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Fecteau: U.S.’s Trump Card on North Korea

Sunday, April 23, 2017


The U.S. military recently dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb, dubbed in the “mother of all bombs,” in Afghanistan to undermine ISIS influence in the area, killing almost 100 militants. In addition to the strike in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump has also ordered strikes on a Syrian airfield after the Assad-led government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. Standalone these actions seem like responses to individual threats, but these actions are also part of a methodical, calculated plan aimed at another adversary, North Korea. 

When Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea recently, he announced, “the era of strategic patience is over” for North Korea. Mr. Pence also explicitly referenced the recent strikes when he said, "… the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan." He went on to say, “North Korea would do well not to test [President Donald Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region." To drive this point home, the Trump administration announced it would reposition a naval strike group just off the coast of the Korean Peninsula as a demonstration of force (note: this turned out to be false). 

This strategy is considerably more aggressive than President Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy. The Obama administration specifically adopted “strategic patience” (exactly what Mr. Pence noted was over) with regard to North Korea. The Obama administration believed that North Korea’s actions would only further undermine its legitimacy, and isolate it on the world stage to the point it would abandon its nuclear program, and commit to productive dialogue. Working with the international community, the Obama administration had some success but never deterred North Korea enough to persuade it to cease the development of its nuclear program or intercontinental ballistic missile technology. 

Many foreign policy experts believe there are reasons for North Korea’s seemingly crazy actions. Despite the laughably overwrought propaganda, the country is a rational actor, acting in its self-interest. Its government simply seeks political survival despite all the saber-rattling and talk of war. North Korea’s economy is among the weakest in the world, and the provocations are a way to blackmail other nations to keep its corrupt government afloat – if we aren’t paid, we launch more missiles. 

Mr. Trump’s latest actions are meant to nudge China to rein in North Korea’s belligerency. China has serious economic leverage in North Korea and is its largest trading partner. China has the more leverage in the deal; North Korea would face a grave economic crisis and, potentially, the collapse of the entire government without China’s continuous support. 

Nevertheless, China has good reason to continue to support North Korea. Some international experts speculate China keeps North Korea on life-support to avoid instability in the region such as the massive humanitarian crisis that would occur if the North Korean government collapsed completely. Others believe that a democratically unified Korea would expand U.S. influence in the region, undermining China’s influence in the process. 

However, China’s support for North Korea has limits. Both the Chinese and American economies are mutually interdependent. Any talk of war between North Korea and the United States only hurts financial ties between the United States and China. Nothing hurts a bottom-line more than a country launching a nuke at your largest trading partner — the United States. 

While Mr. Trump’s foreign policy strategy may have some flaws, the United States needs to take a stand with North Korea. It cannot remain idle while North Korea threatens nuclear war. Trump is gambling that when it comes to a choice between the United States or North Korea, China will choose the United States and finally rein in North Korea. The stakes are high for this strategy, but it is either that or let North Korea threaten our existence continuously into the future – and that’s simply not an option.  

Matt Fecteau ([email protected]) of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was a Democratic candidate for office in 2014 and 2016. He is a former White House national security intern and Iraq War veteran. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewFecteau


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