Inside Story America

US vs North Korea: A potential crisis?

As Kim Jong-un threatens to attack both Seoul and the US, we ask how Washington should react to the current escalation.

When Kim Jong-il was succeeded by his son in December 2011 any hopes of an improvement in relations between North Korea and the US were soon dashed.

“The one issue that we have insisted on from the North Koreans is denuclearisation. We are not prepared to accept North Korea into the club of nuclear nations. Now the North Koreans have made that pretty clear … that they expect to be accepted into that club plus they want to get all the other benefits …. The trouble with the North Koreans is that you put something on the table because they say it’s important to them and then finally when they get it, they don’t seem to be interested in it anymore.”

– Christopher Hill, the dean of the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies

The announcement of plans to reopen the Yongbyon nuclear complex is just the latest move in an escalation of aggressive actions by both Washington and Pyonyang over recent months.

At the weekend, North Korea announced it was entering a ‘state of war’ with the South. Earlier in the month Pyonyang affirmed it is right to launch a ‘pre-emptive nuclear strike’ on the US.

The US for its part has conducted several joint military exercises with South Korea, mimicking the bombing of North Korean targets and the removal of its leadership. The US military has conducted practice sorties of nuclear capable stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula.

On Monday, the US deployed a warship with the capability to shoot down missiles into the region. However, the White House has played down the possibility of any imminent attack from the North stressing no evidence of ‘large-scale military mobilisation’ had been seen.

On Tuesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered to facilitate peace talks to resolve the crisis. High-level discussions have not been held since Pyonyang exited the so-called six party talks process in 2008.

President Obama has said that he intends to pursue patient diplomacy with Pyongyang. But the policy pattern between the US and North Korea has differed little from previous administrations leading some to wonder if it is time for a change.

Our [the US] worry is it’s not just the leader that’s behaving differently but institutions that surround the leader are behaving differently … there used to be a predictable unpredictability in how North Korea behaved. Now we are entering a phase of unpredictable actions … we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this site, that’s not a trivial action.

– Steve Clemons, the Washington editor at large for The Atlantic

In 2005, the US imposed sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank where Pyongyang has many accounts, and North Korea sought bilateral talks to resolve the issue. But the US refused to engage, and the North staged several missile tests in 2006.

The US responded with a tougher resolution at the UN Security Council, and Kim Jong-il ordered the country’s first nuclear test.

Following a missile launch by the North, the US tightened UN sanctions, and North Korea responded with its second nuclear test. And there was a third nuclear test in February.

So how seriously should the Obama administration view the current escalation? And how should the US react this time?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Christopher Hill, the dean of the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, a former US assistant secretary of state and ambassador to South Korea, who has also served as lead US negotiator at the six party talks with North Korea; Han Shik Park, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, has extensive experience negotiating between the US, North and South Korea; and Steve Clemons, the Washington editor at large for The Atlantic.

“This time it’s a little different, I think it’s quite serious in the sense that Kim Jong-un actually cornered himself. He doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of wiggling room in domestic politics, in authority structure. So once he established this corner, he has to do something before backing down. I think backing down is a very difficult [option] for the domestic situation so this is a quite unique, we have never seen this before … in fact he made it very clear they cannot accept this same kind of limbo – not war not peace.”

Han Shik Park, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia