North Korea: a high-stakes game of chicken

Trump must avoid escalatory rhetoric

April 20, 2017
The military parade in Pyongyang ©Jörn Petring/DPA/PA Images
The military parade in Pyongyang ©Jörn Petring/DPA/PA Images

The lack of a coherent US policy on the North Korean nuclear and missile programmes is causing great uncertainty on the Korean peninsula. Since taking office in January, President Donald Trump’s administration has amplified tensions in a region that is home to a dictator committed to owning a credible nuclear arsenal.

On 15th April, all eyes were on North Korea. It paraded its military strength through the streets of Pyongyang on the Day of the Sun—a celebration of the anniversary of the birth of its founder. This display was followed by the test of an unidentified medium-range missile, which exploded almost immediately after launch.

Since taking office, President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes has been a mess. He has stated, vaguely, that a North Korean ballistic missile test “won’t happen.” He has talked of “solving the problem” of North Korea without China—considered by many the key to reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. More worryingly still, there have been reports that Trump may launch a pre-emptive strike if North Korea continues with provocative behaviour. Other officials in his administration have reiterated that Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” is over.

Obama's approach has indeed been terminated, but the gap has not been filled with coherent rhetoric, causing the level of unpredictability within the region to soar. Although a review of the US’ long-term policy on North Korea was necessary, Trump’s comments have been counter-productive in the extreme.

In the days prior to the North Korean celebrations, President Trump re-issued a Twitter warning that the US would be prepared to go it alone in addressing the challenge posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile developments, and mistakenlyconfirmed the deployment of USS Carl Vinson to the region, raising alarm bells for the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan and China alike. At present the US homeland cannot be reached by North Korea’s missiles. However, Washington does have “extended deterrence” commitments to East Asia, designed to strengthen the abilities of the ROK and Japan to provide security to their populations in the absence of their own deterrents. Currently, however, the US is doing more harm than good.

Concerns that the US could launch a unilateral military strike have been exacerbated in the immediate aftermath of the US useof the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan just days before the military parade in Pyongyang. This has even been pointed to as evidence of US resolve to detonate a bomb of similar size in North East Asia.

However, increasing military pressure won’t stabilise US relations with Kim Jong-un; the talk of unilateral military action didn’t deter North Korea; it still launched a missile, testing Trump and goading him closer to the possibility of eventual nuclear weapons use.

The US should not continue down this road of increasing military pressure. This course of action is the antithesis to the correct approach: trying engage the North Korean regime and reduce its desire for nuclear weapons. It would also, worryingly, lead to a high-stakes game of chicken.

The goal, first and foremost, should be stability. While the US’s long-term strategy is still being shaped, the country’s officials should be doing their utmost to ensure that they have a coherent message. They should condemn North Korean provocation in all instances—while avoiding escalatory rhetoric (or action).

The alternative is the security situation deteriorating even further. We will then be dangerously close to the brink of a conflict with a high risk of nuclear escalation.