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Treating North Korea Rough

Photo by John Pavelka | CC BY 2.0

Since entering office, the Trump administration has directed a reckless and dangerous pressure campaign against North Korea that has made life worse for the North Korean people while increasing the likelihood of war.

The pressure campaign includes increasingly stringent sanctions backed by the threat of war. Administration officials say the campaign is necessary to pressure the North Korean government into abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

“My deal was that, we’ve got to treat them rough,” President Trump explained last year.

The Trump administration is directing the campaign despite a growing consensus that it will not work. Over the past year, U.S. officials have largely concluded that no amount of pressure will force the North Korean government to give up its nuclear weapons.

Last year, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats explained at the Aspen Security Forum that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un believed that nuclear weapons were necessary for “survival for his regime” and “survival for his country.” The basic reason is that “having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability,” Coats said.

Over the past few years, many leaders around the world have reached the same conclusion, according to Coats. After watching outside powers interfere in Libya and Ukraine, he explained, heads of state have concluded that they need nuclear weapons to deter invasions. “The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes is unfortunately if you had nukes, never give them up,” Coats said. “If you don’t have them, get them.”

Despite these assessments, the Trump administration has been continuing to increase the pressure on North Korea. With its “maximum pressure campaign,” as the White House calls it, the Trump administration is testing the general consensus that the North Korean government will never abandon its nuclear weapons.

“What I think Kim Jong-un needs to realize is, he cannot survive with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons because the international community will not allow him to survive,” General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year.

With its approach, the Trump administration has applied numerous kinds of pressure. On one level, it has worked through the United Nations Security Council to impose increasingly restrictive sanctions on North Korea. In 2017, the Security Council passed sanctions to block North Korea’s exports of coal and severely restrict its imports of fuel.

“We’ve never had this level of extreme sanctions,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented at the end of last year.

The extreme sanctions have placed significant strains on the North Korean economy. As of last September, the sanctions were making it very difficult for the North Korean people to acquire fuel.

“Just imagine if this happened to the United States — a 55 percent reduction in diesel and oil,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, remarked at the time. “They said it was a full-scale economic blockade, suffocating its state and its people,” Haley said. “This is dramatic.”

The extreme sanctions have also been devastating for North Korea’s fishermen. Forced to take increasingly dangerous risks to find food, many North Korean fisherman have been dying at sea, with their boats washing ashore Japanese beaches.

Secretary Tillerson explained earlier this year that the North Korean fishermen are “being sent out in the wintertime to fish because there’s food shortages, and they’re being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.” Tillerson interpreted these developments as a sign of success, calling them “evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.”

Even with these devastating consequences for the people of North Korea, the sanctions have still not been enough for the Trump administration. As the sanctions have turned deadly, the Trump administration has continued to threaten North Korea with war.

President Trump has threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis has spoken of “the total annihilation” of the country.

Administration officials make these threats as they acknowledge that they face no serious threat from North Korea. Although the North Korean government has been testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, most people in Washington believe that the North Korean government would never actually launch an attack.

“Right now, we think the threat is manageable,” Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly said last October.

At a congressional hearing last month, a number of former U.S. officials provided similar reassurances.

Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the committee that North Korea would only become a problem if administration officials began to believe their own rhetoric about the country. “We have been talking these guys up a lot more than they deserve,” Blair said. “I think we can handle these guys, and we only talk ourselves into being at a disadvantage by our own rhetoric.”

Former U.S. official Michael Green provided the committee with additional reassurances, suggesting that the North Koreans would not start a war and risk massive retaliation by the U.S. and its allies. “They are not suicidal,” Green said. “No one thinks Kim Jong-un is suicidal.”

At the end of the hearing, former U.S. official Kelly Magsamen provided the committee with the strongest reassurances, insisting that Kim Jong-un only wanted nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a U.S. attack. “I do think that he is aggressively pursuing the capability as a deterrent to the United States attacking him,” Magsamen said. “I think he does look around and sees the Qaddafi scenario and Saddam, and thinks, ‘This is my best insurance policy and deterrent against a potential preventive attack by the United States.’ I think that is true.”

As numerous officials now acknowledge there is little to fear from North Korea, the Trump administration continues to increase the pressure on the country. Although most serious analysts in Washington agree that Kim Jong-un only wants nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack, the Trump administration keeps treating the country rough while the North Korean people suffer the consequences and the risk of war increases.

“This pressure campaign is going to stay in place and it’s going to continue to be intensified until we achieve our policy objective and the objective of the world,” Secretary Tillerson said earlier this year.

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Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.

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