While America remains intently focused on the Republicans’ goal of repealing and replacing Obamacare, it would be foolish to ignore international affairs entirely. As president Donald Trump settles into office, he is facing two global hot spots that threaten to erupt: Syria, which has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since 2011, and North Korea, which continues to make strides in its nuclear strike capabilities. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new Secretary of State, is heading to Asia this week to shore up relationships with America’s allies in the region- and work on strategies to limit the growth of North Korea’s power.
With an outspoken defense hawk as America’s new president, both friends and opponents will be watching closely as Washington’s North Korea strategy evolves.
North Korea, widely known for its loud blustering, is notorious for lobbing provocations at the West and South Korea. Rarely does a season go by without its young leader, Kim Jong Un, threatening annihilation of its rivals. This year, however, has seen elevated activity in comparison to the usual roller-coaster: Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, defector Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in Malaysia with a chemical nerve agent, and North Korea successfully fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.
Both incidents reveal that North Korea is making strides in power projection and strike capability. The assassination indicates that Kim Jong Un is growing bolder at trying to eliminate critics to his regime, even internationally. Thus far, the young dictator has been content to execute alleged opponents at home, ostensibly to consolidate power and eliminate threats to his leadership. Still in his early thirties, Kim Jong Un is one of the world’s youngest heads of state, and only came to prominence in North Korea shortly before his father’s death and his inheritance of power.
Many pundits believe that Kim’s penchant for executing possible rivals, always accused of being enemies of the state, stems from fear and insecurity. Surrounded by experienced military leaders several decades his senior, the young dictator is likely wary of a coup. Having inherited power as part of North Korea’s unique communist monarchy, Kim Jong Un probably worries that he is not respected as a capable leader in his own right. To prove his mettle, he has taken to saber-rattling against his foreign foes and executing those he views as potential rivals.Assassinating an enemy of the regime in a foreign country could be Kim’s way of impressing his underlings and, simultaneously, sending a message to aspiring defectors that their safety outside of North Korea is far from guaranteed. If North Korean agents could assassinate Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia, where else could they hit a target? With South Korea being the most common destination for defectors from the North, future assassinations will likely occur there. Will South Korea ask for U.S. assistance in bolstering security against North Korean agents, who may come equipped with nerve agents like sarin or exotic poisoning techniques like those allegedly used by Russia?
The missile test presents more of a pressing concern for the United States. Thus far, North Korea had only been able to launch one ballistic missile at a time, making any attempted strike on South Korea, Japan, or the United States vulnerable to missile defense systems. The more missiles Kim Jong Un can launch at once, the more likely it is that one or more missiles will reach the target. If Pyongyang can now launch four missiles at a time, it has four times the chance of a successful strike.
And, just as dangerous, each successful test launch brings North Korea one step closer to its penultimate goal: The ability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear weapon. Once that capability is achieved, North Korea will be able to focus on its long-term goal of reuniting the Korean Peninsula under one nation-state. If North Korea has the ability to hit the U.S. with a nuke, it may assume that the U.S. will not defend South Korea from an invasion.
In the hot seat over North Korea’s growing power is new President Donald Trump. Though a defense hawk, Trump has also criticized America’s generous spending on bolstering allies’ military defenses. Since Trump has demanded that NATO allies increase their own defense spending, can he rush to offer South Korea additional assistance without being called a hypocrite? As North Korea grows more dangerous, both South Korea and Japan will increase their requests for American troops and military equipment.
China also looms large over the whole North Korea dilemma. In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that the only realistic way to de-escalate North Korea’s military aspirations is through Chinese intervention. With much of the West refusing to maintain diplomatic or economic relations with Pyongyang, China remains the most prominent international voice to which Kim Jong Un might listen. Since most of North Korea’s imports come through China, leaders in Beijing have tremendous power over their smaller neighbor.
Will Trump make nice with China to win their help in cooling off North Korea?
Making nice with China may be a tough sell for Trump, who has frequently criticized the rising superpower over trade issues. And opting for diplomatic solutions over military threats when it comes to North Korea may also chafe, for Trump has staunchly insisted that America must return to being a military power. How can he justify his desired $54 billion increase in military spending if he uses diplomacy to rein in North Korea? A successful diplomatic alliance with China over the North Korean issue may, ironically, hurt Trump’s goal of “restoring” America’s military.
But any progress on North Korea via diplomacy may override any damage to Trump’s position as a defense hawk: He would be accomplishing what both George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not. North Korea developed nuclear capabilities on Bush’s watch and continued their rise under Obama’s. Neither the carrot nor the stick worked. Could Trump making a deal with China to rein in North Korea be the trick?