Following the recent surge in North Korean provocations, missile testing and nuclear development, President Trump announced that the USA would react 'with fire and fury'. Only hours after that very statement, Kim Jong-un threatened a missile strike on Guam, a key US military base in the Asia-Pacific region. As tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalate to previously unseen levels, Trump and Kim are becoming evermore engaged in a war of words. The rhetoric for both sides continues to strengthen, and there seems little sign of resolving this decades-old conflict any time soon, unless an effective combination of targeted primary and secondary sanctions, and engagement can be reached, in order to destabilize the North Korean regime. Kim knows how to provoke Trump, and is currently playing the game whereby any US response to a North Korean provocation is met with a further threat from the North Korean side. This war of words will hinder progress towards peace on the Peninsula, the will not only of the US and South Korea, but also of the international community.
Sanctions need to be specifically targeted to be rendered effective, to let Kim and his cadres know that North Korea cannot continue its nuclear and missile development such that it can be recognized as a 'nuclear state'. As has been suggested before, sanctions need to, and indeed, can, build fear into Kim that he cannot simply go on as he has done. That said, the North Korean regime has been notably adept at evading the consequences of sanctions, largely by engaging its closest ally of China. The recent sanctions passed under UN Security Council Resolution 2371, calling for an end to DPRK exports of coal, oil, and seafood, together with prohibiting business ventures involving DPRK officials and businesses may seem to be pointed and targeted in nature, but North Korea is a notorious 'hard target', as Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland have written, and getting to the core of the country's operations is far from easy. Time and again, North Korea's response to these sanctions is the same: 'an infringement on our sovereignty' -calling on the West to shut up and get out, and the country has become an expert at evading sanctions. Beijing may have supported Resolution 2371, but President Trump's decision to give China 'more time' to state its true commitment towards punishing North Korea has also given China more time to 'sort out' its ongoing deals between its banks and North Korea, which acts as an effective gateway between North Korea and the global economy. By not sanctioning Chinese banks directly, has Trump allowed China, and North Korea, to get away with it?
Trump's war of words with Kim shows little sign of stopping. Kim Jong-un is fully aware that, with a maverick President such as Trump in the White House, he can continue to provoke the USA, the DPRK's time-old enemy, and, in return, receive a smattering of rhetoric from Trump, Tillerson, and UN Ambassador Haley. The words of President Trump, 'with fire and fury' - whatever they may mean - plays to Kim's agenda. Time is on the side of the North Koreans, not the US, as they continue to develop nuclear and missile capabilities in their hope that the West will acknowledge that they are a 'nuclear state', about which little can be done. Such a pessimistic scenario is far from ideal, yet Resolution 2371's calls for a resumption of the Six Party Talks, which may not have borne fruit despite numerous rounds from 2003 to 2009, may be somewhat over-optimistic. Kim needs to be held accountable for his crimes - human rights violations and nuclear development that are the bedrock of his country and threaten his country, citizens, and the global order - yet this cannot be achieved purely by harsh words, sanctions that can be evaded, and a lack of direct consultation with the North's closest ally of China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's call for a dual freeze - a freeze in nuclear development with a freeze in US-South Korea military drills - highlights China's desire for peace on the peninsula, yet their claims that they are doing all they can to generate this peace are highly questionable. In a recent telephone conversation between President Trump and South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in, both leaders stated their commitment to "maximum pressure and sanctions on North Korea under cooperation with the international community to have North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs, and choose the right path". The "right path" is unlikely to mean war - a Korean War 2.0 would have devastating consequences for all parties, first and foremost, Seoul and the South Korean people.
As such, the Kim-Trump war of words must stop before the words of one of the two sides is deemed too offensive, provocative, and threatening not to warrant action, military, or otherwise. Yes, there should be targeted sanctions, but there also needs to be dialogue, though not specifically 'engagement', with North Korea. Though the North Korean Foreign Secretary Ri Young-su may have dismissed the words of his Southern counterpart - Kang Kyung-wha - as 'insincere', the pursuit of dialogue must continue, but carefully. Attempts at dialogue in tandem with harsh, fear-building sanctions, should be combined with the pursuit of disseminating information to citizens within the country, to threaten and scar the ideological underpinning of the regime, in order to make Kim Jong-un's grip on his regime increasingly precarious. The pursuit of a war of words, as we are seeing, is unlikely to advance progress in resolving the conflict on the Korean Peninsula; it is time to think pragmatically.