At the end of the Cold War, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was implemented to ensure the safety of the international community. The United States and Russia wanted to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and agreed to the treaty in an effort to put the world on a path towards disarmament. Countries within the NPT are cautious of states that have not agreed to the treaty and they are especially attentive to non-abiding states that possess nuclear weapons. A case study of this scenario can be found when looking at the relationship between North Korea and the United States.
The U.S. and North Korea have been at odds since the 1950s, when the U.S. took South Korea’s side in the Korean War in an attempt to stop the spread of Soviet communism. Following the war, their relationship cooled and North Korea eventually agreed to the NPT’s terms in 1985 (“North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: A Brief History”). Nonetheless, tensions were renewed when President George Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil” rhetoric in 2003. Bush accused Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s ruler at the time, of developing nuclear weapons that violated the NPT’s agreements. Shortly after, Kim Jong-Il publically admitted to having a nuclear power plant and North Korea withdrew from the NPT in January 2003 (“North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: A Brief History”). Their withdrawal resulted in suffocating sanctions from the international community that have largely isolated the country.
More recently, the United States has leveraged these restrictions in hopes that the North Koreans would give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. When the current ruler, Kim Jong-Un, took office in 2011, President Obama framed negotiations around lifting the sanctions in exchange for North Korean compliance with NPT regulations and inspections. These talks fell apart after Kim Jong-Un ordered a rocket-launch and displayed road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade. Since then, the situations within and between the two countries have changed drastically. Despite being isolated by increasingly severe sanctions from the international community, North Korea’s nuclear program has made major improvements. According to the Council of Foreign Relations website, North Korea carried out nuclear tests from February 2013 through September 2016 and the country’s weaponry experienced the greatest period of development in its history (“North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: A Brief History”). Meanwhile, the United States was going through its own transformation. In what is understood to be an aberration for electoral gatekeeping in American history, Donald Trump attained the presidency in 2016. Trump lacked political experience, yet he earned a sort-of charismatic legitimacy with Republican and rural voters.
As Trump rose to the presidency through his own version of a personality cult, the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. has become as unpredictable as the countries’ political leaders. Well-known for using Twitter as a tool for issuing challenges to political leaders in other countries, Trump did not wait long after inauguration before shifting his attention to Kim Jong-Un’s regime. When they conducted another nuclear test in 2017, Trump took to social media and designated North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism. North Korea’s government did not back down. Instead, the regime claimed that they had nuclear weapons capable of reaching United States soil and the two leaders began to trade military threats. Tensions were high as ever and hostility between two impulsive figureheads left Americans contemplating the probability of nuclear conflict.
Since the verbal skirmish, the relationship between the United States and North Korea has experienced unexpected improvements. In March 2018, it was announced that Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-Un. 3 months later, they met in Singapore and signed a joint statement pledging to pursue lasting peace and complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In June 2019, Donald Trump even became the first American President to step foot inside North Korean territory. They have continued their discourse throughout the year, but there has been little information about nuclear disarmament.
The relationship between the two leaders has been viewed as positive in relation to Trump’s foreign policy resume; however, the level of intimacy between Trump and Kim Jong-Un’s dealings is certainly worrisome. In a CNN article published last week, one of Kim Jong-Un’s political advisors asserts that diplomatic proceedings are reliant on the leaders’ unique connection. The advisor says, “I sincerely hope that a motive force to overcome all the obstacles between the DPRK and the US and to advance the bilateral relations in the better direction will be provided on the basis of the close relationship” (Berlinger, Joshua, and Yoonjung Seo). Although Trump’s supporters are claiming that this bond may yield productive results for international security, the public must have reservations about the relationship’s stability.
Donald Trump may be the President, but he is likely on his way out – one way or another. He is currently facing impeachment trials, along with the impending 2020 Presidential Election. If North Korea’s position on NPT is dependent on Trump occupying the oval office, this could mean Kim Jong-Un is only willing to deal with a personalistic leader like himself. Donald Trump is an outlier of a President in American history and it is highly probable that the next President will more closely resemble the norm. Is Kim Jong-Un likely to withdraw from negotiations if Trump, or someone like him, is not in office?
Questions like these are threatening
to American security because of the North Korean ruler’s unpredictability. If
he is going to continue his pursuit of nuclear weapons once Trump is out of
office, the U.S. will be back to square one. In addition, if the North Korean
dictator has threatened to “push the button” before, it is not far-fetched to
imagine him reverting to that stance. Nuclear warfare would leave the U.S.
unable to support democratizing countries around the world, thus allowing for a
massive reverse wave in the history of democracy. Ultimately, the unstable
nature of this relationship has frightening implications because of the threat
it poses to the United States and international security.
Berlinger, Joshua, and Yoonjung Seo. “Kim Jong Un Calls His Relationship with Trump ‘Special’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Oct. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/10/24/asia/donald-trump-kim-jong-un-intl-hnk/index.html.
“North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: A Brief History.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/timeline/north-korean-nuclear-negotiations.
“Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – UNODA.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/.