I can’t remember a period in my lifetime when the world looked a scarier place than now. Warnings are coming thick and fast. China believes war in Korea could break out at any moment. Even the Russians are scared by the developments and it’s not as if they don’t have their own issues to deal with. North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it’s rather comically known is publicly announcing that it will not hesitate to go to war if the US provokes them into a confrontation, even hinting it was ready for a pre-emptive strike. So, is a nuclear confrontation on the cards? Certainly that is the worst case scenario, but remember we are dealing with the most unpredictable nation on the planet. What is certain is that the end game would bring with it no winners.
We have left this rogue, shut off state to its own devices for far too long, in the vain hope it will in turn leave us alone. Diplomatic efforts have been continuous but have had little impact. I was the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for North Korea and repeatedly had to formally summon the DPRK Ambassador to the Foreign Office for yet another formal dressing down after the latest provocation and violation of an UN Resolution.
Hoping that North Korea will behave can no longer masquerade as a policy. Recent events during which they have tried to launch another missile are part of a pattern. It is worth remembering that their aim is to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach targets around the world. Whilst Pyongyang claim to have miniaturised their nuclear warheads most experts doubt it and the failure of the recent firing would seem to support that cynicism. But sufficient progress to that end is clearly being made and is concerning the US. America has repeatedly stated that it will never allow the DPRK to become a nuclear state, particularly one that can fire nuclear warheads at the US mainland. Hence the US reaction, including the despatch of the US Navy strike group Carl Vinson and the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea. Joint military operations with South Korea are now underway; Japan is thinking of advising its citizens to leave the country and even the dollar has plummeted downwards at the thought of war.
If you believe that the first duty of any leader of any nation is to protect its citizens, then President Trump certainly has a motive to act. Trump, or more likely his top military brass, has understandably lost patience with this rogue regime that lies repeatedly whilst continuing its nuclear programme. But Trump is wise in one respect; he knows that if anyone holds the key to this intractable mess it is China.
China, with her long border with North Korea does not enjoy the same influence with Kim Jong-un as it did with his father Kim Jong-il but it can tighten the grip on Pyongyang in a way that it so far been reluctant to do, despite surprisingly backing sanctions at the UN Security Council in 2013. And Trump knows that China is desperate for a good trade deal with the US. Offers of a grand bargain – a bilateral trade deal in return for intensified measures to halt North Korea’s rush to nuclear Armageddon – could just work.
China, for its part, has watched the Tomahawk attack on Syria and the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” – and what a terrible label that is – on Islamic State hideouts in Afghanistan and now knows that Trump, unlike Obama, means business. And the last thing China wants is a possible nuclear conflict on its borders.
China’s natural inclination is not to interfere in other nation’s business but that is no longer an option. It now has to decide which is the lesser of all the evils. A nuclear war on its borders with the resulting US military infrastructure; a re-united and possibly pro- Western Korean peninsula or a rogue and uncontrollable nuclear armed neighbour. And the one thing terrifying the leadership in Beijing is the millions of North Korean refugees who could flee over the border into China. Unsurprisingly, opinion is sharply divided in Beijing as to which is the least bad option.
But what is certain is that the time for calling in North Korean Ambassadors for a dressing down has passed; sanctions have not worked and simply hoping after each failed missile test that the problem will go away is no longer an option. Obama put the DPRK nightmare in the ‘too difficult box’. Trump has been forced to take it out again.