A Tenuous Balance: Power Politics, Nuclear Policy, and the North Korea Question

by R.D.H.

Presidents Trump and Xi had an incredibly productive meeting considering both the tense geopolitical climate churning in the South China Sea and the seemingly confrontational stance President Trump adopted towards China’s trade policy on the campaign trail. Despite these seemingly divisive issues, the productive meeting between the two Heads of State was fueled by growing concern over China’s unruly neighbor: North Korea.

Two topics dominated Trump’s meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago: trade and North Korea, the two issues linked by the American President’s trademark “negotiational” approach to diplomacy. According to Barbara Demick of the LA Times, Trump offered to back off on issues of trade deficits with China as long as Xi agreed to help the United States roll back the growing nuclear threat of North Korea. What could have been a confrontational meeting was averted by the simple negotiation tactic of offering concessions in return for a benefit. Looking at China’s actions since the landmark meeting Saturday show that Trump’s approach seems to have worked. China even offered trade concessions of their own! This cooperative tone will be important in light of the situation that has developed in the world’s last Stalinist state.

As the birthday of North Korea’s dynastic founder, Kim Il-Sung, approaches, the country’s military seems poised to conduct a sixth nuclear test; a direct provocation to its neighbors and to the United States. North Korea has been a thorn in the side of the United States since its inception in 1948. The reclusive regime has consistently rattled its sabre for nearly 70 years and its recent developments towards both nuclear capability and ICBM technology have finally made it a credible threat to U.S. interests. The Trump administration has been forced to take the DPRK seriously and this has prompted a surge of speculation.

In the past week the situation has severely escalated:

  • The United States announced the rerouting of the Vinson Strike Group from a routine mission to Australia, back to Korean waters.
  • China cut off North Korean coal imports, a large portion of the DPRK’s economy.
  • The Chinese Army massed 150,000 troops on the North Korean border.
  • Chinese and South Korean diplomats have discussed the potential outbreak of war.
  • North Korea issued a provocative warning to the U.S.
  • Japan has scrambled its fighter jets in response to Chinese military activity.
  • Trump’s administration presented a variety of plans of action in the event of a North Korean nuclear test or missile launch.

 

If these recent events don’t put you on edge, I’m not sure what will. All of this sure seems like the buildup to a military conflict, one which has the potential to embroil two global powers in China and the United States in open warfare. It’s clear that the Chinese government acknowledges the threat posed by a nuclear capable North Korea at its border, but the question is how will it respond? Will China uphold its treaty to defend North Korea? Will it sit by as the U.S. engages an “ally” on its border, or will it chose to support the U.S. effort to denuclearize the peninsula? All of this is contingent on the plan of action that President Trump choses which likely depends on what North Korea does Saturday.

In the event of a North Korean strike against the Vinson Strike Group, South Korea, or Japan, Trump will likely authorize the use of anti-ballistic missiles to strike down the North Korean projectile. U.S. THAAD deployments in South Korea, Japan, and on the destroyers in its strike group make it an obvious option, but at that point, both countries would be well into the bounds of formal open warfare.

Another option floated in mainstream media circles has been Trump’s discussion of potentially decapitating the regime at its head: Kim Jong-Un. While this option would seem to alleviate one problem, the detrimental effect on the United States’ credibility as well as the likely power vacuum it would create in North Korea would fuel even more uncertainty and likely alienate any potential voices of support in China.

The option of providing South Korea with nuclear weapons has been suggested. While this would help to create a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario on the Peninsula, policy experts cannot be certain that North Korea would abide by the rational constraints that make such a scenario feasible. Consequently, such an action would contradict Trump’s stated aim of denuclearizing the peninsula.

Finally, a preemptive strike has been suggested. Much like what happened in Syria, the U.S. could use cruise missiles to bomb the site of the nuclear test and formally open a war.

Noticing a theme here? All of these options are incredibly provocative and dangerous. Trump has found himself face to face with a scenario that has a very high chance of becoming a disaster. If we are to presume that the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government under Trump seeks to pursue U.S. national interests, these scenarios would all run counter to such. Proponents of neo-isolationist policy in the Trump camp argue that U.S. interests do not present themselves in Korea and as such, the United States should withdraw completely from the peninsula. More interventionist voices seem content to pursue regime change if the scenario presents itself.

Trump appears stuck between a rock and a hard place. The decision he makes here has the potential to make or break his presidency. A second Korean War, especially a drawn out one would be a nightmare come 2020. But a backing off would project the kind of weakness that plagued the prior administration. The ball is in Trump’s court, it’s up to him to pull the trigger.