On January 2, 2018, President Trump called out the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, tweeting, “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” This controversial tweet followed a series of twitter insults between the two leaders. Some examples of these tweets include Kim Jong Un calling Trump “old” and Trump responding by calling the North Korean leader “short and fat” and “rocket man,” to name a few.
These exchanges reflect the strained diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. The tension between the two countries escalated within the past year. According to the BBC on January 8, North Korea claimed that it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that can be miniaturised and loaded on a long range missile. This claim has been validated by leaked US intelligence, which stated that North Korea is capable of miniaturisation. In fact, according to the New York Times on November 28, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declared that North Korea now had the missile capability to “threaten everywhere in the world, basically.” In the past, North Korea has threatened and taunted South Korea, Japan, and even the US territory of Guam with their weapons.
Currently, the United States’ strategy to address this threat is rather ambiguous. The U.S. has not specifically stated or publically laid out their plan to deal with North Korea. President Trump has repeatedly stated that he will “solve” the North Korean threat, but has never explained the strategy. The US and several other major countries have imposed sanctions on North Korea. Additionally, there has been speculation about war or diplomatic talks with North Korea. Analysts from the Atlantic point out that given the Trump administration’s “fire and fury” rhetoric, war might be the more likely option. The National Security Advisor General McMaster has talked about how a “preventative war” might be necessary if diplomacy fails, stating that “The North Koreans have shown, through their words and actions, their intention to blackmail the United States into abandoning our South Korean ally, potentially clearing the path for a second Korean War,” hinting at a possible war.
In fact, the United States has been quietly preparing for a potential war with North Korea. NPR reports that the Army has been training thousands of soldiers in tunnel warfare, in an attempt to prepare soldiers for fighting in North Korea’s underground tunnels and bunkers, some of which are hundreds of feet deep. Along with the added training of soldiers, the Army has also been purchasing specialized gear needed for the tunnel operations: radios and night vision goggles, along with acetylene torches and bolt cutters. Additionally, they have, over the past several months, quietly bought more Patriot missiles and precision-guided bombs in the region to make sure the stockpiles are sufficient for a war footing.
While the United States has been preparing for a war, there have also been discussions about reaching a diplomatic solution to the crisis, following the North and South Korean talks. According to CNN on January 18, North Korea and South Korea have engaged in talks about the Olympics. They have agreed to send a North Korean delegation to compete, 230 supporters to cheer the teams, and plans to walk under a unified flag during the opening ceremony. The nations have also combined the women’s ice hockey team and formed a joint team for the Games in Pyeongchang, which begin early next month. Furthermore, North and South Korean skiers will train together at a resort in North Korea before the Olympics start, and performers from the two countries will hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang.
These negotiations are the first between North Korea and South Korea after years of strained relationships between the two countries. There is much debate regarding North Korea’s motive for the talks. For example, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono believes that North Korea is buying some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs, and that people should not be fooled by these talks. On the other hand, others like South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stated that these talks were a “significant step” and believes that there are challenges ahead, saying, “despite these overtures to improve relations with the South, North Korea has yet to show any intention to fulfill its international obligations regarding denuclearization.”
It is uncertain what the long term impact of these negotiations with South Korea will have on the prospect of war with North Korea. By agreeing to talks with their southern counterpart, North Korea could be signaling that, if the intra-Korean talks continue to go well, they would be willing to discuss a peaceful solution to this crisis. In Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day speech, he was gentler on the US than usual and did not even condemn the US once. Trump stated that he would be willing to talk to North Korea “under the right circumstances.” This could lead to a discussion between North Korea and the United States about potential denuclearization, and finally put an end to this crisis.
– Anika Sanyal