Could Donald Trump Attack North Korea Before the 2020 Election?
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Much of the research on US-North Korea relations focuses on the unpredictability of North Korea. This year, however, the U.S. government's moves toward North Korea will be more difficult to anticipate. The effects of the US presidential election after the global corona crisis make predictions impossible. Will the United States Use Military Power Against North Korea Before the US Presidential Election? That's the million dollar question.
Look at post-Cold War data on U.S. military participation and presidential (and congressional) elections and find that elections do not affect the likelihood that the U.S. will use military force. There is no statistical link between the distance to elections and U.S. military operations. The U.S. war in Afghanistan started less than a year after George W. Bush became president. The war in Iraq started less than a year before his re-election. Military operations in Kosovo, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Mali began the election cycle without correspondence.
However, Donald Trump's presidency can be different. Unlike other presidents, Trump was encouraged to fight. His military operation against President Assad of Syria was considered almost constitutive of his credibility as President. In addition, Trump is desperate. His position was very strong before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic: US presidents don't lose re-elections if unemployment is below 8 percent. But after the corona virus shook America, even employment statistics turned against Trump.
But the Korean peninsula is also exceptional. Trump wants to show the Americans that he can solve a problem that his predecessors have tried and have not solved since the Korean War. The progress made at the beginning of the Korean peace process in 2018 has turned the political tide. Before the South Korean Olympics, Trump was mainly accused of being friends with dictators, Wladiir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un. After the well-planned television spectacle with the Korean leaders and Trump and Kim, the friendliness with a dictator was popular - but only if it solved problems.
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The problem with reconciliation in North Korea, however, is that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. It would be unwise to expect that. This is leading the US-North Korea relationship to a dead end. If North Koreans were convinced that they were safe if they gave up nuclear weapons, they could do it. But why should you think that? The US deterrent focuses on convincing that it will punish evildoers, but it does not persuade compliant nations. North Korea can be certain that it will be punished if it attacks the United States or its allies. But can it feel safe if it isn't? Iran gave way under international pressure in 2015, and what happened? Saddam Hussein gave in under international pressure, gave up his plans for weapons of mass destruction, and what happened? Libya gave up its nuclear weapons plans and what happened to Muammar el-Qaddafi? Without a drastic change in the political environment, it will be difficult to expect nuclear disarmament in North Korea. The United States cannot create a credible reputation for persuading North Korea to be kind if it gives in on this issue. North Korea could feel safe without the ability to strike back only if North and South Korea could unite. Then an aggression against the north would also become an aggression against the US ally South Korea. None of this will happen soon. Will Trump then use military power against North Korea as part of his campaign? Well, it's up to him.
Timo Kivimäki visits the University of Bath.
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