Questions About North Korea
Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law. He has taught at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law since 1965. Nanda is past president of the World Jurist Association, former honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.
Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula and are at an all-time high. As the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier sails toward North Korea after conducting training exercises with Australia and Japan, and the submarine USS Michigan has arrived in South Korean waters, the Trump administration has given a clear signal that all possible options are on the table.
Pyongyang has warned the U.S. that as it possesses a “powerful nuclear deterrent,” it will promptly react in self-defense to any U.S. military action “with an all-out war.” In an editorial, the North Korean state-run newspaper said the country could sink the carrier “with a single strike.”
South Koreans are confused by this rhetoric on both sides, and were annoyed that while President Donald Trump had phone conversations with the leaders of China and Japan, he did not speak to Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea’s acting president. In Japan, the Korean crisis has led to soaring sales of bomb shelters and air purifiers to protect against radioactivity and toxic chemicals.
In a flurry of activities last week, on Sunday, President Donald Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the North Korean threat. The next day, he told visiting U.N. Security Council diplomats that “it’s time to solve the problem” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Then, last Tuesday, the North Korean army conducted a massive artillery drill marking the 85th anniversary of the founding of the country’s army. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un decided, however, not to conduct another nuclear test or launch a long-range missile, perhaps because of diplomatic pressure from China or because of the Trump administration’s statement that it would respond in an unspecified way to such provocation.
On Wednesday, U.S. Senate members visited the White House for a briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford. And on Friday, Tillerson chaired a special Security Council session on North Korea. The Security Council has already imposed six sets of sanctions, but they suffer from weak and uneven enforcement.
It’s worth recalling that North Korea has repeatedly cheated on its promises to abandon its nuclear weapons program and has violated every disarmament agreement it has entered. These include the Non-Proliferation Treaty, designed to accomplish non-proliferation and disarmament. In 2002, it admitted to having a clandestine nuclear program, in violation of the NPT and the Agreed Framework the U.S. had negotiated with the country, and withdrew from it in 2003.
North Korea also violated the North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, under which both countries had agreed to refrain from testing, manufacture, production, acceptance, possession, storage, deployment or use of nuclear weapons. And after the U.N. Security Council decided to expand sanctions on the country, North Korea announced that it would “never again take part” in the Six-Party Talks with the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.
For the U.S., the military options are not that clear. The best alternative is to impose tighter sanctions, combined with Chinese leverage to rein in North Korea, as it remains the country’s economic lifeline and thus holds the key to find a workable diplomatic solution. On its part, China seems to be frustrated with North Korea’s provocative actions, in addition to feeling international pressure, as evidenced by its decision to stop importing coal from North Korea, is a source of that country’s hard earnings.
Eventually, the questions come down to these: What effect will Trump’s threat to use force have on Kim Jong Un? Will Kim act rationally and be motivated to accept a freeze as an interim measure toward denuclearization? What will China demand in return for its role? What assurances will North Korea seek, and will the U.S. be prepared to give in to those demands?