On Tuesday, Dornsife Dialogues hosted a panel discussion on the potential of a nuclear war with North Korea. Led by USC Dornsife Dean Amber Miller, the panel included David Petraeus, a retired U.S. Army four-star general, and David Kang, a professor of international relations and the director of the USC Korean Studies Institute. At the event, the panelists discussed the political and economic issues between North Korea and the rest of the world.
With intensifying political tension with North Korea from the Trump administration, the possibility of a nuclear war hangs in the minds of American citizens. According to a Pew Research study, 65 percent of Americans are concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Both Petraeus and Kang focused on the perceptions and their opinions on North Korea leader Kim Jong-un and how his leadership affects international politics, specifically the relationship between North Korea and the United States.
“I actually think [the Asia] trip is really important,” Kang said. “President [Donald] Trump, particularly on the Japan and Korea side where he was talking about North Korea, he hit all the right notes. In general, the message I hear from President Trump, even though it’s a little more flamboyant than perhaps others, remains a deterring message.”
Kang explained how Trump’s recent visit to South Korea and Japan was a crucial step toward the relationship and future interactions between East Asia and the United States.
Both Kang and Petraeus also assessed the security dilemma between the two countries and how the United States is trying to get a stronger stance against North Korea.
“To put this into context in United States terms, I think you need to be fair with the current administration and acknowledge that it faces a different prospect from any of its predecessors and other administrations,” Petraeus said. “I think it’s understandable that there should be such a focus on this [nuclear attack] issue with the U.S. National Security Team.”
Because North Korea has the ability and resources to strike the United States, Petraeus believes that China must play a more prominent role in communications between the countries, because the current message discipline is lacking. Petraeus also emphasized that the sooner China realizes these strategic gratifications, the better this situation will be for all parties.
Kang observed that the United States is more worried about a nuclear attack from North Korea than the rise of the Chinese economy, and he found it interesting how the United States fears a smaller country more than a great power.
“I think it’s interesting that we’ve been worried about the rise of China, but the rise of China hasn’t caused a lot of military response in the region,” Kang said. “But the smallest country, North Korea, is getting South Korea to rethink their military commitment. I think it’s very interesting that it’s not the biggest country that’s causing the instability, it’s the smallest country and I think that’s something we need to think about and starting understanding.”
Kang explained how North Korea has consistently made deterring statements in past years, such as “If you strike us first, we will strike you back.” However, one of the reasons a fear of attack in the United States is growing is because most of the media only reports on the second portion of the statement, to create a “sea of fire” image to the audience, he said.
Petraeus and Kang ended the forum by conversing about how the decisions China makes in regards to joining sides with the United States or North Korea will severely impact the future of international politics. Trump has threatened multiple times to stop U.S. trade with China.
“If the trade sanctions are actually enforced by China, it would be a big deal,” Petraeus said. “China could literally turn the lights out in Pyongyang if it wants to. It will not, probably because it wants to try to calibrate this to bring Kim Jong-un to his senses instead of his knees. They don’t want North Korea to collapse.”