North Korea: what now?

When I wrote my ‘2017: The year ahead’ article at the beginning of January I said Donald Trump’s handling of the North Korean threat would be a major issue and  asked: “How will he deal with North Korea when it announces that its nuclear missiles are capable of reaching US territory?” I had also said: “Let me make one prediction which I know will be 100 per cent accurate: the whole world, not just America, will miss Barack Obama in 2017”.

I think my prediction about Oba­ma has been proved correct. If there’s one thing we need now it is the wisdom, caution and careful diplomatic approach of Obama in dealing with the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Trump represents the opposite of what Oba­ma stood for. His handling of the North Korean threat is not only perilous but extremely irresponsible.

Trump is clearly out of his depth when it comes to major fo­reign (and domestic) poli­cy issues. Last Tuesday he said that threats (not military strikes) from Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”, thus raising the tensions in an already very volatile situation.

North Korea then responded by threatening a missile strike next to the US territory of Guam, an extremely dangerous escalation. In response, Trump tweeted: “My first order as President was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” This is a complete invention, of course, and nothing has changed in Ameri­ca’s nuclear arsenal. In any case it would take more than seven months to “renovate and modernise” America’s 6,800 nuclear warheads. Trump later said his “fire and fury” warning maybe “wasn’t tough enough” and on Friday he warned that military solutions are “locked and loaded” should North Korea “act unwisely”.

Donald Trump is clearly out of his depth when it comes to major foreign policy issues

Such rhetoric serves no useful purpose and puts Trump in a corner where he may be forced to act because he has given himself no other options. But the President should be very careful about how he speaks. Shortly before he took office, Mr Trump said there was no way North Korea would deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the mainland US. “It’s not going to happen,” he tweeted. It did happen, as Pyong­yang tested two ICBMs last month, making Trump look like an idiot.

We now know that North Korea  not only has short- and medium-range missiles capable of hitting Japan and South Korea, but also long-range missiles that can hit Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and even the US mainland. And The Washington Post last week reported that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturised nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles and estimates that it has 30 to 60 such warheads.

The situation has now reached a new level of danger, which means the first thing that needs to be done is to move away from confrontation and unnecessary rhetoric. In other words, Trump should stop tweeting his nonsense, take a step back and initiate a major diplomatic initiative aimed at calming the situation.

America’s allies have all stressed that there is only a diplomatic solution to this problem. There is no way the North Korean military can be destroyed before it has a chance to retaliate, which  means Japan and South Korea would be attacked and would suffer very heavy casualties in the event of a US attack. Will the US military be able to knock down all the North Korean missiles (including nuclear ones) heading for US territory or states?

The truth is the world is going to have to live with a nuclear armed North Korea, at least for now.

Accepting that North Korea is nuclear armed does not mean approving it. UN economic sanctions should continue, to make it clear to other countries that producing nuclear weapons is unacceptable and has consequences.

The international community should emphasise that it supports Korean reunification and the importance of human rights, not regime change in Pyongyang, and a dialogue should be entered into between the US and North Korea, with other international players such as China and Russia playing a major role. Concessions will have to be made by all sides.

At the same time the US must make it clear that it remains 100 per cent committed to its alliance with both South Korea and Japan.

One thing is clear: Trump’s war-like rhetoric must end because it risks a very dangerous escalation which could spiral out of control.

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