “”Both sides are fully aware that open hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea would result in catastrophe[.]” He also added that “A military option is not realistic. Even a limited conflict between the U.S. and North Korea would cause tremendous damage and loss of life” (in Shinkman, 2017).

Will Trump Accept a Nuclear North Korea?

One of the other questions that people are wondering is whether Trump is actually willing to go to war with North Korea, or, given the difficulty of the situation, whether the most realistic (and best) outcome is to accept a nuclear North Korea. As of right now, the Trump administration is sending signals that seem to suggest they are not willing to accept a nuclear North Korea.

For example, “National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said earlier this month that Kim is “going to have to give up his nuclear weapons because the president has said he’s not going to tolerate this regime threatening the United States and our citizens with a nuclear weapon.” When asked if that included military options, he said Trump has “been very clear about that, that all options are on the table”” (Shinkman, 2017).

It will remain to be seen as to the strategy that Trump takes with regards to the North Korean nuclear weapons situation.

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