North Korea: How to combat the ‘Smart Cookie’


The current situation in North Korea is, perhaps especially for me here with my family residing in Japan, a severely concerning one (enough so that, yes, I have produced yet another article on the topic). Much of my apprehension originates from an inability to ‘know’ what is being carried out or planned by other the countries involved, especially the USA, to alleviate the mounting tensions generated by the increasingly provocative North Korean missile tests.

At the end of last month, after announcing his commitment to resolving the tensions in North Korea peacefully in an interview with Reuters, President Trump added, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.” His “Absolutely” seems to express more than just a likely possibility of a major dispute involving North Korea; it perhaps indicates a worrying validation of military clashes, namely an absence of an ardent willingness to engage in further diplomacy to avoid an escalation of tensions that could easily involve mass sacrifices.

His claim to desire a non-military solution – “We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult” – appears somewhat superficial juxtaposed with the insistence of his team upon a diplomatic resolution of tensions. Asserting that the North Korean government’s fixation upon its nuclear and missile programmes derives from a belief in their ability to ensure the regime’s survival, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in an interview with Fox News: “We want to change that calculus of theirs and we have said to them: your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons and we and other countries will help you on the way to economic development”. Unlike the US President, who does not necessarily seem averse to military intervention, the Secretary of State maintained that the government would “wait as long as it takes” to engage in talks with North Korea provided no new nuclear or IBM tests transpired.

Trump’s aggressionist rhetoric confuses the direction of international policy

That is not to say that the US President is necessarily mistaken in believing that a successful deployment of diplomacy may be difficult in defusing the tensions surrounding North Korea. Kim Jong-un has been exhibiting increasingly erratic behaviour since the consolidation of his power upon his father’s death in 2011; it would be understandable if had gradually eroded the hope amongst Western powers that diplomacy would serve to eventually moderate the often provocative actions of the North Korean regime. However, recalling Trump’s announced strategy to defeat ISIS prior to the Presidential elections, one cannot but be assailed by an apprehension surrounding Trump’s military involvement in a “major, major conflict with North Korea”. Surely everyone remembers the proclamation of Trump as presidential candidate for one of the most powerful countries in the world: “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em. I would just bomb these suckers”. He almost resembled (obscenities aside) a young child excitedly waving a toy fighter plane, completely oblivious to the devastation and suffering that war can wreak. Considering the military power that the US possesses, Trump’s comments bespeak the potential perils of his involvement in any kind of military operation – whatever you may think about recent US moves in Syria – let alone one on an international scale.

In a comment remarkably flippant considering his own political position, President Trump dubbed Kim Jong-un “a pretty smart cookie” due to his success in having maintained his dictatorial grasps over North Korea. His remark is reminiscent of another he made in an interview with Reuters a week earlier – “He’s 27 years old, his father dies, took over a regime, so say what you want but that’s not easy, especially at that age” – that expressed sympathy with a leader responsible for the execution of his own uncle, the denial of religious freedoms, and the prohibition of organised political opposition and free speech. Whether or not Kim Jong-un  is in fact a ‘smart cookie’, the US President’s tone was one that seemed to underplay the gravity of the situation surrounding North Korea and failed to express an adequate condemnation of the tyrannical actions of its leader.

What is it then that differentiates the two leaders – other than the (admittedly significant) fact that one was voted into office and the other inherited his father’s title? According to Senator John McCain, President Trump has “surrounded himself with an outstanding national security team”; although admitting that the President does not necessarily have to take his team’s advice into account, McCain claims that he has done so so far. His comments suggest to me that what differentiates Trump from Kim is the fact that the former is the leader of a world superpower, reined in by ‘sensible’ advisors.

Trump’s comments bespeak the potential perils of his involvement in any kind of military operation

To suggest that President Trump is a leader with political methods as problematic as those of Kim Jong-il may be considered hyperbolic – although bearing in mind Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, for instance, it would also be extremely naïve to claim that he is a particularly ideal leader in comparison – but the former is potentially much more dangerous as the premier of one of the world’s greatest superpowers; the combination of a President who simultaneously possesses far too much power and far too small an understanding of how to yield it effectively and responsibly is very possibly lethal.

To say that I find it frightening and heavily ironic that the world must, out of necessity, rely substantially upon a government led by a premier potentially as dangerous as the North Korean one is a substantial understatement.  Furthermore, it is disheartening to think about the state of a world in which a country guilty of actions such as the invasion of Iraq due to non-existent WMDs is somehow responsible for and justified in ‘policing’ another country. Might is not right, but it is a world in which the less mighty are willing to turn a blind eye to its wrongdoings.

One could of course claim – and in all fairness, it would be partially true – that the US government has learnt from history and is attempting to hinder the further spread of nuclear weaponry to avoid the disasters of the Second World War and the Cold War.

However, equally, the USA’s ability to seek a diplomatic resolution with North Korea of course derives from the country’s massive military power, of which its nuclear weaponry constitutes an important part; after years of watching the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony on television back home in Japan, it is somewhat painful for me to think that nuclear weapons have been allowed to remain as perhaps the greatest means for a nation to assert its dominance in international relations.

One could of course claim – and in all fairness, it would be partially true – that the US government has learnt from history and is attempting to hinder the further spread of nuclear weaponry

So, how will the situation in North Korea be resolved? The short answer is – we cannot know.

With the recent election of Moon Jae-in in South Korea as President, it seems likely that the new government will favour a more conciliatory approach with North Korea, much like Trump’s team seems to be doing. However, it is difficult not to feel anxious when this seeming movement towards diplomacy is being constantly obscured or confused by the US President: when asked about the possibility of US military interventions, President Trump replied, “It is a chess game. I just don’t want people to know what my thinking is. So eventually, [Kim] will have a better delivery system. And if that happen, we can’t allow it to happen.” The clear lack of coherence in the final sentence aside – although it is thoroughly concerning (and somewhat darkly amusing) that this is the rhetoric of a man who convinced much of a nation that his presidency would be a good idea – Trump is clearly not denying the possibility of an armed US strike, and even seems to derive a twisted sense of excitement from the “game”. Except what –the terrifying part being an uncertainty as to whether he is actually aware of this – is at stake here is international security.



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