The provocative rhetoric between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership is adding to an already growing sense of pessimism that peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is possible.
President Trump said Tuesday the use of military force would be “devastating for North Korea,” though it is not his “preferred option” to stop the Kim Jong Un government’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile program.
The leaders of the U.S. and North Korea have exchanged not only threats of military retribution, but also derisive personal insults, with Trump calling the North Korean leader “little rocket man” and Kim calling the U.S. president a “dotard,” an archaic English word meaning old and senile.
Calling Trump’s threats a declaration of war, North Korea warned it may shoot down U.S. warplanes flying near the Korean Peninsula after American bombers flew close to it last Saturday. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho also indicated Pyongyang may soon test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, a highly provocative act that could induce the U.S. to take preventative military action.
In this highly charged and confrontational environment, analysts warn, a small miscalculation could easily lead to a catastrophic conflict.
“I think we are within hours of a military exchange, within hours,” said Robert Gallucci, the chairman of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University during a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event in Washington this week.
Without criticizing President Trump directly, South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha called for a less confrontational approach on North Korea.
“It is imperative that we, Korea and the United States, together manage the situation with astuteness and steadfastness in order to prevent the further escalation of tension or any kind of accidental military clashes in the region that can quickly spiral out of control,” Kang said during the CSIS event on U.S./Korea relations.
De facto nuclear state
The escalation of military tensions may be making it more difficult to find a mutually acceptable diplomatic solution, but skeptics say it is becoming increasingly clear that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons.
“I think we all might have to confess that we have reached the point of nowhere to go, as far as the North Korean nuclear problem is concerned. And North Korea is a de facto nuclear state,” said Professor Kim Joon-hyung with Handong Global University in South Korea.
Unlike his pragmatic father Kim Jong Il, who negotiated a deal to halt the country’s nuclear program for economic assistance, which fell apart over a decade ago, Kim Jong Un has shown no willingness to compromise on his goal to develop a working nuclear arsenal, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to target the U.S. mainland. The leadership in Pyongyang argues it needs a strong nuclear deterrence to prevent a possible U.S. led invasion.
During the Kim Jong Un administration, North Korea has defiantly reacted to increasing economic sanctions by accelerating the pace of nuclear and missile tests.
KOTRA, the South Korean trade and investment agency that monitors North Korean economic activity, says while North Korean foreign trade has declined since 2014, the economy continues to grow and the country’s elites continue to prosper.
“There is a growing demand from middle-class consumers, and North Korean imports of luxury goods have surged,” said KOTRA deputy director Hwang Jae won.
KOTRA says the newest U.N. sanctions, imposed earlier this month, could reduce North Korean trade by 90 percent and oil imports by 30 percent. But critics say China and Russia will not ultimately go along with crippling sanctions that might greatly increase instability at their borders, cause the government in Pyongyang to collapse, and cede control of the entire Korean Peninsula to Washington and its ally in Seoul.
Sanctions skeptics say at some point the leadership in Pyongyang may agree to some type of freeze of its current nuclear capabilities, in exchange for significant concessions from the U.S., including possibly ending joint military drills with South Korea and reducing its defense posture, but analysts say economic pressure will not force Pyongyang to agree to unilaterally disarm.
“If you have another objective, which is getting them to their knees, I think that is not going to happen and we shouldn’t make believe it will,” said Gallucci, who is also a former chief North Korea negotiator in the Clinton administration.