Trump and the Rocket Man’s ‘North Korea First’ policy

Donald Trump made clear during his first address to the UN that he will put ‘America First’ in any escalation of tensions with North Korea - but is it any surprise Kim Jong-un is putting ‘North Korea First’ in response?

In his first speech at the United Nations in New York, US President Donald Trump began with his now familiar ‘America First’ rhetoric but escalated to a commitment to “totally destroy North Korea” if the US and its allies were forced to defend themselves.

Mr Trump didn’t name Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, but instead called him a “Rocket Man” on a suicide mission. Both North Korea and the US are sovereign UN members states, having one vote each at the General Assembly. But if Donald Trump says ‘America First’, then Kim Jong-un is more likely to say ‘North Korea First’.

President Donald Trump speaks to world leaders in his first address at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly. Picture: Getty Images

Over last few weeks, North Korea has fired several short-range and intercontinental missiles, two of those over Japan. The latest test on 15 September came just three days after the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed its toughest economic sanctions against the regime yet, in an attempt to starve North Korea of fuel and income for its weapons programmes, restrict oil imports and ban textile exports

The original sanctions proposed by the US were significantly watered down in order to get the support of China and Russia – two of North Korea’s remaining allies. The revised final Resolution 2375 includes a ceiling on the export of refined oil to North Korea, blacklisting only one official, a freeze on work permits for Korean overseas workers and no textile exports from North Korea.

These penalties will have limited impact on the North Korean regime but will have a tangible effect on ordinary people’s lives there. Sanctions also won’t stop the North’s ambition to be a nuclear power. In fact, in a strongly worded statement Pyongyang responded saying the sanctions are “the most vicious, unethical and inhumane act of hostility” and the added pressure “will only increase our pace towards the ultimate completion of the state nuclear force.”

The significance of UNSC Resolution 2375 is nothing to do with the US-proposed sanctions, but more the fact that China and Russia only joined the sanctions after America’s original list of sanctions had been reduced to almost nothing that directly affected the “Rocket Man”.

In the earlier draft, the United States took aim at North Korea’s leadership with a freeze on leader Kim’s assets as well as those of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea and the government of North Korea. It also stated that Kim Jong-un and his sister would be blacklisted – subjecting them to a global travel ban – a move symbolic at best and designed to insult. Kim Jong-un and his sister no longer travel abroad, and a travel ban is not going to change the mind of the belligerent “Rocket Man”, but only create further fear, despair and anger among North Korean elites.

Donald Trump says the US will continue “maximising pressure on North Korea”, squeezing the country’s economy until the regime gives up its nuclear ambitions. In the draft proposal, Washington originally sought a secondary boycott banning Chinese banks and companies from dealing with North Korea. But this tougher posturing against North Korea, economically and militarily, also targets China and Russia and has the effect of escalating tensions and instability in Northeast Asia.

So in response to this, what is Kim Jong-un’s ‘North Korea First’ policy? To keep his country safe and secure politically, militarily and economically.

The Korean War in 1950-1953 didn’t end with a peace treaty but with the 1953 Armistice, signed by North Korea, China and the US-led UN Command. It was only ever intended as a temporary measure. South Korea didn’t sign the armistice as it wanted to keep fighting to completely unify the nation. Ever since, the two Koreas have technically still been at war. It hasn’t been all-out conflict but rather continuing, numerous skirmishes between the two; the 1976 axe murder incident in the Demilitarised Zone, the North Korean infiltration through underground tunnels, the raid attempt on the South Korean presidential house, kidnappings, naval clashes, island shelling, border shootings and ongoing psychological warfare.

The US says it will continue “maximising pressure on North Korea” until the regime give up their nuclear ambitions. Picture: Getty Images

Pyongyang has in the past requested that the truce is replaced with a permanent peace treaty with the US and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the US and Japan. But instead, North Korea has remained isolated for more than a half a century.

North Korea sees the US as a very real military threat to its national security. South Korea and the US conduct annual joint military exercises that includes a war game to destroy North Korea. Who is more threatening to who is probably a meaningless question because if any conflict is resumed, there will be destruction on both sides.

Pyongyang’s rhetoric is belligerent and crude. Behind their strong posturing, there is deep fear among North Korean elites that the US can and could destroy them. Kim Jong-un is relatively young, just 33-years-old, but has strived to emulate his late grandfather Kim Il-sung who fought against Japan, the US and South Korea.

Historically, the young Kim knows that his country was wiped out by US air-bombing during the Korean war and that it could happen again. So for him, acquiring nuclear weapons can be seen as a deterrent against US aggression.

But Kim Jong-un also wants economic security for North Korea. Kim’s official policy, known as Byongjin Roson, focuses on the pursuit of military and economic policies simultaneously. He wants to strike economic deals by using the country’s military strength as a tool, especially with the US and Japan.

But the international community is ignoring this implicit need.

This military-economy package is not new and has come close to success in the past. Back in 1994, the US promised energy security by building light-water reactors in exchange for North Korea dismantling its nuclear programs. These negotiations continued through the Six-Party talks, but failed dramatically with the first and second nuclear tests by North Korea.

In 2017, no-one is offering any carrots to North Korea for it to give up or freeze its nuclear weapon development. At least, not publicly. But there are discussions taking place.

Up until earlier this year, the US and North Korea were talking. The two countries were involved in a round of informal talks known as the Track 1.5 dialogues, meeting up in Switzerland and Norway. The public doesn’t know what was proposed and discussed in these meetings, and is unlikely to find out.

The tough new sanctions imposed by the UN are more likely to affect the general North Korean population. Picture: Wikimedia

Recently, Japanese MP Antonio Inoki travelled to Pyongyang to meet Foreign Ministry officials there in an effort to ensure North Korean missiles were not targeting Japan. There are no such known talks between the two Koreas yet, in spite of the pro-engagement stance of South Korea’s new President Moon Jae In.

So while President Trump continues to take the hard line on North Korea, it comes at the expense of diplomacy and de-escalating any potential conflict.

President Trump’s “Rocket Man” is not on a suicide mission, but rather focusing on a ‘North Korea First’ policy, just as Mr Trump pushes his ‘America First’ agenda.

But neither man’s policies are working. Instead both are contributing to escalating tensions, distrust, hatred and miscalculation around the Korean peninsula - which could have disastrous consequences for the people living there.

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