Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
North Korea marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-sung on Saturday with a massive military parade, in which it showcased its latest and most advanced military weapons.
Days before, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group headed toward the Korean Peninsula. The USS Ronald Reagan, which was deployed in the US military base in Japan's Yokosuka, is due to arrive in Busan, South Korea later this month.
In addition to the overnight missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, it is apparent that the White House is warning Pyongyang that it is not afraid of taking military actions. In response, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song claimed that his country would not shy away from a war.
Most observers say that the Korean Peninsula is approaching the most volatile point, but the possibility of a war remains slim. There are signs that US President Donald Trump would resort to a tougher Pyongyang policy than his predecessor, so Washington may have fully prepared for military actions and have absolute advantages.
However, it will not act rashly because it can neither foresee to what extent China and Russia will intervene once a war erupts, nor predict its consequences. After all, China and Russia are not outsiders, and the Korean Peninsula is not Syria. The US has to take the security of South Korea, one of its most important allies, into paramount consideration.
On the other hand, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not make a stupid mistake to provide an excuse for the White House to wage a war. For the US, maintaining high pressure on the North and rallying massive military forces to the West Pacific have far more profound effects.
Trump will not forget the promise he made during the presidential campaign. Though he vigorously believes American foreign policy comes from its military might, to "make America great again" can in no way rely entirely on military prowess. In the near future, the Trump administration will attach more importance to the economy, employment and immigration than to diplomacy.
Regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump had, at first, attempted to hold onto the creed adopted by his predecessors, that is, only "stick," no "carrot." But after a two-month review, he made a slight adjustment to the US' North Korea policy. The new administration has made it clear that instead of seeking a regime change, it will put "maximum pressure" upon Pyongyang and calls for engagement with the North Korea regime, if and when it changes its behavior. Compared with former US president Barack Obama's strategic patience, Trump's new policy of "maximum pressure" helps retain the US' strategic initiative.
To the surprise of many, given the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, why has there been a relaxation in Washington's aggression?
There are two reasons. For one, the international environment, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the attitudes and positions of Beijing and Moscow on Pyongyang's nuclear issue have limited the Trump administration's policy options. For the other, the US national interests and domestic politics, especially American citizens' political appeal, have determined that Trump must give top priority to domestic affairs.
However, Trump has just fine tuned the US' North Korea policy, which is not a shift. It demonstrates the pragmatic and flexible side of the new government. If the US truly implements the new policy, the global community will see the world's most powerful country spending more time and energy in dealing with domestic affairs. The future circumstances surrounding Pyongyang will likely enter a new phase.
Nonetheless, it is far from enough to create a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. China has put forward a dual-track approach to promote the denuclearization process and establish a peace regime, as well as a method called "suspension for suspension," by which it means when the North suspends all its nuclear and missile activities, the US and South Korea should cease their military drill. It is expected that Washington will not merely drop the "stick" but also pick up the "carrot."
The author is director of the Department of International Political Science, College of Political Science and Public Management, Yanbian University. email@example.com