On Tuesday, August 8th, President Donald Trump issued a frightening statement to the world: “North Korea best not make any more threatens to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…(Kim Jong-Un) has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has ever seen before.” Growing fears the militaristic country is preparing intercontinental missiles that are capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States precipitated this statement.
While tensions have been steadily growing over the last several years, problems within the region started a little over a century ago with the invasion by Japan in 1910. The Japanese Empire held the island nation under its thumb for five years until 1945 when Japan demilitarized at the end of World War 2. Korea shared the same fate as Germany, carved in half by Russia and the United States. The divide ignored all regional and cultural differences and relied on what was considered geographically fair for both parties. The Americans were worried there would be conflict over who took control of Seoul, but the Soviets were amenable to the arrangement.
The man who eventually became Supreme Leader: Kim Il-Sung was installed by the Soviets to handle North Korea in February 1946. Russia soon pulled its troops from the nation in 1948 followed shortly by America, pulling out of the South in 1949. Shortly after withdrawal, Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, which sparked the Korean War. A United Nations force led by the U.S. pushed Il-Sung’s forces deep into his own territory until the Chinese intervened. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, with the war never actually officially ending.
In the following years, Kim Il-Sung resisted Russian and Chinese backed efforts to depose him. As the last Chinese troops left North Korea in 1958 the country finally was recognized as a sovereign nation. There were later attempts at peace talks between the North and South yet there has been little progress since 1974. As the years passed Il-Sung tightened his grip on the populace until his death in 1994. His son Kim Jong-Il succeeded his position as Supreme Ruler of North Korea.
For many the Korean War is a distant memory discussed in textbooks and reruns of MASH. To the people of North Korea, the conflict is all too fresh in their minds. The populace has been taught the South invaded their borders with the help of the US. To prepare for future invasions by the United States, Kim Jong-Il instituted a policy called ‘Songun’ or ‘military first’. This policy justifies restricting essential services like food, water, and electricity to many of the people.
When Il-Sung died, he was in the midst of a tense standoff with the United States over its nuclear weapons development. An agreement was reached in with President Bill Clinton in 1994 halting the nuclear program under the ‘Agreed Framework’. When President George Bush took office in 2001 his administration rejected the Agreed and labeled North Korea a rogue state. Shortly after North Korea reinstated their nuclear program culminating in its first nuclear weapons test on October 6, 2006.
Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il died from a heart attack on December 17, 2011, with his youngest son Kim Jong-Un assuming power. Despite international condemnation, Jong-Un continued his father’s work developing a nuclear arsenal. Two tests have been confirmed in 2013 and 2016 causing intense unrest in the region. With China as its close ally, North Korea has ignored most warnings from the international community.
During the American Independence day of July 4th, 2017, North Korea successfully completed its test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile (named Hwasong-14). The missile has the potential to be armed with a small nuclear warhead which could reach the continental US. The test sparked fear and outrage from the world. The UN response was swift, voting unanimously for sanctions which will cost the small nation a billion dollars in lost revenue. Most significantly, the vote against North Korea included its primary ally, China.
Back to this past Tuesday with President Trump’s remarks. Some political commentators believe Trump was attempting to rally his base to bolster his image of a strong and powerful leader. Someone willing to do what must be done. Critics claim his response was bluster from a weakened President whose words have done more harm than good. The belief is he has fed the North Korean government precisely the sound bite needed to fuel their agenda. “The United States are aggressors which must be stopped by any means up to and including nuclear warfare”.
Trump’s rhetoric does seem to have some international support. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary said, “As the security situation in the region becomes increasingly difficult, the US’s deterrence capability is extremely important to Japan. The US has said all options are on the table and Japan welcomes this.” South Korean President Moon Jae-In did not comment on Trump’s specific assertion but agreed more proactive measures were needed, specifically citing a need for the complete overhaul of his country’s defense.
At home Trump has stirred up both Republicans and Democrats with his comment. Republican John McCain was one of the more vocal opponents: “I take exception to the President’s comments because you’ve got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do.” “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act.”
North Korea’s immediate response was to threaten the island American territory, Guam. Nearly one-third of the island’s land mass is a US military base. Any immediate negotiations do not look promising, for earlier this weekend, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said, “under no circumstances put the nuclear and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table.” Taking it a step further, he continued saying that North Korea would “teach the U.S. a severe lesson” if military force was used.
The question must be asked, what IS North Korea so afraid of? Why will they not come to the table and at least listen? The simple answer is fear of Regime Change. North Korea looks at the history of other countries like Iraq and Libya. They had come to the negotiation table and eventually the regime was destroyed and replaced. Before Kim Jong-Un will even consider talking he is going to want the ability to strike America directly.
It is becoming clear that this will be the true test of President Trump’s leadership. Setting aside his abysmal approval ratings and the expanding Russia probe, this is a very real conflict on the horizon. It will take a measured hand and true leadership to see the US through this storm. Assuming President Trump survives the coming storm within his own country, the answer remains to be seen.