The current tensions concerning North Korea are connected to history, unnecessary, and dangerous. President Trump is playing two games simultaneously. One he understands, one he likely does not.
The former is the game of domestic politics. With record-low approval ratings sitting somewhere around 35 percent, a daily shellacking in the press, increasing tensions with his own party, and a formal investigation that could mean his presidency, Trump knows that war, even the rhetoric of war, is a winner. And the president could use some winning. The population, the press, and the political establishment all share a deep, abiding respect for military power and the use of that power. That one is easy.
The latter game is one of foreign policy. Here he is out of his depth, playing with fire, and could possibly move matters into a conflagration. According to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and someone familiar with North Korea and its capabilities, "The greatest North Korean threat we face is not from a nuclear-tipped missile hitting the US mainland, but from Washington stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula."
Looking at recent history, the fire Trump is playing with was started by the George W. Bush administration, and kept alive by Obama.
During the 1990s, the Clinton administration, which was also hawkish on North Korea, eventually engaged in substantive diplomacy with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea’s official appellation. The dialogue, owing much to the efforts of former President Jimmy Carter, produced results. As summarized by historian Bruce Cumings, a leading scholar on Korea, "President Bill Clinton got it [the DPRK] to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994-2002).... Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear 'hostile intent' toward the other."
However, the agreements were not to last. "The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze." "The simple fact," says Cumings, "is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton's agreements had been sustained."
When, in 2002, George W. Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" formulation in the context of the "war on terror," it is little wonder Pyongyang's interest in joining the "nuclear club" became steadfast. Barack Obama would simply maintain the posture of his predecessor in the form of bomber flights near the North Korean border, cyberwarfare, and the so-called "pivot" to power projection in Asia, to name a few specifics.
The US-DPRK tensions have therefore been induced. If Washington wished, it could with relative ease engage Pyongyang diplomatically, build on the Clinton agreements, and work toward full normalization of peninsular North-South relations and Washington-Pyongyang relations.
The current situation is not a case of the world's policeman being burdened and threatened by a rogue, lunatic dictator. For one: while certainly vicious, power hungry, and creepy, Kim is a rational actor; his broader priorities are economic development and self-preservation—of his country and himself. For another: the United States is not an innocent bystander and has been heavily involved in Korean affairs since 1945. Three points worth taking into consideration:
1. CREATION: At the end of World War II, Washington (with Moscow's agreement) unnecessarily divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel into north and south "spheres of influence." This is something that should never have happened. It also sowed the seeds of future war.
2. DESTRUCTION: Initially a peninsular conflict, Washington played a direct role in the Korean War (1950-53), conducting saturation and incendiary bombing in the north, killing refugees, and contributing to a death toll of approximately 2-3 million Koreans, the majority being civilian. (The numbers for the Korean War, with regard to Korean and American deaths, are eerily close to those of the Vietnam War.)
3. PROVOCATION: Ever since the Korean War, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in and around South Korea. This includes Washington keeping nuclear weapons in South Korea over the course of the Cold War, as well as conducting with South Korea military exercises that continue to present day.
In the meantime, people are following the situation between the White House and North Korea with understandable concern. However, there is as of yet little cause for panic. Though dangerous, the tough talk between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is, so far, just that. At present, there is no physical movement, such as mass mobilization, toward armed conflict. North Korea knows a fight would be devastating, and those who steer US foreign policy know that a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be catastrophic, with global implications.
Moreover, the United States and North Korea are in diplomatic contact. Referred to as the "New York channel," the US envoy for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, and a senior North Korean diplomat at the UN, Pak Song-il, have been conducting back-channel meetings since February. Beyond the topic of Americans being held in North Korea, the substance of the meetings is unknown. Even if there is a modicum of discussion of the present tensions, there is value and sanity in both sides, at the very least, engaging in "talk about talks," as it has been put.
North Korea is a country that borders on being dystopian. It is not a place I would want to live. And one can effortlessly point at Kim, who is just as much a cult leader as anything else, and cast judgment. But Americans would be remiss to not include the part their country has played. Simply put, we shouldn't be shaking our heads, lamenting the state of the world; we should be pointing at the White House for its contributions to the state of the world. Its present contributions.
Because, should their be misread signals in the current crisis and a trigger gets pulled, the state of the world would get remarkably worse.