Trump and North Korea

Trump and North Korea

In this article, we shall discuss U.S. President Donald Trump’s position regarding North Korea, and more specifically, the issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea. We will examine his statements on North Korea, as well as actions near the Korean peninsula. We will also examine the role he hopes China will take in working with the US with regards to Kim Jong Un and North Korea. This discussion is part of the larger ongoing issue of nuclear weapons in international relations.

Donald Trump and North Korea

Following Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, he has been a part of a number of domestic and foreign policy decisions, many of which have not been without controversy. One of the issues that Trump focused on in the early months of his first term was on the issue of North Korea and their nuclear weapons.

Trump stirred debate in the United States and abroad with comments and actions directed towards North Korea made in early April, 2017. While previous administrations have urged a greater role for China in dealing with North Korea (given China’s proximity, as well as their position as a trading partner to North Korea), Trump made comments saying that the United States would deal with North Korea unilaterally if China would not help in the process. Namely, Trump said he would “take care of” “the problem of North Korea,” and that “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” (BBC, 2017).

Kim Jung Un’s nuclear weapons program is something that Trumps seems to have prioritized in the early months of his presidency. Then, it was during his meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that Trump urged more action by China on the matter.

Both China and the United States are unhappy with a nuclear North Korea. However, China has been a bit more reluctant to act on North Korea given the trading ties between the two countries, and also the concern of what a crisis in North Korea would do regarding refugees fleeing into China. Moreover, there is also the belief that China worries the United States and South Korea would attempt to take over the entire peninsula if the North Korean leader was removed from power; additional US presence in the region would surely concern China and their attempts at rising regional (if not international) power.

However, regardless of whether China would take a greater role (according to Trump) in countering North Korea, this did not stop Trump from himself acting on the issue. For example, in early April 2017 Trump sent a naval strike group to the Korea Peninsula.

Thus, it is for this reason that Chinese leaders have spoken about what what happen if there is a war. For example, on April 14th, 2017, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that not only could a war break out “at any moment,” but also that no one would win if this happened. China is especially concerned that instability in North Korea could lead to problems for China as North Koreans flee the country. It is for this reason that Wang said, “I think that all relevant parties should be highly vigilant with regards to this situation” (BBC, 2017). He went on to say that “We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage” (BBC, 2017).

There were even reports that China was amassing troops on the North Korean border, possibly worried about increased tensions between the United States and North Korea (Lockie, 2017).

Trump and China

It seems that being aggressive on North Korea is such a priority for Donald Trump, that he is willing to soften his position on China and trade in order to achieve whatever his objectives may be. We must remember that Trump’s language on China was rather hardline, criticizing China’s economic policies, as well as their propping up of the Yen. However, as Allen-Ebrahimian (2017) writes on April 13th, 2017: 

What a difference 83 days can make. That’s how long U.S. President Donald Trump was in office before he made a complete reversal on China trade policy — from vowing to beat up Beijing over trade abuses to offering preemptive trade concessions.

Like his predecessors, Trump has smashed into the hard reality that China isn’t easy to push around and is in fact a formidable contender in the global game of geopolitics. But in comparison to the others, he crumpled astonishingly fast.

The triggering crisis came last week when North Korea flexed its nuclear muscles a few days ahead of Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long held out on fully cooperating with international efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Trump appeared to offer Beijing a carrot to get it to finally use the full extent of its sizable economic leverage over its neighbor.

According to an interview Wednesday with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping at their meeting last week, “‘You want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea.’ That’s worth having deficits. And that’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make.” Trump also reneged on his promise to label China a currency manipulator, saying, “they’re not currency manipulators,” despite his previous insistence that “they are the greatest currency manipulators ever.”

She goes on to note that “It’s a stunning reversal for Trump, whose pledges to rein in Chinese trade abuses formed a central plank of his campaign. He promised to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods if Beijing didn’t cooperate.” In addition, we have to remember that “China was not a footnote of his campaign. Trump mentioned the East Asian giant 23 times in his June 2016 announcing his run for the presidency — twice the number of times he referred to the United States. Bringing back jobs sent overseas, reducing the trade deficit with China, and getting fairer trade terms were cornerstones of Trump’s platform” (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2017).

Unfortunately, Trump did not understand the complexity of the North Korean situation, and clearly miscalculated just must influence China has over North Korea. According to reports, Xi spoke to Trump about North Korea, and why it is difficult to control Kim Jong Un. Trump was quoted as saying that ” “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think”” (Allen Ebrahimian, 2017). 

North Korea’s Response to Trump

According to reports, North Korea responded by saying that “This goes to prove that the US reckless moves for invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase,” a spokesman for the North’s foreign ministry said according to state news agency KCNA. “The DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US,” he said, using the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (Sunghee, 2017).  It seems that North Korea views the US action as one in a series of aggressive behaviors. The US however views their actions as a counter-response to a dangerous North Korean regime that shows little signs of backing away from their nuclear weapons program, despite continued sanctions levied through the United Nations Security Council.

They also said that they would sot any US action against them. The North Korean military statement read, “Our toughest counteraction against the U.S. and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive” (BBC, 2017).

Some also wondered whether Trump’s bombing in Syria was a signal to North Korea, suggesting that Trump would not tolerate North Korea’s actions regarding their nuclear weapons (Sunghee, 2017).

The situation regarding North Korea continues to be a dangerous one, especially if tensions escalate. It will be important to see whether a diplomatic solution to the nuclear weapons crisis will be prioritized, or if not, what the effects of back and forth actions between the US and North Korea would be.

North Korea’s Failed Missile Launch

On Sunday, April 16th, 2017, North Korea attempted to launch a missile. However, the missile exploded seconds after launch, thus failing to take long flight.

While this eased some concerns, others warned that this in no way means that North Korea’s power should be taken lightly, especially given their known nuclear capacities.

Mike Pence in North Korea

On Monday, April 17th, 2017, United States Vice President Mike Pence made a trip to Seoul, South Korea, where, among other things, he visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It was here that he said “warned North Korea not to test the resolve of the US “or the strength of our military forces,”following a failed North Korean missile test.” Mike Pence spoke to US troops,  saying, “This morning’s provocation from the North is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face every day in the defense of the freedom of the people of South Korea and the defense of America in this part of the world,” said Pence, who was introduced by Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea. “Your willingness to step forward, to serve, to stand firm without fear, inspires the nation and inspires the world”” (Thomas, 2017).

He was also quoted as saying, “”We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response,” Pence said, adding that when it came to North Korea “all options are on the table” (Griffiths & Bash, 2017).

Military Option to North Korea?

Scholars have pointed out that a military challenge to North Korea is quite dangerous, and is far from an easy and quick solution to North Korea’s nuclear program. For example, North Korea is much more difficult to act upon militarily, than a country like Syria, where Trump responded to a chemical weapons attack on civilians with air strikes. As Hachigian (2017) writes:

What Pyongyang, China, and U.S. allies know, what U.S. experts on North Korea in and out of the government know, and what Trump and his White House team hopefully now know, is that the military options for North Korea are much less clear than they were in Syria. First, we cannot be sure that a U.S. air campaign would destroy all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and weapons, because we do not know where they all are. The North could retaliate using a nuclear weapon or nuclear material if we don’t destroy all of it. But even if our intelligence and aim were perfect, the fact is and has been for decades that Seoul is within artillery range of the North. The casualties from a North Korean retaliation after a strike would be unacceptably high. Any major military campaign on the Korean Peninsula — and almost any would become major quickly — would draw in China and, at the very least, send the global economy reeling. Moreover, as in Iraq, we don’t have an answer to the key question: What comes after the strikes? What are the thousands of intervening steps that lead from a military strike to a peaceful, democratic, unified Korea?

Plus, Trump’s actions in North Korea seem to also be contrary to his campaign rhetoric (Hachigian, 2017) where is was about prioritizing issues within the United States.

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