Early this morning South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that North Korea may be in the final stages of preparation for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, following the state’s sixth nuclear test on September 3rd.
The test, the North’s largest, rendered an earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale, with tremors reportedly felt as far north as China’s Southern provinces.
The North’s most recent detonation, said to be at least 5 times as powerful as the device dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Nagasaki during World War II, underscores a period of heightened tension, and punctuates the quagmire in which the US and allied nations have found themselves in dealing with the rogue state’s fledgling nuclear capacity.
But this is not the North’s first provocation, far from it. In 2015 border skirmishes and proclamations that amounted to little less than a declaration of war were levied by the North, in retaliation to loudspeaker broadcasts by the South at the DMZ, which the DPRK equated with “an act of war”.
A year prior, in early 2013, the North severed a military hotline with its Southern neighbour and promptly declared a “state of war”, a proclamation which accompanied US-South Korea military drills, held annually.
The joint military exercises between the US and South Korea are perceived by the DPRK, ostensibly, as a dress rehearsal for invasion, and as such are frequently accompanied by bellicose rhetoric, and the odd missile launch or communicative severing.
Brinkmanship is the lifeblood of the Kim regime. However, whether the North operates out of a genuine fear of invasion is debateable. For some, the North’s continued intimidation of regional and international state actors is less an innate paranoia of the external, or invasion, than a fear of the internal: regime insecurity. It is widely accepted that the Kim dynasty has sought to paint vividly the existential threat posed by its enemies, notably the United States, as means of mobilisation and justification of the administration’s leadership.
Here lies the fallacy of the Trump administration’s approach to dealing with the nuclear rogue state.
Trump’s response to the North’s proclaimed willingness to use nuclear weapons on the US if provoked with a vow to rain down “fire and fury” played right into the hands of the autocrat seeking to portray his country as besieged, and divide the US amongst its allies.
It is perhaps in this capacity that the North’s tactics have proven most successful. Mr Trump’s combative comments moved the newly installed liberal president of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, to issue a pointed message in a speech issued in celebration of his first 100 days in office: “Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean peninsula”, the president revealingly stated. The comment was underscored by a significant admission: “we cannot rely only on our ally for our security”.
The president’s speech denotes a widening chasm between the two allies that underscores a regional anxiety: that the US is no longer willing to commit to East Asian security. The assurances of the so-called ‘pivot’ of military, economic and diplomatic assets to East Asia, undertaken by the Obama administration in 2011, appear to be in a process of rollback, as the Trump administration reduces America’s commitment to the region, most recently with a signalled withdrawal from a US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
The concurrent forces of the North Korean crisis and a Trump presidency have further strained the relationship between the US and its principle competitor, China. In a September 3rd tweet, following the North’s detonation, Trump proclaimed, in what has been taken as a veiled threat to China, that the US was considering “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. Trump’s comment was sharply rebuked by Chinese foreign ministry officials, who declared the threat “unacceptable”.
Mr. Trump has taken to Twitter to voice his positions frequently throughout this crisis and his incumbency. The pertinent question is whether such statements as those threatening trade wars and military strikes should be taken as mere ill-considered whims, as has before been the case, or instead as signals of the increasingly unilateral attitude of the US towards the North Korean question.
As the US administration continues to convey an increasing aversion to a diplomatic solution, the extent to which American interests and modus operandi coalesce with those of its East Asian allies and associates is diminishing. The North Korean question, intentionally or otherwise, has weakened stalwart alliances and is increasingly pitting diplomacy against resolution by force. It is a destabilisation that threatens to undermine faith in the American commitment to security, a dire state with the capacity to institute a regional arms race.
North Korea is a major threat necessitating the attention of the Unites States and her allies in the region. It is a time at which president Trump should be seeking to shore up partnerships and convey solidarity in the face of a nuclear and existential threat. Instead, the Kim regime has succeeded in fermenting disagreement and division amongst a fraught alliance system.