The armistice that ended the fighting in Korea in July 1953 was not a peace treaty, and the two countries remain to this day in a state of war with one another,” writes historian and professor of Korean studies in Columbia University, Charles K Armstrong in his work, ‘US-North Korea relations.’ The Korean war of 1950 ushered America and North Korea into a bitter struggle from which it has still not emerged.
Sumera B. Reshi
North Korea has been the poster child for rogue states for over five decades. The decades-long crisis between the US and North Korea has once again reached a deadlock, with the latter claiming it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb which can reach the shores of the US.
The war of words between the US and North Korea has escalated, with Donald Trump warning any threats would be met with “fire and fury” and Pyongyang promptly announcing it was “carefully examining” a plan to attack an American military base in the western Pacific.
The last few months have seen President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-unlocked in an escalating war of words. As the rhetoric has intensified, so have fears that words could spill over into military confrontation.
Threats, sanctions and missile tests are not new developments in the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Experts believe that the only new thing among them after the decades of animosity is that the gap in knowledge about what the other side is thinking seems wider than ever, with North Korean officials puzzling over President Trump’s threats, and Americans trying to understand Kim Jong-un’s motivations.
This year North Korea reached two significant highpoints. It successfully test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, capable of reaching Alaska. It also conducted its nuclear test in September 2017 and it was recorded as North Korea’s most powerful yet at an estimated 250 kilotons.
President Trump, however, in response to these tests said that if the U.S. was forced to defend itself or its allies, it would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Referring to Kim Jong-un as “rocket man,” Trump said the North Korean leader was “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
On the other hand, Kim Jong-un responded to Trump’s speech by calling the U.S. president “mentally deranged” and warning that he would “pay dearly” for threatening to destroy North Korea. He added that Trump’s comments “have convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last.”
Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association said: “I think North Korea has typically responded to threats with threats, to provocations with provocations”. “In part, North Korea is responding to the dangerous and bellicose rhetoric of President Trump”.
Yet Davenport is optimistic of the negotiations. Congruently North Korea would not negotiate while under hostile threat. For years, the US and its allies has been trying to find a way to prevent the North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
Rebecca Hersman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration said in an interview to Frontline, “We can dramatically increase the pressure, economic and otherwise, to see if we can pressure North Korea to come to the negotiating table or we can choose to treat North Korea as a country that has nuclear capabilities and try to develop a more effective and stable deterrence relationships with them”.
She expressed the third opportunity of exploring military options to try and pre-emptively degrade their nuclear capability. Although she see profound risk that would trigger a broader scale war, which could bring considerable destruction.
North Korean Motivates
According to the experts, there is no military solution to the North Korean problem. North Korea wants to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear power by the US and establish diplomatic relations with the US. Persistently reminding the world and particularly the US of their nuclear and missile capabilities is part of their regime survival calculations. All options are on the table for Pyongyang, and North Korea did propose peace talks with the US a number of times to end the 1953 armistice and replace it with a peace treaty. The armistice ended the fighting in Korea in July 1953 wasn’t a peace treaty at all. The confrontation since then remains intact. “The Korean war of 1950 led the US and North Korea into a bitter tussle in which both the countries are entangled in.
“The armistice that ended the fighting in Korea in July 1953 was not a peace treaty, and the two countries remain to this day in a state of war with one another,” writes historian and professor of Korean studies in Columbia University, Charles K Armstrong in his work, ‘US-North Korea relations.’ The Korean war of 1950 ushered America and North Korea into a bitter struggle from which it has still not emerged.
Besides, North Korea is also trying to disrupt and split the South Korea –US alliance. North Korea negates all types of third party mediation. What Kim Jong-un wants is to talk directly with Trump, however, the US is reluctant to talk to North Korea unless Kim denuclearizes its nuclear programs. That seems Kim is in no mood to give up his nuclear plan and in present scenario neither President Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping would want another war in the Korean peninsula. Moreover, Kim Jong-un has no friends to endorse his mission.
According to Robert Kelly, associate professor, Pusan National University, there are just two ways to think about what Trump said. One is the optimistic way and another way the less optimistic way. In the first option, Trump intends to pressurize the Chinese to signal to North Korean authorities that strategic patience is over and the second option according to Kelly is less optimistic but more accurate. There is rhetoric on both sides and yelling at each other.
Kelly further says that North Koreans don’t want to strike an American base unilaterally without any provocation and if they did so, the US will retaliate strongly. “The North Koreans are not stupid. Their nuclear weapons are intended for defense not for offence”, said Kelly.
What concerns Kim Jong-un is the fate Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein met and he doesn’t believe America will ever give up on “regime change”. Kim Jong-un wants an insurance policy to guard against the fate which Saddam and Gaddafi have gone through. The North Koreans have apprehensions about the American growing influence and they know that nuclear weapons will surely prevent any threat; nonetheless, North Korea is not going to back down its nuclear ambitions.
Hostilities between the US & North Korea
The conflict between the US and North Korea has been raging at least since the Korean War in 1950 which ended in the division of the Korean peninsula under the respective influence of the US and the former Soviet Union and the consolidation of the Cold War between the two superpowers. Once the Korean War was over, North Korea pursued its nuclear mission. They felt that only nuclear capability could deter an American attack.
The North Korea believed that the only way for them to survive was to stay safe from any foreign attack, especially the US. Therefore, developing the nuclear arsenal was the only possibility. Thus, with the help of Soviet Union, North Korea kick started its nuclear ambition. In the early 1980s, they built its first power plant, Yongbyon.
In addition, North Korea (NK) became party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985 and signed an agreement in 1991 with its rival South Korea. Both South & North Korea agreed not to produce or use nuclear weapons. But when International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sought entry to the North Korea’s nuclear waste sites, it warned of the possible withdrawal from the NPT.
From 1994 to 2001, Clinton tried to strike a deal with the North Korea which eventually led to a series of negotiations called Agreed Framework. Unfortunately, the said framework collapsed. In 201, George W. Bush became the president of the USA. He took a more hardline approach to North Korea than Bill Clinton. President Bush (Jr) postponed talks and he also termed North Korea “axis of evil” and in response North Korea warned that such a harsh approach would force Pyongyang to react strongly. The bitter reached to zenith. The North Korea secretly started enriching Uranium. By the end of the 2002, the Agreed Framework collapsed miserably.
Further, experts described this period as a missed opportunity. Had North Korea not begun enriching uranium and had the US acted faster to implement its share of the agreed framework, things may have gone differently. In January 2003, the relations between the US and North Korea cricked to an extent that North Korea officially withdrew from the NPT. Since the Korean War ended, the relations between North Korea and the US soured to a greater extent. The US resorted to threats and counter-threats, verbal rhetoric, threat of wiping out North Korea but there was always a stalemate.
No doubt negotiating with North Korea is one of the most difficult assignments for the US. North Korea has often been deceitful but hopeful to restrain themselves for concessions. North Korea as a nation prides itself on its independence and resilience and is in constant fear about regime change and won’t back off its nuclear program without something concrete in return,
Of course no one in the region not even North Korea wants another war, nevertheless, Kim Jong-un tries to push it as far as he can to get what he wants. His priority is to get recognition from the US that North Korea is a nuclear power, and certainly legitimacy at home as a ruler who can defend his people against uncle Sam, the US.
Certainly, Trump’s threats have played into the North Korean calculus. Kim Jong-un wants his people to believe that the US continues to threaten the very existence of North Korea. The fear of the US has brought people of North Korea together and has justified Kim’s nuclear program. But the experts believe that the possibility of conflict remains remote with the North Korea using its nuclear program as a bargaining token rather than an offensive weapon. If the hostilities between the two countries remain there, there is every possibility of instability and unpredictability in the South East Asia.
The author is Assistant editor with The Legitimate.