In response to the recent U.S. missile strikes against Syria, North Korea has expressed their trust in their nuclear weapons as a deterrent to U.S. action against them. North Korean officials have dismissed the Syrian airstrikes, acknowledging that they are meant to be a warning to North Korea but instead stating, “We will bolster up in every way our capability for self-defense to cope with the U.S. evermore reckless moves for a war and defend ourselves with our own force.”
This is consistent with previous statements by North Korea in which the government increases its hostile rhetoric whenever it feels threatened. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in particular has much to worry about. Over the past decade and a half, the U.S. has removed leaders from Iraq and Libya and is currently working to remove Assad from power in Syria, to say nothing of past and current intervention in other countries such as Afghanistan.
To what lengths would Kim Jong-un go in order to remain in power? Would he use one or more of the couple dozen estimated nuclear weapons he possesses? It is hard to say for certain, although a recent high-level defector says that Kim “would not hesitate” to do so.
Nuclear activity on the Korean peninsula is, of course, in no one’s best interest. For Kim to actually use nuclear weapons would seal his fate, for not only would the U.S., Japan, and South Korea (the countries Kim sees as enemies) respond in force, China would likely do so as well. China has acted for decades as a check on North Korean volatility. They do not want to see the country descend into chaos and have to deal with the mess on their borders. Nor do they want to see a war, much less a nuclear one, in their backyard.
In fact, Rex Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State, said yesterday that China has agreed that North Korea and it’s nuclear program is a problem and “… that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.”
What this action will be is, as of yet, undetermined. The U.S. is sending a carrier strike group to the region as a deterrent to North Korea. Perhaps the combination of U.S. overt pressure and Chinese back-room pressure on Kim can reduce the present tensions.
A long term solution is elusive, however, especially since an end goal is not clearly stated by all parties (U.S., South Korea, Japan, China). Nor is the same goal likely shared among them. Is the goal to remove Kim and allow another dictator-in-waiting to take over? Is the goal to coax North Korea into the modern era and have it open up (this probably involves removing Kim as well)? Is the goal to simply contain North Korea and let it continue to determine its own destiny? The problem of North Korea has existed since 1953 and is likely to continue for some time.