North Korea Could Cause Chaos in Many Ways:
President Donald Trump and his administration have been handed something between a short straw and a live grenade when it comes to foreign policy due to inaction, blunders, and naïveté spanning the last few administrations and sometimes further, especially with regard to the North Korean crisis. It has been an eventful summer on that front and there is plenty more to come, as the trial of Kim Jong Nam’s alleged assassins gets under way in Malaysia on Monday.
While Americans were barbecuing on the Fourth of July this year, Kim Jong Un was gloating over an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch, his country’s first. He characteristically saber-rattled through his country’s official news agency with statements such as, “American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary” and “We should send them gifts once in a while to help break their boredom.” He even described the Hwasong-14 missile “as handsome as a good-looking boy” (Italiano).
Unfortunately, this saga has been eclipsed by insanity that seems to increase every week. On July 28, North Korea tested another ICBM with a range of 6,500 miles, putting cities such as Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago “well within range” (Wright). By August, we found out that North Korea had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, affixable to the tip of such a missile.
North Korea all but joined the nuclear club, with some uncertainty about their reentry vehicles, which could be pushed through in the next year. The report from the Defense Intelligence Agency bluntly stated, “The intelligence community assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles,” an assessment corroborated by the Japanese Ministry of Defense (Warrick, Nakashima, and Fifield).
The media oddly excoriated President Trump for responding that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if they were to use such a weapon, seemingly a perfectly logical response (Moore). Even Senator John McCain got in on the act saying, “The great leaders I’ve seen, they don’t threaten unless they are ready to act and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act,” despite having called Kim Jong Un a “crazy fat kid” while on the Senate Armed Services Committee and making “bomb Iran” jokes while on the campaign trail in 2008 (KTAR).
Following President Trump’s comments, North Korea threatened the U.S. territory of Guam with a missile strike, but backed off days later after blunt warnings from Secretary of Defense James Mattis (Reuters). During those tense few days, political commentator Mark Steyn stated, “They’re actually arguing about the president’s rhetoric at a time when a government has made an explicit threat to nuke U.S. territory. These guys are the crazy ones? People are arguing about whether he can merely nuke Guam, or whether he can nuke Boston. These are absurd differences. The fact is the sane housetrained politicians spent a quarter century allowing us to get to this point. That is why we are at a hellish point” (Hains).
Steyn was proven right as North Korea continued flexing its muscles with missile launches and nuclear tests despite round after round of punishing sanctions imposed by the United Nations. On August 28, North Korea launched a missile over Japan for the first time since 1998 after its July ICBM launches were done specifically to avoid Japan, thus revealing an escalation of tensions (Perez). A few days later, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake was reported, caused by North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, allegedly of a hydrogen bomb (Lapin). This was followed by another missile launch over Japan in mid-September (Tacopino).
Round after round of sanctions have been passed in that time and since, many of them considered landmark. This includes China abiding by massive U.N. sanctions and cutting off $1 billion in coal, iron ore, and other imports (Associated Press) – limiting oil exports and banning textile imports – and ordering a shutdown of business partnerships with the North (Moore). The latter came days after President Trump signed an executive order allowing the Treasury Department “enhanced authority” to go after business partners of North Korea (Moore). The banning of textile imports is highly important – North Korean factories have been turning out clothes marked “Made in China” (Reuters).
Despite all this, tensions continue to rise on the Korean peninsula with no end in sight. Despite massive breakthroughs in conventional diplomacy, the military and nuclear threat has not subsided as of yet. Through the work of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary Mattis and President Trump signaling the end of the “era of strategic patience,” the Trump administration seems to have talked North Korea down to playing a war of words.
That said, North Korea has claimed that the U.S. has declared war on them, which is mostly empty rhetoric, but comes with a promise to shoot down U.S. bombers outside North Korean airspace (Moore). North Korea has also threatened a potentially devastating hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean that would have immense consequences for marine life and for electronics, including those on airplanes and low-orbit satellites. The fallout from such a blast would last for many years.
However, Dr. Morris Jones of the Lowy Institute notes that such a threat is mostly based on North Korea’s need for a new testing ground (Jones). The South Korean government has warned that the North’s next big act could come in October to coincide with the anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s Communist party.
We must remember two more things about the North Korean threat to understand it fully. First, this is not a crisis confined to Kim Jong Un and his military leadership – it extends across the globe. Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism (Lee), greatly benefits from North Korean nuclear advances and testing. North Korea’s Rodong and Iran’s Shahab missiles are extremely similar and Iranian scientists witnessed North Korea’s first nuclear test (Avni).
There have also been shipments of chemical weapons from North Korea to Syria that were intercepted. These purchases have only one logical source of funding – Syria’s biggest backer, Iran (Avni). These repeated tests by North Korea can only help push Iran further toward its development of the ability to strike the U.S. and further exacerbate the situation in Syria that is destabilizing the West.
Secondly, it serves us well to remember what a horrific regime North Korea is. In recent months, the U.S. State Department has publicized the extent North Korea abuses religious people and prisoners. Similarly, North Korea carries out public firing squad executions against those who distribute South Korean media or steal rice (Lam).
The regime in North Korea has gone unabated since the Johnson administration when they hijacked the USS Pueblo. It continued with the Nixon-era shooting down of an EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft 100 miles off their coast. The axe-murder of U.S. soldiers during the Carter administration was met with a symbolic tree-chopping. We cannot forget the Rangoon bombing of 1983 or the Korean Air Flight 858 bombing of 1987 (Buchanan).
President Bill Clinton promised in a 1994 deal to stop North Korea from obtaining a nuclear weapon in exchange for fuel oil (Kessler). Clinton reached that deal after utilizing Trump-like rhetoric, “we would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate. It would mean the end of their country as they know it” (New York Times).
Today, North Korea has the ability to mount nuclear warheads on ICBMs and is using that potential as nuclear blackmail against Americans. That it stays at this stage is the best case scenario, without a military intervention or a miracle of diplomacy, either of which would almost certainly require the backing of China. At worst, North Korea or Iran uses the technology against an enemy or makes a mistake, causing disastrous casualties.
There is the short straw that President Trump has been handed, owed to the “era of strategic patience.” Kim Jong Un is no longer a punch-line of bad haircuts, awkwardly-translated screeds and failed missile tests. We can no longer afford to joke that his missiles will run out of coal over the Sea of Japan. He is a full-fledged nuclear-armed despot with evil friends in Iran who intend to be nuclear-armed soon. It is difficult to imagine that there is debate over whether or not he is a threat. He currently stands as one of the greatest threats of our time.
Thomas Allen is a sophomore majoring in political science.
North Korea Won’t Risk It:
One of the most effective ways to make a prediction about the impending actions of a nation-state is to compare the current predicament with a similar historic situation or event. With regard to retrospection, I foresee our fragile relationship with North Korea going one of two possible ways. Either they pose no legitimate threat and we have something of a Cold War situation with mounds of tension unaccompanied by any sort of physical action, or they attempt to harm us, posing a minimal threat, and end up “awaken[ing] a sleeping giant.”
Some might say that we are incapable of knowing the power of North Korea’s violent and specifically nuclear potential, implying that this lack of knowledge should evoke a sense of fearful paranoia. While there is truth in the fact that we don’t definitively know the full potential of their weaponry, we should instead shift our focus to what we are sure of.
We know with full confidence the capabilities that the United States possesses. One doesn’t have to look back very far to see how we retaliated against the attack on Pearl Harbor. For better or for worse, we have the capacity to level entire cities in a matter of seconds, making North Korea particularly susceptible due to its small, concentrated nature.
The uncertainty surrounding the status of North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and their ability to use them effectively beyond a certain distance does open up space for doubt. However, due to our strong reputation within the international community, especially in regards to the events of World War II, we can safely say that North Korea knows the extreme caliber of what awaits them if they decide to take preliminary action against the United States.
Yes, the release of even a single nuclear weapon could have catastrophic repercussions for the United States, North Korea, and the entire global community as a whole. Despite this, the risks of North Korea engaging in nuclear warfare with the United States are simply too great for them.
Regardless of the degree of damage they could cause in an initial assailment, the juggernaut of retaliation would undoubtedly annihilate them as an entity completely. Attacking the United States would ultimately spell the imminent demise of North Korea. We are too powerful and have too much agency in the international sphere to consider North Korea an imminent and legitimate threat to our safety as a nation.
Courtney Pittam is a senior majoring in international studies.