by Garrett Dee
Photo Credit: AP
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump issued a proclamation against the Kim regime in North Korea during his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and asserting that the United States was prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea in defense of itself and its allies. The speech has been met with consternation by world leaders who fear that the North Korean missile crisis is approaching the verge of armed military conflict and possible nuclear warfare.
Trump’s most recent threats against North Korea come only months after previous statements that any continued threat by the North against the United States or its allies would be met with “fire and fury” that the world has never seen. This statement came after Kim’s threat to bomb the island of Guam, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 162 thousand residents. The North Korean regime has announced that it successfully completed a test of a warhead capable of reaching Guam.
Pyongyang has conducted missile launches with increasing frequency over the past few months, with seismographic readings caused by more recent tests suggesting that the North Korean government has conducted the largest missile test in its history. Additionally, concerns have been growing in Japan over the proximity of the missile launches to the Japanese islands, with one missile having passed over the northern island of Hokkaido last week causing local authorities to initiate emergency procedures urging residents to seek shelter in preparation of an imminent attack.
North Korea is an authoritarian state ruled by the Kim dynasty, which presides over what is widely regarded internationally as one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. North Korean citizens have almost no political freedoms, with the Kims controlling every aspect of public and private life, including a willingness to execute members of the ruling family in order to maintain power. Thousands of Koreans live in brutal conditions in state labor camps, with some having been born in the camps themselves. Much of the propaganda which props up the dynasty centers on the Kim family protecting the North Korean people from American military aggression.
The US State Department announced a travel ban by US citizens to North Korea early this year following the death of US student Otto Warmbier as a result of events which transpired while Warmbier was visiting North Korea with a tour group and attempted to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel room. Trump mentioned Warmbier’s death in Tuesday’s speech as a basis for increased US aggression against the regime, as Warmbier’s death under North Korean incarceration after having been convicted of theft and given a fifteen year prison sentence with hard labor was met with strong condemnation by the Trump administration and the American public.
Following this incident and the increased regularity and degree of missile testing conducted by Pyongyang, the Trump administration has utilized this opportunity to repeatedly focus media and public attention on the possibility of an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This comes at a time when much of the coverage around the administration has zeroed-in closely on the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Recent reports reveal that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was wiretapped under secret court order before and after the 2016 presidential election, and investigators have been undertaking thorough investigation into Trump and members of his inner circle, including his son Donald Trump Jr.
Trump’s assertion that North Korea is “a depraved regime” run by a “band of criminals” intent on nuclear destabilization of the world was accompanied by a proclamation that it is the responsibility of a UN member states to resolve the crisis, effectively issuing an ultimatum to the international community to support the United States. This seemingly harkens back to similar phrasing utilized by the George W. Bush administration in regards to foreign policy, particularly in the similar christening of North Korea and Iran as the “axis of evil” which the US would stand against. Bush also issued a similar proclamation during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, stating that countries were either with or against the US in regards to the war on terror. Though Trump’s initial rhetoric during the election cycle regarding the possibility of a withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula suggested an isolationist military policy in the Asia Pacific, his proclamation that the “righteous” nations of the world must stand against North Korea seems closer to those of previous neoconservative administrations.
The projection of US military power in the Asia Pacific region has a long and troubled history. The United States colonized the Philippines following the defeat of the Spanish in the late nineteenth century resulting in large massacres of the local population, and the Vietnam War and associated US military action in Southeast Asia led to large casualties on all sides during the Cold War era. US bases in both South Korea and Japan leftover from this period are highly unpopular with the local populations, with US personnel stationed in these areas following the Korean War having been occasionally found guilty of criminal conduct leading to large oppositional protest movements. The Korean War has never been formally ended.
Pressure from the Trump administration towards the government in Beijing has increased in recent months as the North Korean crisis reaches a tipping point, with the Trump administration calling on the Chinese central government to play a large role in resolving the resolution. Though the personal rapport between the respective Chinese and US presidents was, by Trump’s account, rather amiable following their summit at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, the large trade imbalance and growing Chinese assertiveness have long troubled the Trump administration and led to these respective governments being increasingly at loggerheads.
In spite of their close historical and economic alliance, China and North Korea have found their bilateral relationship increasingly frustrated as Beijing attempts to project its power onto the world stage while Pyongyang continues to be a regional nuisance. In spite of this, China remains the North Korean regime’s primary trade partner and benefactor. Beijing supports Pyongyang’s sovereignty over the northern half of the peninsula, and continues to follow the oft-criticized practice of repatriating North Korean refugees who flee across the border, whom local Chinese claim create a strain on local communities. Chinese and Russian naval forces have been conducting joint exercises off the coast of the Korean Peninsula in response to recent events, while US and South Korean forces simultaneously conducted joint air maneuver drills.
In this regard, it may be that Trump is attempting to force the hand of the Chinese government in the short term in regards to testing its capacity to deal with a crisis in its own backyard. In making overtures to the possibility of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula in front of a global audience, Trump has placed the Chinese government in the uncomfortable position of being the key regional actor in the denouement of what has now reached the threshold of becoming a global crisis. Though Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang has been complicated by the North Korean government’s insistence on pursuing a nuclear development program above the din of strong international objection, it is highly unlikely that it will abandon its historically-closest regional ally to pursue a rapprochement with a Trump administration which considers China to be one of its primary adversaries.
Trump will travel to Beijing this November following the conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, an event which is expected to further solidify Chinese president Xi’s hold over the Communist Party. In escalating the crisis in Korea to a critical threshold, it may be that Trump is seeking to gain a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Chinese in what is sure to be a summit fraught with tension over trade and military dominance, while at the same time distracting the media and public from the growing seriousness of the probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.