Why North Korea Seems to Be Pushing Trump Toward a Potential Crisis
Ehsan M. Ahrari
Watching North Korea’s behavior from a distance, it feels like one is watching a cheap Hollywood thriller, except that this one is real and potentially perilous. North Korea seems to be perfecting its longest-range missiles, known as KN-08 or Hwason-13. According to a statement made in 2015 by General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the former commander of US forces in South Korea, North Korea has made a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop a missile. But this report has not yet been confirmed by US intelligence. Former President Barack Obama reportedly warned the then President-elect Donald Trump of how dangerous and unpredictable the North Korean leader really is. Given Obama’s warning, Kim Jong-un’s decision to continue testing his ballistic missiles in the Sea of Japan is understandable. But Kim also knows the highly-publicized impetuosity and impulsive nature of Donald Trump. Given all that, the larger question is why does North Korea seem to be pushing him toward a potential crisis?
A starting point for answering this broader question is to ask what does Kim Jung-un want? He knows that the United States is not going to accept his country’s status as a nuclear weapons state.
It is possible that Kim is terribly annoyed with the US-South Korea-Japan joint naval exercises held during the Obama administration. He envisions them as provocative and wants them stopped. However, that is not likely to happen, because from the South Korean, Japanese, and American side, those exercises are carried out to remind North Korea how serious the United States is about protecting South Korea and Japan from a potential nuclear or missile attack from Pyongyang. So, Kim might be using these missile tests as a bargaining chip for future negotiations with the new administration. He might not be too far off the mark in regarding these missile tests as something important enough for the US to agree to stop conducting military exercises, as a quid pro quo for North Korea’s commitment to stop conducting missile tests.
It is also possible that Kim is in desperate need to start negotiations with the United States and its allies, hoping that, once started, they would create a momentum whereby he would end up getting some special concessions from the allied side in return for lowering his missile-related provocations. That is also possible, because South Korea and Japan are not interested in ratchetting-up their conflict with North Korea. Those two countries are concerned with the more important regional problem of dealing with China’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas.
However, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the greatest impediment to resolving the US-North Korea conflict. The United States’ preference is that Kim dismantle them and unravel his nuclear weapons program; but he is not going to do that. For Kim, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not only a guarantee of his regime survival but also a potential source of squeezing economic assistance from South Korea, Japan, and the United States. And he has succeeded in getting economic assistance for promises to slow down his nuclear program in the past, but then reneged on those promises. So, for any future negotiations to become fruitful, China must enter the process as a guarantor of Kim’s commitment to the specifics of those negotiations. However, China is not likely to play that role.
In principle, China holds considerable sway over North Korea, but China also needs the sustenance of the North Korean regime because it keeps South Korea’s and America’s forces away from China’s borders. As unhappy as China is about Kim’s impetuous behavior in firing missiles over the Sea of Japan and due to reports that he is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, China will do nothing to put exorbitant pressure on North Korea for the purpose of pushing it to the verge of collapse.
Another alternative is to persuade China to continue to play a meaningful role by eliciting Kim’s commitment for any deal his regime works out with South Korea and the United States. However, China is not likely to cooperate with the United States because of the latter’s decision to move the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] system to South Korea. THAAD is a ground-based defense missile system first developed during the 1991 Gulf War “to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during the terminal phase (i.e., when they are coming down).” Even though THAAD is aimed at defending South Korea and Japan against North Korea’s missiles, China envisions that it “could be used to intercept Chinese ballistic missiles.” In addition, the THAAD system has the capabilities “to track China’s own missile systems, potentially giving the United States a major advantage in any future conflict with China.” So, instead of cooperating with the United States in defusing its conflict with North Korea, China has vowed to “take the necessary steps to safeguard our own security interests.”
So, instead of creating an environment of cooperation with China, the Trump administration’s deployment of the THAAD system is “pushing China and Russia closer to Pyongyang, as American officials acknowledge when speaking on the condition of anonymity.”
From Kim’s Jong-un’s perspective, these complications are quite welcome, because they would underscore to Washington the necessity of engaging his regime in a series of negotiations.
However, there is also the potential that Donald Trump may decide to use the option of limited military action by bombing North Korea’s missile test sites. But, before taking such an action, the new administration in Washington has to calculate China’s potential response. That is one variable that Kim is counting on. His side has a general understanding that, despite his bluster of being decisive in dealing with America’s adversaries, the highly inexperienced Trump and his equally novice team of advisers would decide not to bomb North Korea’s missile sites, since they could not count on China’s reaction.
Before the new Trump administration develops a sure footing regarding some hot-button global affairs issues, Kim may not risk escalating his ballistic missile tests. He also is relying on the fact that, given the high prestige of China vis-à-vis the United States, and given that the PRC is perceived as capable of lowering North Korea’s apparent impetuosity, Kim is relying on China’s increased role in ensuring a de-escalation of the US-North Korea conflict.