Amidst North Korean claims of successfully manufactured hydrogen bombs, President Trump is wavering in his position on how North Korean nuclear proliferation should be handled. At a press meeting on Thursday, Mr. Trump admits that he “would prefer not going to the route of the military but it is certainly something that could happen.” This is only hours after sharing a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which he described as “a very strong phone call.”
But his hesitancy to wave American weapons in the face of the North Korean threat is at odds with his recent behavior. On August 8, Mr. Trump threatened the isolated rogue nation with “fire and fury” if it continued its belligerent behavior. And for months preceding his sudden about-face, Mr. Trump had approached North Korea with aggression and menace, frequently alluding to the use of nuclear weapons as a retaliatory force against the DPRK.
His reversal of foreign policy could possibly be attributed to the phone call with Mr. Xi that occurred before the Thursday press conference. President Xi takes a notably more moderate stance on the issue of North Korean proliferation, arguing strongly for diplomatic talks and, more recently, stronger sanctions. Mr. Trump’s recently tweeted threats to cut off Sino-American trade, which were fundamentally toothless and bombastic, could have induced him to take a softer, more Chinese-friendly stance on Thursday in an attempt to preserve the already tenuous relationship between America and China.
President Trump’s political uncertainty is evidence not only of his weak grasp on foreign policy, but of a larger, more global confusion evidenced by international powers. North Korea appears to world leaders as teetering on the edge of global catastrophe, and as potential modes of recourse fly across the world stage like frantic mosquitoes, no one is quite sure how to solve the North Korea problem.
Since North Korea’s 1993 decision to end talks with America, Russia, and Japan, the U.N. and individual nations, such as the U.S., have enforced increasingly severe sanctions against the rogue nation. But analysts doubt whether this strategy will eventually coerce the DPRK to denuclearize. The imposition of sanctions is too indirect to even touch North Korea’s nuclear deposits, argues John Delury, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Rather, if China were to bolster its sanctions against North Korea, that would more likely cause the belligerent state to retaliate with nuclear “fire and fury.” Sanctions have proved more effective in catalyzing the deaths of millions of North Korean citizens than inducing Kim Jong-Un to cough up his H-bombs. When Russia halted the flow of subsidies into the DPRK in the 1990s, ten percent of the population died in the resulting famine.
“Do not succumb to emotions and drive North Korea into a corner. Now more than ever, everyone needs to be calm and avoid steps that lead to an escalation of tension,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. President Putin then emphasized the necessity of diplomacy as the only possible means of recourse. This message appeals to President Xi, who noted during the Wednesday meeting that he and Mr. Putin were “dreaming the same dream.”
Although no two nations are in total agreement as to how to deal with the DPRK, the U.S. is particularly spastic and disorganized. On September 3, US Defense Secretary James Mattis warns of “a massive military response” to North Korean threats while on the following day Mr. Trump suggests on Twitter that the U.S. should end trade with all nations associated with North Korea.
It is crucial that U.S. leaders determine a clear plan for denuclearizing North Korea right now. There should be development within the American government, a coordination and clear intent that is not evident at this time. Perhaps the government should increase its meetings with other powers involved–South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China–and actively maintain one policy that actively seeks permanent recourse.
We do not have time to “see what happens.”