"WELL, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into." Ollie Hardy’s resigned catchphrase to the luckless Stan Laurel must have crossed President Trump’s mind when he took over from his predecessor. Obama’s eight years of inaction and spineless sanctions have allowed the problem of the tiny communist dictatorship in North Korea to grow from a cloud on the horizon into a full-blown hurricane.
North Korea is now a serious problem. On July 28 Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could theoretically hit Los Angeles. Suddenly a nasty little regional problem threatens an all-out nuclear war. President Trump’s response alarmed many. He used aggressive language, causing commentators to condemn what they called his over-reaction to a tiny tin-pot dictator. They were wrong, on both counts. First, Trump’s critics failed to realise that the American president was merely repeating the words of President Harry Truman’s stark warning to Japan on August 8, 1945, before the release of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. Second, Kim Wrong-Un is no harmless dictator. On the contrary, he is determined to build a nuclear missile capability and use it to keep the hated “Yanqees” at bay. The threat is very real.
It seems bizarre that a tiny bankrupt country like North Korea can cause so much trouble. Americans spend twice as much money every year [start itals] on their pets [end itals] as Pyonyang spends on its missiles, and the North Korean economy is only one-fiftieth as big as their prosperous capitalist neighbour, South Korea. Yet Kim’s petty dictatorship has grabbed the attention of the whole world with its nuclear brinkmanship.
How we got into this mess in the first place is the question that baffles many onlookers. The answer goes back to North Korea’s invasion of their southern neighbour in 1950 and the subsequent war. The 1953 agreement at Panmunjon was only an armistice, “a temporary cessation of hostilities”. Legally, North and South Korea are still at war. The problem is compounded by the fact that both China and the US, who fought on opposing sides in the Korean War, have a stake in the clash. And a worried Japan has become an uneasy regional spectator to the outcome.
The reason is that North and South Korea are proxies for the two great powers' ambitions in the region. Neither the US nor China wants a united Korea. America does not want South Korea to be invaded and overrun by the warrior state to the north; and China is happy to support an ally that provides a buffer zone which keeps the well-armed Americans away from the People’s Republic's southern border.
The result is that for decades the North Korean regime has been able to blackmail South Korea in order to acquire desperately needed money and resources. Whenever Pyongyang wanted money or supplies like basic foodstuffs and medicines for their bankrupt Socialist paradise, they just made blood-curdling threats of re-starting the war or launching another test missile until a panicked South Korea bought them off with the local version of Danegeld. China was happy to let NK frighten SK and embarrass the Americans; Washington guaranteed to back Seoul militarily if Pyongyang did anything silly.
Nuclear weapons changed all that. In 2004, Dr A Q Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, appeared on television and confessed to having supplied nuclear technology and components to Libya, Iran and North Korea. This raising of the stakes in what had up to then been a regional dispute had widespread repercussions. The key question then was: could North Korea be cajoled or bribed into giving up its nuclear ambitions? In 1994 president Clinton had tried to secure a deal whereby Kim Jong Il (the current despot’s father) agreed to stop producing the raw material for nuclear bombs in return for a huge injection of aid. Old Kim trousered the loot and technical help, and promptly reneged on the agreement.
In 2005 another deal failed, and then a timid Obama hid under the bedclothes, hoping that it would all go away. But it didn’t and for the same reason: Kim's underlying motive all along has been survival, nothing more. Like his father, Kim sees nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee the continuance of his regime against American intervention. Kim is unlikely to give up what he calls his “treasured sword of justice” because he sees it as his personal insurance against ending up just another dead dictator in a ditch, like Muammar Gaddafi.
It is no secret that Washington has plans for a “decapitation operation” to assassinate Kim and his family. He believes, correctly, that the US will go to almost any lengths to get rid of him. His strategy is therefore to deter any such attempt by threatening unimaginable consequences – and up to now it has worked.
However, the situation now seems to be escalating out of control. Although President Trump’s counterblast to Kim was intended as an unambiguous warning not to play with fire, it has had another effect. The North Korean dictator actually welcomes these verbal hostilities. Shouting matches and blood-thirsty rhetoric with the White House help to reinforce Kim’s point to the faithful that they really are under siege by the Americans.
Washington is now worried, and rightly so. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s soothing, “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula . . . we are not your enemy, we are not your threat — but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us and we have to respond” and his call for talks with Kim “at some point”, he repeated America’s long-standing precondition: that North Korea disavow nuclear weapons.
The solution to what is rapidly becoming a dangerous diplomatic mess is therefore becoming more difficult by the day. Experts and intelligence analysts are now warning that Kim may soon be able to put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM. They also warn that Pyongyang is now seeking H-Bomb technology and building a nuclear submarine that may be able to launch sub-surface missiles, like Trident.
Even China is becoming worried now about their wayward neighbour’s behaviour. Both Beijing and Moscow supported the latest round of UN sanctions. China has already refused to import iron, coal and seafood from North Korea, which will cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year. In its turn America is openly considering military action, ranging from a blockade, through cyber-war, to a surgical strike aimed at knocking out NK’s electricity grid, rendering the North’s nuclear programme without power. Kim’s response is ever more threats. A nervous Japan is seriously considering rearming.
But the truth is that no-one in the region, not even North Korea, wants another war. Unfortunately for peace, Kim Wrong Un is going to push matters as far as he can until he gets what he wants: Washington’s acceptance that North Korea is now a nuclear power and can defend itself against the big, bad US. Any American military solution to his threats therefore risks everything: and the problem remains that diplomatic pressures have had no effect whatsoever.
So with military action dangerous and uncertain, and diplomacy ineffective, the only remaining option is to deter Kim. His real game is to demonstrate that any attack on North Korea will immediately be matched by a strike at America or one of its allies, but in reality, Kim is running scared. He enjoys the life of a dissolute deity, living in a palace with the power of life and death over his luckless subjects. If he really were to unleash a nuclear weapon he would lose his life, let alone his luxuries. Logically, that means Kim can be deterred – provided he thinks rationally.
But if he is unbalanced . . . ?
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