President Trump's New Rhetoric Toward North Korea By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
President Trump touched on various issues in his eighty minute State of the Union address last week. North Korea received a large portion of the attention devoted to international issues as Trump spent eight minutes vilifying the country. Unlike his predecessors who maintained strategic patience, solely focusing on the nuclear issue, Trump started to target North Korea’s Achilles’ heel, crimes against humanity committed by the Kim regime.
Four considerations are particularly important in analyzing Trump administration’s human rights approach toward North Korea.
#1 President Trump highlighted the heinous and sinister nature of the Kim regime.
President Trump invited the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American who became gravely ill in North Korean custody, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean escapee, to attend the State of the Union address. Trump also subsequently met with eight North Korean escapees at the White House.
#2 President Trump contended that the Kim regime deserves to disappear.
Trump contended that the international community, led by the U.S., has moral responsibility to rescue North Korean people from the depraved and cruel dictatorship. Thus, the underlying goal of the U.S. toward North Korea appears to have now shifted from the dismantlement of nuclear weapons to pursuit of regime change.
#3 President Trump reiterated his criticism of his predecessors for trying to use diplomacy to resolve the North Korean crisis at the speech.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” Trump said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
These statements indicate that the Trump administration may have come to conclusion that diplomacy and economic pressure (no matter how severe and drastic economic sanctions) are no longer appropriate means to deal with North Korea. This possible shift of U.S. goals and strategies, compounded by the human rights cause, makes observers of North Korea worry. President Trump is attempting to build a case for humanitarian intervention through military action to topple the Kim regime.
Humanitarian intervention is usually defined as the use of military force by external actors for humanitarian purposes against the wishes of the host government. It is often synonymous with Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Based on the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility, R2P is imperative to all of humans that there is collective responsibility to protect innocent populations.
One of the pillars in the R2P principle according to the United Nations is that “the international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.”
President Trump’s speech sought to persuade the American people, as well as the international audience, of a justification for humanitarian intervention into North Korea. We have witnessed numerous cases of the U.S. led humanitarian intervention using military force in the last three decades, including humanitarian bombing of Yugoslavia, Iraq, NATO’s intervention in Libya, and the impending case of Syria.
One can observe a pattern of the U.S. rhetoric leading up to the intervention in those cases: biblically driven dichotomous confrontation between good and evil, preoccupation of maintaining hegemonic power and leadership, and pressure from the alliance partners on the U.S. to show its security commitments.
#4 President Trump’s ignored the recent intra-Korean reconciliations for the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics starting this Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea keeps emphasizing the importance of the non-military means and dialogue to deal with North Korean issues. He also sincerely expressed his hope that the intra-Korean dialogue “could naturally lead to talks between the United States and North Korea for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.”
There are obvious signs that Washington and Seoul take different approaches to North Korea. And South Korea is seriously worried that there is a growing possibility that the U.S. might carry out military actions against North Korea. President Moon reiterates his firm stance that “there will never be another war on the Korean peninsula,” and “Military action on the Korean peninsula can only be decided by South Korea and no one else can decide to take military action without the consent of South Korea.”
U.S. military actions, including a so-called "bloody noose strike," will make North Korea retaliate against the U.S. military bases as well as its allies, South Korea and Japan. However, it is South Koreans, not Americans who will bear the brunt of war on the Korean peninsula. The role of South Korea in this triangular relationship is becoming increasingly important, particularly its political and diplomatic capability to convince the Trump administration not to consider military actions.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is government student at Utica College.