News Analysis: Trump heads to Asia amid crisis on Korean Peninsula

Source: Xinhua| 2017-11-02 10:17:50|Editor: Song Lifang
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By Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump will head to Asia later this week, at a time when growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula show no sign of de-escalating.

Trump is slated to visit five Asian countries on Nov. 3-14, and Pyongyang's nuclear program is expected to top his list of topics to be discussed with leaders in China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The trip comes amid an ongoing war of words between Trump and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s leader Kim Jong Un, with Trump threatening "fire and fury" against the DPRK if it endangers the United States. Kim has threatened to turn the United States into a "sea of fire."

The businessman-turned-president wants to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, and is trying to ratchet up the pressure on the DPRK, in a game of brinkmanship that has many leaders on edge. This comes amid continued missile tests by the DPRK, and after Kim's claims that he can hit targets in the United States.

Despite the heightened rhetoric, experts say the DPRK will not be letting go of its nuclear weapons program anytime soon.

Experts say that the Kim family -- Kim Jong Un, father Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung -- have always been astute geopolitical observers. The latter two Kims saw how leaders in Iraq and Libya were toppled by the United States after getting rid of their nuclear programs, and Kim Jong Un does not want to suffer the same fate. Pyongyang sees nuclear weapons as the only ticket to its survival, many U.S. experts say.

Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, told Xinhua that the DPRK faces a security dilemma. "It is surrounded by hostile powers in (South Korea), the United States, and Japan ... From the (DPRK's) perspective, in the absence of nuclear weapons it would not be able to secure its survival," he said.

Other experts argue that the DPRK has always sought nuclear weapons.

The DPRK "has been seeking nuclear weapons since the beginning of its existence," Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Xinhua.

When asked whether Trump's rhetoric will help his goal of ridding the DPRK of nukes, Stangarone said that unlike political opponents and U.S. companies, "Kim Jong Un cannot be intimidated" by Trump's rhetoric.

"While President Trump's Tweets can coax businesses into toeing the line, there is no share price or public opinion for Kim Jong Un to be concerned about when Trump Tweets," Stangarone said, referring to the social media platform Trump often uses to get his messages out.

"Trump's traditional weapon is just not one that he can wield against North Korea. Instead, President Trump's Tweets and rhetoric most likely have the opposite effect and reinforce the perception that North Korea needs its weapons programs," Stangarone said, using the American name for the DPRK.

"President Trump's rhetoric may have some benefit in signaling the seriousness of U.S. concerns to China, but ... the United States could have solicited the same cooperation from China with less provocative rhetoric," he said.

Paal said Trump's rhetoric may "at most introduce caution into the (DPRK's) testing, for fear of a military response, but is inadequate to address the problem as a whole."


The current tensions beg the question of why previous U.S. presidents failed in their attempts to negotiate with the DPRK over its nuclear program.

Stangarone said there used to be the perception that there was time to resolve the dispute, which lowered the level of urgency of those involved.

"Since the threat did not seem imminent, the international cooperation we have witnessed over the last year was not possible," Stangarone said.

These factors, along with a misunderstanding of the DPRK's objectives by the international community, allowed the DPRK to develop its programs with minimal costs, he said.

Paal said past policies failed because the DPRK will not take no for an answer, "so deception and a failure to develop credible verification doomed the efforts."

Trump has said all possibilities are on the table, including a military one, and recent weeks have seen U.S. forces in the region ramp up their readiness.

Stangarone said there is no certainty that the United States would be able to eliminate all of the DPRK's nuclear and missile weapons programs with a preventative attack.

That does not mean the United States would be unable to take out significant portions of the program, and it could put the program back many years, but a military strike is unlikely to completely resolve the issue, Stangarone said.

When asked the odds of the United States denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula via military means, Paal said: "I hope they are vanishingly low, because the costs of doing so would be prohibitively high."