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North Korea Showdown

May 19, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 19
Can a military confrontation be averted?
By David Hosansky

Current Situation

Trump Policies

In its first months in office, the Trump administration has made vague, sometimes conflicting statements about North Korea. The underlying message, though, is clear: the United States will not stand by while Pyongyang develops increasingly advanced nuclear weapons that could eventually target the United States.

“We can't allow it to happen,” Trump said in an interview in late April. “We cannot let what's been going on for a long period of years to continue.”54

But the administration's own approach has yet to come into focus. Officials have suggested that tighter sanctions, coordination with China, talks with North Korea and, if necessary, military action might resolve the crisis.

“All options for responding to future provocation must remain on the table,” Secretary of State Tillerson told the UN. Security Council on April 29. “Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary.”55

Tillerson called for better enforcement of existing sanctions and new international sanctions, such as halting a guest-worker program under which Pyongyang gets hard currency from other countries in exchange for cheap labor.

Underscoring U.S. determination on the issue, Tillerson visited the DMZ in March. A month later, the Trump administration sent Vice President Mike Pence to the border “so they can see our resolve in my face,” as he said. The administration also dispatched an aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, to the Sea of Japan in April to stage drills with the South Korean navy.56 Also in April, the administration summoned all 100 members of the U.S. Senate to the White House for an emergency briefing on the situation, although officials reportedly said little new.57 A similar briefing was provided on Capitol Hill for members of the House.

Although Trump's actions on North Korea so far have not differed notably from those of past presidents, the administration's rhetoric has been sharper and more dramatic than that of his predecessors. The “theatrics of the Trump administration can be very useful in sending a message to Pyongyang,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington that favors stronger sanctions on North Korea. “So much of this is about psychology.”58

Other experts, however, worry about administration missteps. For example, the White House for days said the Carl Vinson was headed toward the Sea of Japan when, in fact, it was moving in the other direction (it eventually changed course).59 Trump also angered South Koreans when he said Korea “used to be a part of China” (technically it wasn't) and called on Seoul to pay for the THAAD antimissile system, which was not Seoul's understanding of who was paying for it.60 Recently, Trump also surprised both U.S. officials and allies by praising Kim Jong Un as a “pretty smart cookie” and saying he would be “honored” to meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.”61

The abrupt shifts in rhetoric can make the already tense situation more dangerous, Korea experts warn. “When they take position A one day and position B the next, that is inherently destabilizing,” says MIT's Walsh. “The chances of misinterpretation are larger than they've been in the past.”

If Washington expects to intimidate Kim, there is no sign it is succeeding. During the new president's first 100 days in office, North Korea conducted nine missile tests — although not all were successful — and repeatedly threatened overwhelming retaliation to any U.S. military strikes. The Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the ruling Korean Workers' Party, warned of a “super-mighty preemptive strike” that would reduce American military forces “to ashes.”62

Subsequently, North Korea accused U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies in early May of plotting to assassinate Kim Jong Un with biochemical agents and warned it could counterattack. South Korea's National Intelligence Service dismissed the accusation.63

In recent months, North Korea has further raised tensions by detaining two American professors working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, bringing the total of detained U.S. citizens to four. The State Department had little comment on the most recent detention, except to say it was “aware of reports” that an American had been detained and was working with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang.64

Further clouding the situation, South Korea on May 9 elected a new president, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, who favors a more conciliatory approach with North Korea, emphasizing dialogue instead of sanctions and pressure. He contended that South Korea must “embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day.”65 This position puts him at odds with the United States and could greatly complicate Trump administration efforts to pressure Pyongyang.

Some experts say the growing tensions may provide the catalyst for China to take a harder line with Kim. Although Beijing has been reluctant to pressure him in the past, alarms are rising in Beijing over the prospect of war. “China may finally be persuaded to put pressure on North Korea,” says the Wilson Center's Litwak.

Other foreign policy experts, however, warn that even if Beijing wanted to pressure North Korea — which remains uncertain — it may not have as much influence as the Trump administration hopes.

“Those who focus on China suggest that Chinese leaders can snap their fingers and North Korea would come to heel,” says Cato's Bandow. “That almost certainly is not the case. North Korea doesn't want to be subject to anyone.”

Fratricide

On Feb. 13, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un was waiting to catch a flight at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to his home in Macau when two young women walked up to him and touched something to his face. Within moments, he was struggling to breathe. He died on his way to the hospital.

Authorities rapidly determined that the 45-year-old was killed by VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon that North Korea is suspected of stockpiling. Suspicion immediately turned to the North Korean government, even though Pyongyang denied any involvement.

Kim Jong Nam (AFP/Getty Images/JoongAng Sunday)  
Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, was poisoned on Feb.13 with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. VX is among the banned chemical weapons North Korea is suspected of stockpiling. Kim Jong Nam, who had questioned his family's right to hereditary rule, had worried for years that his half-brother might try to kill him. Pyongyang has denied any involvement in his death. (AFP/Getty Images/JoongAng Sunday)

South Korea's acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn said the killing “starkly demonstrated the North Korean regime's recklessness and cruelty as well as the fact that it will do anything, everything, in order to maintain its power.”66

Kim Jong Nam had questioned his family's right to heredity rule, and he had worried for years that his half-brother might try to kill him. But he had little interest in politics and was living in Macau, an autonomous administrative district of China, under Beijing's protection, including sometimes a round-the-clock security detail.

Foreign policy analysts question why Pyongyang would go to such lengths to kill Kim Jong Nam, and to do so with a banned chemical agent in a public place. Some observers speculate that a key motive may have been self-preservation. If the United States or other countries wanted to assassinate Kim Jong Un, then eliminating his half-brother would make it harder to find a successor.

“It shouldn't be surprising that, if people are talking about decapitation, the logical counter is to decapitate the prospective successors,” says MIT's Walsh. “The prospects of the half-brother really being a leader were limited, but China was protecting him because they wanted an option.”

Indeed, Beijing officials were reportedly shocked by the effrontery of the murder. “China's inner circle of government is highly nervous about this,” said Wang Weimin, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai. The assassination, he argued, makes China “more aware of how unpredictable and cruel the current North Korean regime is.”67

Kim also may have been demonstrating that his arsenal extends beyond nuclear weapons. North Korea, which is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention — a 1997 treaty that prohibits the use, development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons — has produced chemical weapons since the 1980s and is believed to have biological weapons.68

In a war, experts say, Pyongyang could use aircraft, missiles, artillery or even grenades to attack South Korea and possibly Japan with chemical and biological weapons.

And deploying VX nerve agent — which forces a victim's muscles to clench uncontrollably, preventing breathing — in a crowded airport may have been intended to send a message about Pyongyang's willingness to expose large populations to lethal chemicals.

“This may have been a timely reminder to adversaries that North Korea has more than one way to strike back,” Walsh says.

Go to top
Go to Outlook

[54] Susan Jones, “Trump: North Korean leader ‘a pretty smart cookie,’” CBS News, May 1, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/msf4y9g.

Footnote:
54. Susan Jones, “Trump: North Korean leader ‘a pretty smart cookie,’” CBS News, May 1, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/msf4y9g.

[55] Margaret Besheer, “Tillerson urges UN Security Council to take action before N. Korea does,” Voice of America, April 29, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kcz5cxs.

Footnote:
55. Margaret Besheer, “Tillerson urges UN Security Council to take action before N. Korea does,” Voice of America, April 29, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kcz5cxs.

[56] Michael Crowley, “North Korea defies Trump,” Politico, April 28, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kx2yybs.

Footnote:
56. Michael Crowley, “North Korea defies Trump,” Politico, April 28, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kx2yybs.

[57] Audie Cornish, “The White House briefs the Senate on North Korea,” NPR, April 26, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mwh2hzj.

Footnote:
57. Audie Cornish, “The White House briefs the Senate on North Korea,” NPR, April 26, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mwh2hzj.

[58] Crowley, op. cit.

Footnote:
58. Crowley, op. cit.

[59] Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, “Aircraft carrier wasn't sailing to deter North Korea, as U.S. suggested,” The New York Times, April 18, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kkenv4v.

Footnote:
59. Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, “Aircraft carrier wasn't sailing to deter North Korea, as U.S. suggested,” The New York Times, April 18, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kkenv4v.

[60] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Trump's claim that Korea ‘actually used to be a part of China,’” The Washington Post, April 19, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mos6zvu. Also see Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump rattles South Korea by saying it should pay for antimissile system,” The New York Times, April 28, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m9s8xws.

Footnote:
60. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Trump's claim that Korea ‘actually used to be a part of China,’” The Washington Post, April 19, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mos6zvu. Also see Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump rattles South Korea by saying it should pay for antimissile system,” The New York Times, April 28, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m9s8xws.

[61] Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan, “President Trump says he would be ‘honored’ to meet with North Korean dictator,” The Washington Post, May 1, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/nxb8p3p.

Footnote:
61. Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan, “President Trump says he would be ‘honored’ to meet with North Korean dictator,” The Washington Post, May 1, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/nxb8p3p.

[62] Doug Stanglin, “North Korea threatens ‘super-mighty’ strike on U.S.,” USA Today, April 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kndfrxt.

Footnote:
62. Doug Stanglin, “North Korea threatens ‘super-mighty’ strike on U.S.,” USA Today, April 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/kndfrxt.

[63] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea accuses South and U.S. of plotting to kill Kim Jong-un,” The New York Times, May 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/n5cxqdg.

Footnote:
63. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea accuses South and U.S. of plotting to kill Kim Jong-un,” The New York Times, May 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/n5cxqdg.

[64] Taehoon Lee, “North Korea detains fourth US citizen,” CNN, May 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m4x2lrj.

Footnote:
64. Taehoon Lee, “North Korea detains fourth US citizen,” CNN, May 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m4x2lrj.

[65] Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korea elects Moon Jae-in, who backs talks with North, as president,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/lw7l86x.

Footnote:
65. Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korea elects Moon Jae-in, who backs talks with North, as president,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/lw7l86x.

[66] Choe Sang-Hun and Richard C. Paddock, “Kim Jong-nam killing was ‘terrorist act’ by North Korea, South says,” The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ke4wp2u.

Footnote:
66. Choe Sang-Hun and Richard C. Paddock, “Kim Jong-nam killing was ‘terrorist act’ by North Korea, South says,” The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ke4wp2u.

[67] Simon Denyer, “In China, a sense of betrayal after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam,” The Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mdc3e9m.

Footnote:
67. Simon Denyer, “In China, a sense of betrayal after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam,” The Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mdc3e9m.

[68] Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korea's chemical weapons,” Real Clear Defense, Feb. 25, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jr7oxrf.

Footnote:
68. Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korea's chemical weapons,” Real Clear Defense, Feb. 25, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jr7oxrf.



Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Hosansky, D. (2017, May 19). North Korea showdown. CQ researcher, 27, 433-456. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017051905
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017051905
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Apr. 24, 1968  Divided Korea
Jan. 27, 1960  Korea: Problem Protectorate
Aug. 24, 1951  Rehabilitation of Korea
Nov. 01, 1945  Freedom for Korea
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