In the run up to his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump bluntly set the stage for his foreign policy. With his usual brash and thoughtless style, he tweeted “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!” In a few simple words, he committed himself boldly and confidently to solving the “North Korean problem.”
As is always the case, he expressed incredible delusions of grandeur about his own abilities, despite the fact he knows nothing about diplomacy, international relations or of course the country in question itself. After his inauguration, he and his administration conducted a “Policy review” on North Korea, coming up with an idea that would be called “maximum pressure.” The belief was, and of course still is, that through intensive sanctions on Pyongyang, combined with twisting China’s arm and inflammatory threats of military action, Kim Jong Un would have no choice but to come to the table and offer denuclearisation on America’s terms.
Yet, despite everything, not even a year later Trump’s so-called “strategy” has been left in abject ruin. This week saw North Korea’s third intercontinental ballistic missile test, the Hwasong-15 missile demonstrating on a lofted trajectory that it has a range of up to 13,000km, capable of reaching Washington D.C. itself. Although experts still note North Korea’s atmospheric re-entry technology is yet to be fully completed, nevertheless, the regime celebrated in its own words what it termed the “completion of its nuclear force.” In other words, game over. Nothing America had said or done had any observable impact on North Korea’s calculus or determination. Neither talk of “fire and fury”; warnings of “being totally destroyed”; threats of embargos; or any other punitive measures deterred Pyongyang. Trump’s personally set goal and policy has failed.
Despite this, the full reality is yet to dawn on Washington. Under no circumstances is the current administration about to change its approach. Trump made that clear by quickly referring to Kim Jong Un again with the elementary school insult of “rocket man,” immediately demonstrating his lack of ideas and ability to handle the issue maturely. Neo-Conservatives are continuing to juggle tougher possibilities. Hawkish senator Lindsay Graham continually touted threats of war. Likewise, Nikki Haley, in her usual extreme, offensive and crusading tone, demanded North Korea be expelled from the United Nations and face a total oil embargo from China, something which would bring about a humanitarian disaster in the country by cutting off ordinary North Koreans from their food supply lines. Such rhetoric spells it is certain the US will push for a tougher another United Nations Sanctions Resolution, but it will not change North Korea’s calculus, regardless of the costs imposed.
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This failure will continue because what the Trump administration, and all other neo-conservatives in Washington do not or simply refuse to recognize, is that North Korea is a state normatively and historically conditioned to resist American pressure. The state ideology of Juche is not as much a socialist ideology as it is one of post-colonial struggle, a legacy of Korea’s past and the devastation of American bombing in the Korean war. It teaches that the nation must resist and challenge one’s own circumstances to carve out its own “destiny” in the world. The nuclear program is a big part of that doctrine, because Kim Jong Un recognizes that under no circumstances otherwise would America accept his regime on its own terms. Thus, the belief that North Korea will launch a pre-emptive, irrational nuclear attack against the continental United States is a falsehood, one which fundamentally misunderstands their motives. It is all about survival, which is why the belief he can be “pushed” to the table by force defies the essence of the North Korean state itself. That is not going to change. America might be able to inflict more pain on the livelihoods of North Koreans and crush the emerging private sector in the country, but they will never denuclearize on American terms.
With the goal of forced denuclearization now little more than a fantasy, the United States and its allies must prepare itself for a future, beyond the Trump administration, that learns to pragmatically live and co-exist with North Korea, as it simply is. Providing there is no war on America’s behalf, this is one which can evolve naturally as the clout and urgency of sanctions depletes. Whilst the United States are not obligated to recognize North Korea as a “nuclear power,” for the legal protocol of the non-nuclear proliferation treaty must stand, nevertheless, an approach that is based in pragmatic reality will be needed. That approach must be based in sincere dialogue, attempted reconciliation and an empathetic recognition of North Korea’s legitimate security concerns. Decades of ignoring the latter has contributed to placing us in the position we are in today.
Although many may criticize this approach, it must stand as a necessary evil and then Pyongyang might just be willing to compromise and open to the world in ways not thought possible before. Regardless, the current trajectory of sanctions, sanctions, more sanctions, no dialogue and outsourcing United States foreign policy to China’s backyard has proved, and will continue to prove a horrendous failure. It will be certainly not the last as Trump’s administration pans out.