If one didn’t have evidence to the contrary, they might think that the West is intent on getting into a military scuffle with North Korea. As North Korea and South Korea show signs of cooperation and openness that have not seemed possible since the Korean War, some Western powers seem to have disregarded the (admittedly tenuous and convenient) warming of relations between the North Korean dictator and his southern neighbor.
President Trump has made it clear that, should he and his generals deem it necessary, South Korea would have to get on board with any military strike or further re-occupation of the Korean peninsula. However, that would, most thought at the time, be contingent upon Kim Jong-Un taking more substantively threatening actions toward the West and its allies, including South Korea. In most experts’ minds, that would mean evidence that North Korea had developed an ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States, specifically New York City.
But one could argue that diplomatic relations between the Koreas shows more promise than it has in centuries. With the Winter Olympics in February as a pressing impetus, negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang have been more active than at any point in recent memory. The talks have focused primarily on inter-Korean relations, and the nations have said that they will make the diplomatic conversations a regularity going forward. Though one would be foolish to bet heavily on ‘regularity’ constituting anything beyond Kim Jong-Un’s next change of heart, it is progress, and it can be seen as a form of de-escalation, which Trump professedly seeks. That said, it is a de-escalation between the neighbors that benefits both, and not necessarily America.
South Korea wants to ensure in the short term that its Winter Olympics go without interference or embarrassment at the hands of North Korea. North Korea likely sees participation in and cooperation with the South Korean games to somehow appear as the legitimate government it so desperately wants to be. In the long term, South Korea has made it clear that it values the avoidance of conflict with North Korea over ensuring that Kim Jong-Un does not get a nuclear bomb, even if that means a greater threat to his most obvious target, the United States. One cannot necessarily blame South Korea for taking this South Korea-first stance, as it’s straight out of Trump’s own playbook.
With an American ally that has shown a regular, if not unpredictable, tendency to threaten preemptive military action against North Korea despite the near-certain toll it would take on South Korea’s people and infrastructure, South Korea appears determined to take the de-escalation into its own hands, and the latest diplomatic cooperation appears it has done so rather successfully. So why are Western nations portraying a cooling of tensions between North and South Korea as a potential threat now?
The argument makes sense on the surface, but not when vetted thoroughly. Essentially, critics of closer ties between North and South Korea posit that it could drive a wedge between the American-South Korean allegiance. With North Korea as a sworn enemy of the States, this would seemingly have some merit, but South Korea isn’t about to go running into the arms of Kim Jong-Un in lieu of the immense protection that America provides. However, if the States were to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, South Korea could very well find nations such as Russia or China to be more attractive allies, which would be a major loss for the States, not to mention the other ramifications that could arise from such a strike.
The potential domino effect that could result from striking North Korea in order to prevent Kim Jong-Un from obtaining more advanced nuclear weapons would be unequivocally negative, the extent of that negative effect remaining unclear. At best, America would be painted as the global aggressor it has often been portrayed as, especially in recent years, turning more nations toward allegiances with the aforementioned giants of the East. At worst, powers such as Russia and China could use the strike on their loose ally to justify military action in Eastern Europe and potentially, though less likely, against the States.
Though civilians are not privy to the true extent of our military capabilities, it seems difficult to believe that the U.S. defense systems are incapable of striking down any North Korean missile attack, yet it seems increasingly possible that true negotiation which could lead to de-escalation and/or accepting the reality of a nuclear North Korea are being abandoned as options, despite Trump’s comments stating otherwise.
This past Tuesday, Canada and the United States co-hosted a conference in Vancouver aimed at further pressing North Korea to completely de-nuclearize. Realists know this is not going to happen, as North Korea has written into its constitution that it must maintain nuclear arms. America, meanwhile, has maintained that it will not negotiate with North Korea until it agrees to denuclearize. Yet, according to the Ottawa Citizen, the ‘premise of the conference’ is ‘to force North Korea to the negotiating table and persuade it to denuclearize.’ The conference was occupied by anti-war activists, which is appropriate considering that the stalemate of conditions between America, the 19 attending nations, and North Korea seem to logically lead only to war.
The conference was held outside the confines of the traditional means for diplomatic discussion, the UN Security Council. That meant non-invites for China or Russia, perhaps the most crucial players in any potential denuclearization of North Korea. With this in mind, one has to wonder how committed to non-militaristic options the United States and its allies really are. The invitees – including Greece, Belgium, France, Colombia, and Luxembourg – have seemingly little or nothing to do with the North Korean situation, let alone the de-escalation of potential conflict. The mostly NATO member conference participants called for sanctions on North Korea that go beyond the UN’s own reccomendations, a circumvention of traditional means that defies the status quo.
Just a day after the conference concluded, Donald Trump accused Russia of helping North Korea evade sanctions, while acknowledging that China has increasingly cooperated in helping American interests.
“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump said during an Oval Office interview with Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
The perceived snub of China and Russia, in combination with Trump’s comments, can only further sour relations between the nations and the United States, decreasing already scant odds that they could or would convince North Korea to substantively reduce its nuclear activity. A preemptive strike by America would play right into China and Russia’s hands, raising their moral high ground and the likelihood of attaining more global alliances. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov unabashedly blasted the conference, adding that accusations about Russian-North Korean collusion are “outright lies”.
"It is outright lies. We said clearly that we consider these efforts and this meeting to be destructive.” (TASS)
Between the freezing out of China and Russia from the Vancouver Conference, America’s downright unrealistic insistence on a de-nuclearized North Korea, and the actions of NATO nations that fall outside of traditional avenues, it seems that Western powers – especially the United States – are charting a path to military conflict that may be preemptive.
“We have to recognize that that threat [of North Korea’s nuclear weapons] is growing. And if North Korea does not choose the path of engagement, discussion, negotiation, [that is, surrender] then they themselves will trigger an option [US military action],” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the conference. (Strategic Culture)
Whether you believe that American military technology is capable of shooting down a North Korean missile or you feel more comfortable ensuring they don’t attain that missile, there are no good options. As of now, it seems that America may have decided that the latter option is the only option they are willing to realistically pursue.