Understanding the Situation: North Korea & the United States

By: Matt McGuigan

There is no question President Trump is tackling N. Korea in ways dissimilar than previous administrations. Early in August, N. Korea threatened to fire upon the island of Guam. President Trump responded with a round of rhetoric containing stern warnings such as “fire and fury” and reiterating “all options are on the table.” Secretary of defense, General James Mattis, has also echoed this strong stance towards N. Korea in numerous public speeches. To back up its warnings, the administration deployed several stealth bombers to the island of Guam. It is clear the Trump administration is using a brinkmanship like approach when dealing with the hermit nation. Such a method has seemingly been successful so far as N. Korea has backed down, for now, on their promise to fire missiles towards Guam.  What else is clear is the Trump administration has no problem standing tall and calling N. Korea’s bluff, and it is likely the administration will continue to do so.

As with all international diplomacy issues, North Korea and the United States are not operating in a vacuum. China plays a unique and crucial role in the current situation because they have historically been an ally to N. Korea. China and North Korea share an extensive (roughly 900 mile) border. This border is important in the relationship because it is china’s “skin in the game.” If the Kim regime were to collapse, there is a possibility for millions of refugees to flee N. Korea to China. China has a history of supporting the regime through political and economic support. China has been N. Korea’s largest trade partner and biggest ally in its fight against the international order.  However, the tide of the relationship is beginning to change and change significantly. In 2014, China disputed (on behalf of Korea) a United Nations report finding N. Korea committed numerous human rights violations. Flash-forward to earlier this month when China extended a ban of imports from N. Korea to include seafood, iron and iron ore. It is clear China is beginning to align its N. Korean policies to better fit the international order. But why would China continue to have economic ties to N. Korea? The reason is China is playing the long game. President Xi understands the repercussions if N. Korea does ultimately fall. A unified Korean peninsula would likely place the capital in South Korea, eliminating any sort of cushion China had from a liberal S. Korea.  

There is a very clear, however unlikely, possibility for tensions between N. Korea and the U.S. to escalate. Obviously one of the worst implications of further escalation is the possibility of an armed conflict (possibly involving nuclear weapons, but highly unlikely in my opinion) between the north and south of the peninsula. Such a situation would risk the lives of nearly fifty million South Koreans and close to twenty-five million North Koreans. This isn’t counting the tens of thousands of American forces currently stationed in South Korea. The loss of human life is only the beginning. If an armed conflict were to occur, the risk of a proxy war becomes a real threat. It is at this point where we can only speculate on which nations would become involved and where they would align themselves. At present, a strong response from the Trump administration is the best option as it is difficult to foresee the Kim regime deciding to take a seat at the diplomatic bargaining table any time soon.

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