The Crisis between US and North Korea under President Trump

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Masoud Rezaei
Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS), Tehran
Developments on the Korean Peninsula have been always directly related to the United States’ policies and strategic models. Since the last 1990s up to the present time, policymakers in the United States, South Korea and Japan have been trying to configure their policies toward North Korea in a coherent and coordinated manner despite the fact that they have not been sure about real intensions of the North Korean leaders. North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016, which caused a 5.1-magnitude earthquake. Following that test, the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, claimed that Pyongyang had developed a hydrogen bomb. His claim elicited global condemnation and was, of course, met with pessimism from international experts. One month later, that is, on February 7, 2016, North Korea announced that it had successfully launched its new long-range missile codenamed Kwangmyongsong 4 (Shining Star No. 4). The United Nations Security Council convened a session on March 2, 2016 during which it adopted resolution 2270 on North Korea’s purported hydrogen bomb and the missile called Shining Star No. 4, imposing many new sanctions and restrictive measures on North Korea. Pyongyang subsequently carried out its fifth nuclear test on September 9, 2016.

The notable point in this regard is that before these string of new tests, the time interval between nuclear tests by Pyongyang was an average of three years, while two consecutive nuclear tests by this country in 2016 attested to the young leader of the country’s ideas about achieving true nuclear deterrence through practical measures taken in the shortest possible time. Perhaps one reason for this state of affairs is the concern that the officials in North Korea have had after the tenure of former US president, Barak Obama, came to an end, because he had adopted a policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea. In parallel, remarks made during the latest US presidential campaigns and headstrong positions taken by both Democrat and Republican candidates – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – against North Korea intensified a sense of insecurity among North Korean officials as a result of which they have apparently decided to speed up missile and nuclear tests.

The above diagram clearly shows that the increase in the number of North Korea’s missile tests in 2016 has been directly related to concerns among the country’s officials as well as lack of certainty about future policies to be adopted by new president of the United States. The North Korean officials also tried to make the most of conditions that existed during last months of Obama’s term in office. Therefore, so far in this year, North Korea has performed two nuclear weapon tests, launched twenty ballistic missiles, and put one satellite into orbit while breaking new grounds with regard to ballistic missiles fired from submarines as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Following election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, as officials in Pyongyang had predicted, Washington has adopted a stern strategy on North Korea, because Trump's worldview is basically premised on the idea of “Making America Great Again” and he seeks a return to an ideal past, which he had put forth through his campaign. For this reason, James Mattis, the new secretary of defense of the United States, chose South Korea as destination of his first overseas trip and also flew to Japan from Seoul to highlight the significance that the United States attaches to security of the Pacific region and its role in meeting America’s vital interests. In a relevant development, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has clearly announced that the time for diplomacy and strategic patience is over, promising an increase in joint military maneuvers as well as upscaling of US forces and weapons depots on the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, the sharp tone used by Trump's administration and the serious answer given to it by North Korea through conducting regular missile tests in contravention of the Security Council’s resolutions have given rise to the speculation that the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula may take a real military turn through a miscalculation by any of the involved parties. For example, before meeting with the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, Trump took part in an interview with the Financial Times to announce that if Beijing did not use its influence on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear program, Washington would do it alone. As a result, and in an unusual step, the White House informed all 100 members of US Senate of the contents of a report on North Korea. At the same time, the US Defense Department, Pentagon, announced that strike groups led by aircraft carriers, USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan in addition to USS Michigan nuclear submarine had been dispatched to South Korea’s port city of Busan. The aggressive position of those US Navy strike groups further bolstered speculations about escalation of crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, in a meeting of Group 7 in Brussels on May 26, 2017, Trump promised his allies that the problem of North Korea would be solved soon. Of course, this was a big claim, but Trump did not specify if he meant resolution of the crisis through a merely military approach and preemptive attack, or he was connoting to the old policy of carrot and stick and planned to handle the crisis through policy of containment, control and management, or he was alluding to pure diplomacy.

Now, the question is what final conclusion can be perceived for this dispute in view of uncertainties about true intentions of North Korea, one the one hand, and the United States under Trump, on the other hand? The axis consisting of the United States and South Korea believes that North Korea must show a stable image of is intensions, which in this case, its goals would be probably made known as well. On the opposite, North Korean politicians are not sure if the United States is really planning to achieve a final reconciliation with North Korea. In comparison with the past, the factor, which has made the current crisis evolving round North Korea more complicated, is this grave reality that two unpredictable persons are on the two sides of this dispute. This means a combination of unpredictable mentalities of the two countries’ leaders in addition to incomplete and, at times, incorrect information, which can seriously lead to potentially destructive consequences. Two groups of intermediate variables that stand between perception of power and adoption of foreign policy are of importance here. First of all, the mental perception of the ruling elites (leaders) of power may cause them not to understand or even misinterpret the distribution of power in the world in the way that it really is. Secondly, both Trump and Kim Jong-un may react to the existing limitations for expanding this dispute by giving priority to the interests of the elite class or even their own personal interests over national interests of their countries. In the first case, lack of certainty, reliance on incomplete information, and a one-sided approach would characterize the mentalities of the two countries’ leaders.

As a prelude to analysis of power, one must have objective scales of material potentialities. However, it is much more difficult to measure the ability of Trump and Kim Jong-un for taking advantage of these potentialities and also for the assessment of intangible components of their countries’ power. As a result, when we are dealing with incomplete information, cognitive and sensory approaches play a more important role in helping policymakers analyze and predict the behavior of their enemies and affect their political decisions. Since personal expectations and preferences of an authoritarian leader form his perceptions, it may be difficult to change these perceptions, and even an abundance of evidence may not be enough to achieve this important goal. It must be noted that instead of updating our perceptions step by step through new information, this information oftentimes comes to us in a “shocking” way and there are even times when measures taken by leaders end in an unwanted war through a novel evaluation of their power. Therefore, one can claim that assessment of power is related to the reality, but is not determined by the reality.

Therefore, in a hypothetical interaction between North Korea and the United States, what is expected is that the US under Trump, as a warmonger, will never pioneer the reconciliation process and will rather call on North Korea to start this process without any preconditions. On the other hand, a deceptive North Korea will never vanguard the reconciliation process and will always reject any initiative from the US in this regard. According to these observations, one can predict that long-term reconciliation between North Korea and the United States will be only possible if North Korea would be honest with South Korea about political reforms and establishment of peace. On the other hand, the United States should prove to be seeking real peace in its interactions with North Korea. In addition, if the combination of a deceptive North Korea and a warmongering United States – which is the case under the present circumstances – does not lead to a military confrontation, it will at least lead to continuation of the ongoing crisis and escalation of tensions, because neither side is willing to take the risk and be manipulated by the opposite side. However, there is no doubt that lack of resilience and unwillingness to achieve peace on the part of Kim Jong-un will lead to further global isolation of his country, increasing poverty in North Korea, escalation of insecurity in East Asia, and finally, the risk of war with a warmongering America.


*More by Masoud Rezaei:
Erdogan and an Independent Kurdistan: Strategic Interest or Political Suicide?:

*Iran, China Need to Take More Steps to Expand Ties:


*Photo Credit: Al-Alam

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.


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