Tensions Escalating Between US and North Korea
Monday, June 21, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Since March, the situation between the US and North Korea has been gradually worsening. That month, American Chancellor Antony Blinken took his first international trip, whose destinations were Japan and South Korea, where conversations with local leaders about North Korea were carried out. On the occasion, Blinken highlighted alleged human rights violations in the country and the “threat” posed by the North Korean nuclear program to international security in that Asian region.
He stated that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul will work together to achieve the denuclearization of Pyongyang, which was taken as a threat by the North Korean government, leading to immediate responses such as the launch of two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan and a warning issued by the sister of the supreme leader, Kim Yo Jong, who said that ”if it [the US ] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step”.
Reports issued by US military and intelligence agents in April stated that North Korea has more nuclear weapons than ever and is unwilling to give up its arsenal, prompting the US government to make constant pronouncements on the need of denuclearization, claiming that this is the only condition for dialogue between the two countries. In early June, Kim appeared in public commenting that the Biden government has a “hostile policy” towards North Korea. On June 12, during a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim called for measures to boost military combat effectiveness, warning of new challenges on the Korean peninsula.
Despite continuing to respond to Biden’s impositions with severe displays of force, resuming military tests and claiming to be prepared for an eventual conflict, one factor has harmed Korea considerably: the food crisis. Kim Jong Un recently made remarks about the country’s current supply crisis, warning of a serious food insecurity situation – the worst in decades. The effects of the pandemic hit the country at the same time that several natural disasters damaged agriculture and generated serious instability in grain production. At the end of May, China announced that it would economically help Korea by increasing trade with the country, but the crisis is still far from being resolved.
In his most recent speech, last week, Kim said that Korea is prepared for both confrontation and dialogue, showing signs that, while not giving up on its interests, it is willing to talk with Biden and reach an agreement to ease tensions – which would help Korea at this time of crisis. But the US government was not sensitive to the situation in the Asian country. Blinken responded to the Korean leader’s speech by saying Washington is waiting for “a clearer signal from Pyongyang.” What would be a clearer signal than the country’s president saying he is prepared for dialogue? It would be precisely Kim claiming that he is willing to give up on his nuclear program.
North Korea reduced the bellicose speech it had been maintaining since March and received nothing in return from Washington. The most curious point is that Kim sought a more neutral stance precisely at a time of intensified tensions between the US and China. At the last NATO summit, China was considered a “global security challenge”, being treated in anti-diplomatic way. Beijing is the biggest ally of the Korean government and all measures against China affect Pyongyang in some way.
Pyongyang will react to the American stance by canceling any willingness to dialogue and tightening military policies, at least as long as the country is able to maintain such measures. Still, it is possible that Biden will take advantage of Korea’s moment of vulnerability to act even more militarily. An open confrontation is unlikely to happen as no conflict between two nuclear-armed states is viable, but demonstrations of force such as tests, missile launches, and symbolic naval warfare are possible scenarios for the near future. Also, such measures would be a proxy confrontation with China, which is allied with North Korea.
In short, Biden is reversing a great positive legacy of the Trump era, which was the achievement of partial stability in US-North Korea relations. The former government has shown that coercion and force are not the most effective methods of pursuing the denuclearization of a country. But Biden’s policy seems to follow an old bellicose mentality that is absolutely unproductive today.
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