Testing of nuclear weapons and a student’s imprisonment could push US-North Korea ties into a whole new quagmire

On 9th September 2016 South Korea conducted its second nuclear test of the year (an earlier test had taken place in January). The dust from the bomb had hardly settled before condemnations from across the world flew in. Especially vindictive was criticism from the Western world with UK foreign sectary vowing a “robust response” to the test. However, the most forceful response came from the USA with a press statement from the White House furiously condemning the attack, while stating that America “does not and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state”. More worryingly, the US also announced its intentions to send one of its carrier strike groups to the Korean Peninsula in order to discourage North Korea from any further military provocations.

Flash forward to 2017 and relations between North Korea and the US have only grown more bitter with the US actively seeking to put sanctions on the country as a way to pressure it into dismantling its nuclear program and the North Koreans having jailed an American student for allegedly stealing an item with a propaganda slogan (the student was recently released before being sent back to America on “humanitarian grounds” after he fell into a coma during his imprisonment).Bad relations between the US and North Korea have a long history. They have been this way since the Korean War when the US openly supported South Korea in its war against the North and bombed vast parts of the country killing up to 20% of its population. After the war ties between the two states continued to be strained with North Korea continuously condemning what it called “American imperialism and interference” and the United States stating that North Korea was intentionally damaging its economy through the production of large amounts of counterfeit US currency. In 2007, efforts were made by China and Russia to normalize relations between the two states through the Six Party Talks, a dialogue group that included the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. As a consequence of these talks North Korea agreed to dial back its nuclear program in return for substantial fuel aid and for the US to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, these talks produced few tangible results on the ground and relations between the two states remained low.

While relations between North Korea and the US have been generally bad they have been mostly confined to empty rhetoric and minor incidents. There have been no open hostilities or war between the two states since the 1950s. However, the election of Donald Trump, nuclear testing by North Korea and an increased US preference to use military force to achieve its foreign policy aims have all given the relationship a dangerous new dimension that could very easily lead to a highly destructive conflict in East Asia. Such a conflict would not only be catastrophic for Asia but also for the world as a whole. It would also have a high likelihood of use of nuclear weapons for both states posses them and North Korea is especially likely to use such weapons if it feels that its survival is in jeopardy.To avoid such an outcome, it is necessary for both the US and North Korea to pursue the path of diplomacy in order to address the grievances that each of them has against the other. That can only happen when the people of both these countries stop perceiving each other as enemies. A recent Gallup World Affairs Survey showed that only 9% of Americans see North Koreans favorably, while 87% of them view the country in a negative light. Until the day these numbers are reversed the Korean US paradox is not only likely to persist but also to grow worse.

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