Bill Frilay.

North Korea. Pyongyang, Stephan. flickr cc.

I use that heading, because I do not know the answer, and wish world leaders did. All I know is that the likelihood of using nuclear weapons is greater than at any time since the 1962 Cuban crisis.

We have Kim Jong Un, belligerent, young, but not to be underestimated. Seemingly prepared to throw the dice. With an isolationist stance and apparent siege mentality, his approach is that the nuclear option is the only way to go. And he has maintained this stance over the past few years to the point at which he is seemingly within reach of the capacity to send nuclear bombs on ICBM missiles as far as the USA.

We have President Trump, goading Kim Jong Un, seemingly a dangerous game. Pity poor Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, trying to arrange talks, with Trump publicly telling him he is wasting his time. Tillerson is not wasting his time. Thus far, Trump does not seem to have a strategy, although his criticism is valid that previous administrations and the UN did little to prevent this crisis effectively.

We have South Korea, with Seoul within easy reach of North Korea’s formidable conventional firepower, surely meaning huge loss of life if war were to break out. Japan is similarly at risk.

And we have China, long-time backer of North Korea, dependent on China for oil, coal, and no doubt other commodities. China has been seen by the US as able to apply real leverage to North Korea, but it has not yet done so, apart from some mild export embargoes.

For the past few weeks, it has not been page-one material. Other issues have come to the fore. But the reported recent accident may delay matters in North Korea. The October test apparently caused tunnels to collapse, seeing perhaps 200 killed. However, that’s probably all it would be, a delay, but perhaps giving some opportunity to cobble together a strategy.

Some options

  1. Talk. As the competent Defence Secretary Mattis and Security Advisor H R McMaster have said, war is the last resort. It seems that the US has been talking with the North Koreans at the UN. However, what does the US and rest of the world have to bargain with? Is it likely North Korea will walk away from its nuclear ambitions? No. Is it possible to convince the North Koreans they will not be attacked?
  2. China can help with 1. Perhaps Russia, too.
  3. Overthrow the regime. Hugely problematic, and almost certain to trigger war. No real chance of that. Hitler was prepared to bring down huge suffering on his own country, and Kim Jong Un might be the same. Besides, what would follow? Look at Iraq after the fall of Saddam.
  4. Internal overthrow of the regime. Could possibly happen, but wishful thinking at the moment. Kim Jong Un is ruthless – the murders of his half brother and uncle have shown that.
  5. Preemptive strike. Forget it. For moral reasons and huge downside risks.

All that leaves is one option. In concert with China, talk talk and talk with the North Koreans. As Churchill once said: “Jaw-jaw is better that war-war”. Presumably, Trump’s meetings with President Xi had this strategy front and centre. But the talks need to be backed by strength. For example, North Korea will pay a severe cost if it continues its current path. The only real weapon here is withdrawal of trade and other support by China. Whether China is prepared to do this, and whether Trump can persuade it to do so, remain to be seen.

One other important angle is that, in reading some of the material, what comes through is how little each of the protagonists – the US and North Korea – know about each other. Developing understanding of each other and downplaying the rhetoric would be a good start. China could perhaps play a mediation or facilitator role here. If North Korea could be convinced there are no plans to attack it, the current situation might at least be defused.


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