SEOUL, South Korea — Ahead of the G20 summit in Hamburg Friday, President Donald Trump said that he’s considering some “pretty severe things” such as military action to deal with North Korea. But experts warn that even an ambiguous threat could be read by the North Korean regime as dangerous, tipping the scale toward war.
“The risk really lies in the potential for miscalculation by the North Koreans — if they think they might come under U.S. threat. It’s not clear how good their intelligence is or whether they might get a little jumpy,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “There’s also the possibility of miscalculation in the U.S. in regards to North Korea’s intent.”
But “Kim is not suicidal,” as Snyder put it, meaning that North Korea may be using nuclear developments to keep the rest of the world out of its business — not because it’s plotting World War III.
Yet in recent weeks, North Korea has dominated international headlines once again — this time for shipping University of Virginia college student Otto Warmbier back to the U.S. just in time for him to die on American soil. Trump called it a “total disgrace” and implied that President Obama bore responsibility for failing to bring Warmbier home.
It was the first high-profile American casualty in a long time for this nearly 70-year war, which is technically still ongoing (only a 1953 ceasefire agreement is in place). The United States and other allies fought alongside South Korea during the 1950-1953 conflict — now known as “the forgotten war” — while Chinese and Soviet forces sided with North Korea.
In total, U.S. officials estimate that 54,246 Americans perished in the war, though casualties on all sides may have totaled more than 2.5 million. Today, most of the nations involved in the war continue to be major stakeholders for the future of the two Koreas, plus how their stability could affect the world.
Warmbier’s death is perhaps a symptom of a worsening relationship between North Korea and the U.S., which has had its highs and lows over the years.
“North Korea has a lot of evils, and one of them is keeping foreign citizens as hostage in order to break through any diplomatic obstacles,” Jang Jin-sung, a former North Korean defector and government employee assigned to propaganda and ideological warfare, said at the TNKR Global Leadership Forum on June 24. “If North Korea had been in a good relationship with the U.S. government, they probably would not have gone that far [with Warmbier].”
Warmbier’s death inevitably leads us to wonder how far is too far — for North Korea, but also for newly-elected presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in. Moon took office in South Korea this May after an ugly corruption scandal landed former-President Park Geun Hye in prison, and he has alluded to bringing a new era of engagement and aid to North Korea.
That’s very different from the United States’ potential approach: Although Trump himself said he would “be honored” to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un under the “right circumstances,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that a preemptive attack on the North Korea is “on the table.” That’s where the possibility of armed conflict starts to sink in.
And yet no one, including President Trump, is really ready to draw the line.
The truth is, the world has been able to tolerate a whole lot from North Korea — including casualties, missile tests and cyber attacks. Seoul authorities claim that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean ship in March 2010, killing 46 people, for example. And in May 2017, North Korean hackers allegedly shut down at least 16 hospitals and 300,000 computers using WannaCry ransomware. Then there are the highly provocative missile tests — in the first half of 2017 alone, North Korea has conducted at least 17 of them. Therefore, if history is our logical precedent, the world will continue to react with economic sanctions, not outright war.
“[North Korea] basically thinks of nuclear weapon development as sovereignty,” said Joseph Park, a North Korean defector and the research and development director at the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul. “And if it was a true democracy, these nuclear developments wouldn’t be possible.”
Even if all nations do keep their guns in the holster, the North Korea situation is still a losing game. As one article from The Boston Globe states, “There are no good options on North Korea. Zero.”
And even if the North Korean regime weren’t a threat to the outside world, it still commits heinous human rights violations against its own people. Some argue that these violations often get lost in the noise and political gridlock of nuclear weapon developments, which effectively distract the world.
“Compared to Syrian human rights violations, I believe that the North Korean issues are not so well publicized,” Kang Cheol Hwan, a North Korean defector and president of the North Korea Strategy Center, said through an interpreter. “North Korean human rights violations are just hidden, and that’s why the international community does not deal with it.”
About 250,000 North Koreans are thought to live in gulag-like prison camps, according to a 2013 report from Reuters, where they are tortured, forced into hard labor, beaten and sometimes killed. The rest of the population lives under extreme social control — a single “crime” committed by one individual can be punished by sending three generations of the family (including infants) to these prison camps, for instance. Even the most innocent acts, such as buying a USB drive full of South Korean dramas, can be considered highly treasonous.
So for now, the North Korean people bear the greatest cost under the North Korean regime. But if the escalation of words leads to a true military escalation, the consequences could be far greater for the region and the world.