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North Korea isn’t ‘begging for war’ – it’s fighting for survival

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After North Korea tested what it claims was a hydrogen bomb on Sunday – this one, alleged to be its sixth nuclear test – Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Monday charged that Pyongyang was “begging for war.”

She also called the U.N. Security Council to throw the “strongest possible” sanctions at North Korea. So, what, if anything, is North Korea begging for?

“Nikki Haley is very incorrect in saying that North Korea is ‘begging for war’ – they are responding in a provocative way, yes, but there’s a cold logic to what they are doing,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“They are pursing a nuclear missile capability to deter what they fear, which is U.S. aggression and the possibility of an attempt to decapitate the regime in North Korea,” he said.

Still, there is a concern in some quarters that Pyongyang is not just interested in self-preservation.

“I’ll cut to the chase. What North Korea wants is to expel the foreigners – meaning, the Americans – from the Korean Peninsula, and unify the country under their terms,” said Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society.

“But I don’t think the U.S. has a realistic option with any preemptive strike against North Korea – before, and even now,” said Byrne.

However, Byrne and Kimball agree on this point: The strategic intent behind North Korea’s provocations is, to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea.

“They’re hoping to weaken the alliance and to make Americans question whether it’s worthwhile … Is it worth risking a city in the U.S. for Seoul?” said Byrne.

The world has been dealing with a nuclear North Korea for over a decade now – their first nuclear test was in 2006 and they started separating Plutonium in 1993 before a Framework agreement that halted that progress for eight years, and resumed as North Korea starts to perceive increased threats.

“Americans have a great deal of difficulty trying to see the world from North Korea’s perspective,” said Charles Armstrong, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.

“What they see is a very hostile region, with South Korea, their archenemy, facing them, Japan, an old enemy, China, not exactly a trustworthy ally, and then the U.S., the world’s most powerful country, facing them with enormous firepower,” said Armstrong.

What North Korea wants is “to be acknowledged as a nuclear power, at least for the time being,” he said, adding that with the ability to strike back at the U.S., North Korea believes there will be a balance of powers.

This is not an acceptable position for the United States, which is not the worst thing, from the perspective of disarmament advocates such as Kimball, who said that accepting that North Korea has weapons should not be “an end state … The purpose is to reduce the risk of conflict.”

And it’s not just North Korea’s weapons that might pose a problem.

Given the frequency of North Korean missile tests and the fact that the hydrogen bomb tested this weekend is meant to be loaded into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its neighbors are entering the fray in an alarming manner.

Japan has been looking to ramp up its military capability, while South Korea on Tuesday said that reworking an agreement with the United States to lift the weight limit on its warheads from 500 kg to an unlimited amount would help it respond to threats from Pyongyang.

“The U.S. response has not helped and in fact, feeds into [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un’s game of demonstrating to his own people that the U.S. is dangerous,” said Armstrong.

“But the difference between North Korea and the Trump administration is that North Korea has been pretty consistent about its message, and the Trump administration has been all over the place,” said Armstrong. Whereas Trump has been threatening North Korea with military action, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been advocating diplomacy. This mixed messaging has the effect of ratcheting up the threat level and potentially creating an arms race in the region.

“Whether or not, God forbid, there’s actually an outbreak of hostility between U.S. and North Korea – which would be a catastrophe for the whole region – this is pushing forces in Japan towards increasing their armament and in South Korea there are increasingly voices of support for nuclear arms,” said Armstrong.

“One outcome of this could be a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia, which is not in anyone’s interest,” he said.

Before all of that, though, there’s talk of more sanctions. But sanctions have not been effective in dealing with Pyongyang. Haley referred to an earlier round in August as “a gut punch” intended to show North Korea that “the international community is tired of [the missile tests]”.

But that punch just didn’t seem to land, as North Korea continued its ICBM tests and just upped the ante this weekend to include its sixth nuclear test. And to drive the point home, on Tuesday, Han Tae Song, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N., made a not-so-veiled threat against the U.S.:

The recent self-defense measures by my country, DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], are a ‘gift package’ addressed to none other than the U.S. The U.S. will receive more ‘gift packages’ from my country as long as its relies on reckless provocations and futile attempts to put pressure on the DPRK

As North Korea promises more tests, Trump, said Kimball, “stupidly lashes out” at South Korea and China rather than rely on diplomatic tools to lessen tensions. “It doesn’t help to build support for additional sanctions if Trump is ruling out diplomacy and threatening fire and fury,” said Kimball.

China, which purchases at least a third of North Korea’s exports, has been reluctant to enforce sanctions that would destabilize an already agitated Pyongyang. Plus, as experts have told ThinkProgress, China has no interest in regime change in North Korea.

Russia is equally unenthusiastic about the course of action the Trump administration is pursuing against North Korea. While condemning North Korea’s exercises, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the sanctions are “useless” while “ramping up military hysteria will lead to nothing good.”

But, said Byrne, “sanctions are necessary,” even if they rely heavily on cooperation from China and South Korea. Getting other countries on board with sanctions relies on diplomacy and consistent messaging and “a full suite of diplomatic tools,” which, said Kimball, is what this administration has lacked thus far.

“This bothers me more than anything. Trump and Haley are saying, ‘We’ve been talking to the North Koreans for 20 years and nothing’s worked.’ Well, that’s just baloney,” said Kimball.

“We haven’t been talking to them for 25 years, continuously, which is the implication, and when we have spoken to them, that’s when things have worked,” he said. “When we’ve engaged, when we’ve had the right mix of pressure and engagement, it can work.”

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