“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” tweeted President-elect Donald Trump. Trump’s tweet is probably a response to the statement made by Kim Jong-un during his New Year’s speech that North Korea has entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has announced that opposition to the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system deployment in South Korea will be one of China’s core foreign policies this year. Such events foreshadow how this year’s state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula will play out in the midst of the U.S.-China conflict, with a focus on the North Korean nuclear program and THAAD.
Trump's tweets draw attention because they display his active commitment to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, also reflected by the fact that Trump’s first briefing was a classified intelligence briefing on North Korean nuclear development. However, Trump has yet to offer concrete plans to deal with the issue. It’s unclear as of now whether he merely doubts North Korea’s nuclear capability or whether he means to prevent the country’s nuclear development. This lack of clarity is understandable because the new administration hasn’t entered office and the policy on North Korea hasn’t been established. Nevertheless, it is clear that such uncertain movements may contribute to further insecurity within the Korean Peninsula.
By mentioning THAAD, Wang Yi has stated his intentions to further pressure South Korea this year. It’s worrisome to consider what retaliatory measure China will come up with next, following the sanctions on the Korean Wave and on non-charter flights.* It appears that South Korea can’t escape from being forced to choose between the U.S. and China.
The international atmosphere surrounding the Korean Peninsula is graver than ever. With the rise of Trump and his pushing of the “America first” policy, the conflict between the U.S. and China is likely to intensify. Trump has already messed with one of China’s core policies, the "One-China" policy, by talking with the Taiwanese president on the phone at the end of last year. The North Korean nuclear issue will also become more complicated. Despite the fact that right now is the time to come up with a pre-emptive measure to seek an escape route, South Korean diplomacy is at a low point. One failed strategy after another has narrowed the room for independent diplomacy, on top of the gap caused by a lack of domestic political leadership. This is why the National Assembly needs to gather and prepare a joint alternative to overcome diplomatic difficulties.
*Editor’s note: The Korean Wave refers to the phenomenon of Korean entertainment and popular culture rolling over the world with pop music, TV, drama and film.