I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a few blocks from the State Department in Washington, after listening to the heightened rhetoric between the US and North Korea last week. The haunting life-size statues of soldiers in rice fields, with their weapons in hand and their 1950s communication gear on their backs, is a stark reminder of what is at stake on the Korean Peninsula almost 70 years after that devastating war.
On the ground an inscription reads: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
This would not be the case today. In the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the US is now vowing to defend not a country it “never knew,” but rather the US homeland, should North Korea be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons arsenal unchecked.
The US is “now facing its third nuclear crisis with North Korea in 25 years,” said Robert Litwak, vice president at the Wilson Center and a prominent nuclear expert who favors a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
The rising tension on the Korean Peninsula stoked fears in the region and in Washington of a new confrontation with the “unpredictable” North Korean leader and efforts to stop him before he miscalculates.
Litwak said “North Korea is on the verge of a nuclear breakout. That would be a game changer. I called it a slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis. A crisis that will play out, not over 13 days as in October 1962, but over the next few years.”
The urgency that the Americans are attaching to the North Korean issue is due to the “pace of the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and ballistic missiles,” said Jean Lee, the Wilson Center’s global fellow. Lee described the acceleration of the program as “unprecedented and something that raises alarm.”
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006 and the Institute of Science and International Security estimates that the country could already have up to 30 nuclear bombs.
But more worrisome to the US and its neighbors is North Korea’s rush to expedite its work on long-range ballistic missiles. The latest missile test reportedly failed just before US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea earlier this month. Nuclear experts doubt that Korea can build “warheads for an intercontinental missile that can strike the US mainland,” as the Institute of Science and International Security’s David Albright said. But nobody here is going to take chances or wait for North Korea to do that, especially not the Trump administration.
The way President Trump solves this crisis will come to define his young presidency.
Dr. Amal Mudallali
Trump used his tough talk to deter the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and warned him to “behave,” and said he was sending “an armada, very powerful” to the area.
Pence was dispatched to the region with a tough message that America’s patience is running out and the former administration’s strategy of “strategic patience” was over. He said he hoped that the US and its allies can achieve the objective of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula by “peaceful means. But all options are on the table.”
The vice president pointed to the missile attack in Syria and the bombing in Afghanistan as “evidence of the Trump administration’s “strength and resolve.” He had some advice for North Korea, saying it “would do well not to test” the resolve of President Trump, or “the strength of the armed forces of the US in the region.”
Nuclear weapons crucial for North Korea’s survival?
But some experts believe that the message the North Koreans received was the opposite of what the US administration wanted to send them: That keeping nuclear weapons is crucial for survival. Wilson Center scholars believe that the lesson the Koreans took from the US military attacks in the Middle East is that the US attacks non-nuclear states. The North Koreans are convinced more than ever that their nuclear program is vital for the survival of the regime.
Pyongyang responded to the US moves with threats of retaliation if there was any sign of “reckless” military aggression, as North Korea’s vice foreign minister Han Song Ryol told the AP.
The US strategy to deal with North Korea was reported to be through “maximum pressure and engagement.” But the core strategy of President Trump seems to depend on China to rein in the North Korean leader. After meeting the Chinese president, Trump said he had a “great chemistry” with him. The president tweeted after his meeting with President Xi Jinping that he has “great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US with its allies will.”
President Trump declared last week that China is not a “currency manipulator,” as he once described it, because he needs China to solve the North Korean crisis among other things.
Washington hopes that the Chinese will use their economic leverage over Pyongyang to lower the temperature.
China is North Korea’s lifeline and it depends on it for its survival. But this American strategy is fraught with uncertainty because there is doubt about how much influence China has over its troublemaking neighbor.
The political vacuum in South Korea, with the country heading to its presidential elections next month, could affect US policy. Experts in Washington warn that if a liberal wins the presidency, as is expected, the South Korean policy toward the North will change. James Person, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, said that “there is a real possibility that the next South Korean president could oppose the efforts to tighten screws on North Korea.”
Many things could complicate President Trump’s strategy toward North Korea with dire implications for the region and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
It has also implications for the Iranian nuclear program. If North Korea breaks out through defiance of the US and the international community, Tehran will learn a lesson or two from Pyongyang. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made this link when he was talking about Iran at the State Department. He said: “An unchecked Iran has the potential to follow the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it.”
The way President Trump solves this crisis will define both his foreign policy and his young presidency. Will it be a new approach that brings this long simmering crisis to an end, hopefully peacefully? Or will it be a continuation of the same policy of previous administrations: A mixture of isolation and threats, sanctions, and sporadic periods of engagement with North Korea?
• Dr. Amal Mudallali is an American policy and international relations analyst.