U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend in China, Tillerson’s first visit to the country. President Xi is set to meet U.S. President Donald Trump next month, and the generally friendly rapport of Tillerson’s meeting is likely an attempt to lay positive groundwork for the meeting of the two leaders. However, the two nations had to contend with an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which announced during the visit that it had developed a high-thrust rocket engine. North Korea’s increasingly aggressive actions over the past months, including the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia that was likely orchestrated by Kim’s regime; the diplomatic fallout between Malaysia and North Korea; as well as aggressive rhetoric directed towards the U.S. and China indicate a troubling scenario to come. The U.S. must weigh its options if it wishes to rein in the rogue state and avoid a disastrous war and diplomatic fallout.
Recently, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley asserted that “[Kim] is not a rational person.” However, this is likely untrue given his recent actions. The BBC explains that as brutal a dictator as Kim is, his actions do in fact make logical sense. His effort to develop nuclear weapons in North Korea is not irrational, because it positions him as a more challenging foe to fight. Likewise, it is not illogical for Kim to perceive that the U.S. is much less likely to provoke a war with a country that possesses nuclear weapons for fear of the higher costs of such a war. Similarly, if Kim did in fact order the assassination of his half-brother, that is simply one indication that he is trying to maintain power by eliminating any potential coup threats which could emerge if other North Koreans rallied around his older brother. While Kim’s actions may seem erratic and odd to the outside viewer, it is important to understand that he is still acting rationally.
So, what options could the U.S. take in dealing with an increasingly threatening North Korea? Tillerson has advocated for China to take a tougher stance towards the North. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for 90% of the North’s total foreign trade. If China were to stop trade with North Korea, the state would be crippled. However, as the South China Morning Post explains, China is unlikely to take this course as it would prefer to avoid the refugee crisis that would follow and/or the possible reunification of the Korean peninsula into a powerful American ally. The Chinese have reminded the Americans to stay “coolheaded” in dealing with the North, probably for these reasons.
The New York Times explores another option, which would be a preemptive military strike by the Americans, attempting to devastate the North’s military arsenal. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible for the U.S. to destroy the entire North Korean arsenal, and any strike or move perceived to be a military strike could result in a full-blown war. This war would lead to many civilian deaths, probably in both Japan and South Korea. While the North knows that it may very well lose a war to the United States, it has already exhibited its willingness to accept a huge amount of risk, so the escalation that would likely occur could end in North Korea using its nuclear arsenal, with devastating effects.
As the U.S. faces the challenges inherent to these options, it must actively seek out more strategic choices to prevent a full-blown war with North Korea, potentially seeking more military defense options in South Korea or trying to expand relations through diplomatic routes. Regardless of how the U.S. chooses to address the issues with North Korea, it must approach the situation strategically, as it is a delicate balancing act.
Featured photo by Stephen
Grace Kier is a Freshman at the College of William and Mary and is the secretary as well as an associate editor at The Monitor Journal of International Studies. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.