Before leaving office, President Obama reportedly warned then President-elect Donald Trump that the North Korean dilemma would be the most precarious security threat of his presidency—a warning that perhaps forecasted the current heightening tensions in Northeast Asia. For decades, the global community has attempted to thwart North Korea’s nuclear and missile development trajectory. The various tactics employed have left a history replete with security and humanitarian crises, diplomatic stalemates and regression from denuclearisation. In light of President Trump’s recent tweets shaming the Chinese government for its lack of progress in diminishing the North Korean crisis, one question must be asked: is there really an easy solution to this problem?
The enduring and clearly-favoured international approach to North Korea, spearheaded by past and present US administrations, has been premised on the perceived choice of the reclusive state either pursuing its nuclear program or ensuring its regime survival. But would Pyongyang be prepared to concede either?
North Korea’s nuclear program and the Kim family regime are critical considerations when developing a response strategy. The nuclear program, constitutionally enshrined by Kim Jong-un, provides not only a domestic marketing tactic for the regime, but remains a critical nation-branding tool that the North Korean government has and continues to capitalise on. Further, the structure of the political regime is inherently bolted to the stability of the nation. Credit here goes to former President Kim Jong-il who strategically married the political and military elite to dissuade in-house rebellion.
Literature on North Korea widely maintains that China is partially to blame for the protraction and prosperity of the Kim regime, largely through its continued trade across the China-North Korean border irrespective of international sanctions. In China’s defence, however, it would face significant repercussions if it were to cease trading. Projections for China have ranged from a North Korean food crisis potentially resulting in torrents of refugees flooding across the border, to China’s historical ally but increasingly exasperated neighbour turning its nuclear weapons towards Beijing.
The US has near exhausted the variety of policy responses afforded by its domestic constituents to combat the challenges posed by North Korea, at the centre of which has been the state’s nuclear proliferation. Strategies have oscillated between military cooperation, extensive bilateral and multilateral sanctions and alternate non-proliferation mechanisms, such as export controls—each tactic having proven futile. Further, long-term diplomatic initiatives, most notably the Six Party Talks (2003-2009), while suggestive of a route to resolution, were discredited by the nuclear tests conducted in 2006 and 2009.
Since 1994, most, if not all, US administrations have been tempted by a military response to North Korea, particularly a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear arsenal. The objectives of either negating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities or, more grandly, decapitating the regime would likely prompt unfathomable responses from China, Russia or North Korea, which would put US military personnel in South Korea, Seoul and Japan at imminent risk. Wargaming ramifications have painted a grim domestic disposition: a brawl for power, a race to control and act on nuclear capabilities, an unknown new leader, potential use of chemical weapons and a refugee crisis.
North Korea is not a crisis that will fade away on its own. Under Kim Jong-un, the state is escalating the advancement and assertiveness of its nuclear program, with an unprecedented 14 missile launches over six months in 2017—a blaring contrast to the already troubling five launches throughout 2016. In the wake of Friday’s launch of a second Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency reported Kim stating, ‘...the whole US mainland is in the firing range’.
Weapons experts have considered that had the Hwasong-14 missile been fired at a standard trajectory, major American cities, such as Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, would have been well within its range. David Wright, a missiles expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, further highlighted the possibility of Boston and New York being within range. Perhaps more concerning is the projection from both North Korean and American sources that, continuing on its current trajectory, North Korea will have secured a reliable, nuclear-capable ICBM by early 2018. However, other sources have offered scepticism, emphasising the difficulty of securing a nuclear warhead that is stable against the heat and pressure of re-entry to the atmosphere.
Four administrations on and Trump holds the bleak responsibility of overseeing North Korea’s containment—a task formidable for any leader, let alone an inexperienced diplomat and Commander-in-chief. While American presence in the region remains a sign of stability, its reassurance is dwindling under Trump. Due to the permanent and rapidly progressing nature of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and further acquisitions and achievements seemingly inevitable, the state maintains its priority label. With the long-held diplomatic truism that the North Korean crisis is plagued with lousy options, one certainty is that the solution won’t come easily.
Georgia Grice is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.