As hawkish U.S. policymakers create contingency plans for a preemptive strike to disarm North Korea, otherwise known as a “bloody nose strike,” the threat of war advances. This is concerning because war with Korea is simply not a viable option, given the credible nuclear threat posed by its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Yet the international community’s recognition of the impracticability of war doesn’t ease concerns when the best course of action proves more and more elusive as various national interests conflict and Kim Jong Un pits one player against another.
Aware of the disconnect between the rhetoric and objectives of the United States and South Korea, Kim has taken vastly different tones with the two nations, evident in his New Year’s address. Additionally, although peace talks with Washington have been promised by the North, all correspondence has run through South Korean channels, and it remains unclear whether such promises will be met. In his address to the people of North Korea, Kim expressly stated that he does not plan to cease the development of his nuclear program, despite the heavy sanctions and repeated threats from the international community —both veiled and not-so-veiled. Speaking directly to the United States in his January 1st address, Kim said, “The entire area of the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear strike range. The United States can never start a war against me and our country.” Important to note in Kim’s rhetoric is a recurring theme of defensiveness underpinning the majority of statements made by North Korea: The Kim family regime wants to be left alone, and the intent of the nuclear arsenal is to safeguard that interest. However, rational actor or not, a volatile state such as North Korea simply cannot be left alone, and it is up to the international community to see denuclearization through, even if it takes decades.
Following his message to the United States, Kim turned his attention to South Korea, initiating peace talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who readily agreed to negotiate. Although Moon has vowed to maintain a policy of sanctions against its northern counterpart, the international community has expressed its doubts. Moon has tried to quell concerns. He even reaffirmed his commitment to sanctions in a press conference in January in response to criticism of his lax policies towards Kim Jong Un’s continued nuclear development. He also assured the international community that any summit will not be held on North Korea’s terms and must meet a set of preconditions. These preconditions remain unspecified at this time, but will hopefully emphasize denuclearization in keeping with previous diplomatic arrangements within the peninsula.
Although the United States has a vested interest in the peninsula, undeniably the greatest existential threat faces South Korea, who has continually navigated tensions with the North diplomatically. In a move towards deescalation, the two states formed a joint women’s ice hockey team, an act that resembles ping-pong diplomacy, which references an effort at détente in which the United States’ national table tennis team engaged in a match against mainland China’s team’s team in the 1980s. Yet, many prominent thinkers remain skeptical of North Korean efforts at holding summits and fostering sunnier relations. Many view Kim’s uncharacteristic actions as evidence he is folding under the intense sanctions implemented under a UN Security Council mandate in late 2017, while others interpret it as a North Korean attempt to build diplomatic ties as a ploy to earn — and subsequently betray — South Korean trust.
As the United States increases the heat of its rhetoric, Moon conversely expresses an enthusiastic desire for diplomatic relations within the peninsula, which suggests a strategy on the part of the North to sow discord between Washington and Seoul. Such disharmony could force the hand of either the United States or South Korea, playing directly into the plans of Kim Jong-Un. North Korea, providing further indication that U.S.-South Korean discord may very well be its aim, cancelled a scheduled meeting with Vice President Mike Pence in February on very short notice, instead scheduling a meeting with South Korea.
Although encouraging on the surface, détente could spell trouble for the interests of the United States; China and Russia, North Korea’s closest trading partners, may recommence business dealings in the near future, undermining the effectiveness of Washington’s words and actions. Japan has already reported on Chinese and North Korean oil tankers engaging in a stealthy trade, which suggests that China may have already violated sanction efforts in favor of the Kim regime. Our treatment of the North Korean regime is ultimately a test of liberal internationalism—and sheds light on the relative depth of U.S. commitments to diplomacy, and by extension the effectiveness of diplomacy as a whole.
This article's cover image originally licensed under Korea Open Government Licence I: Attribution.