Donald Trump and North Korea – The Dangers of Playing with Fire

For students of international relations, President Trump highlights the relevance of human agency in global affairs and the study of conflict. That is of little comfort, given that he has managed to escalate tensions with North Korea in a relatively short time. A war of words is raging between both sides. Alas, there is a very real possibility that this will turn into an actual military confrontation.
About a week ago, in his first major speech to the United Nations, President Trump lashed out in his typical bombastic manner by threatening to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ if it the US should be forced to defend itself or her allies. Such rhetoric can be expected from a reality-TV star. It may also have a place in a B-rated Hollywood action movie. Yet, coming from the US President at the time of heightened tensions stoked by Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation it is extremely unhelpful and outright dangerous. The speech may have been designed to send a clear signal to Kim Jong Un. If so, it is unlikely to improve the situation. On the contrary, North Korea’s regime will most likely intensify its nuclear efforts. After all, Donald Trump’s speech provides the best justification for the need of a nuclear deterrent. North Korea has long portrayed the US as a major threat to its security and survival. To some extent, that very threat has been part of the reason d’etre of Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation strategy, despite the immense economic and political costs incurred. In 2002, George W. Bush portrayed North Korea, Iran and Iraq as forming an ‘axis of evil’. In 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the message was clear – only a nuclear capability might deter the US effectively. After all, Iraq was not in the possession of weapons of mass destruction and its conventional military forces failed to deter the US intervention.
Donald Trump’s not so veiled threat will only serve to further entrench the perception of the US as an existential threat to the North Korean regime. This was not helped by raising the spectre of US interventions against regimes that Washington disapproves of: Cuba and Venezuela were mentioned here. So was Iran. Indeed, President Trump expressed his displeasure with the Iranian nuclear deal, insinuating that the US will terminate the agreement. So, what is Pyongyang to make of that? Well, the obvious conclusion may well be that a nuclear capability is the only deterrent against US intervention. Any diplomatic conclusion to the ongoing crisis has just been made ever so much more difficult. What is the point of concluding an agreement with the US, if the US President is simply deciding to walk away from it? Better to be safe than sorry! North Korea so far has defied all sanctions and threats. Now, it’s leadership will feel vindicated by Trump’s rhetoric. It remains to be seen whether both sides are heading towards a military showdown. Alas, rather than seeking a constructive solution, however difficult that may be, the two main protagonists, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, appear to be engaged in a game of flinging lit up matches at each other while sitting on a powder keg.

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