Doomsday clock - Martin Scicluna

Ever since I commanded a nuclear artillery battery in Germany at the height of the Cold War, knowing only too well the fatal consequences for me and my men if, in the nuclear jargon, a “graduated nuclear response” to Warsaw Pact aggression were to happen, I have been fascinated by the Doomsday paranoia of the nuclear confrontation – on both sides of the East-West divide. The Korean peninsula is only its latest manifestation.

Despite the exciting mood music coming out of Washington and Pyongyang in North Korea, what is worrying today is that the so-called Doomsday clock is ticking closer to the apocalypse. The clock now stands at two minutes to midnight, as it was in 1953 shortly after the United States tested the hydrogen bomb. Humanity is as close to self-destruction as it was at the height of the Cold War.

Since the clock was created in 1947, set at seven minutes to midnight, to raise awareness of mankind’s capacity to destroy itself, it has been reset 23 times. At first it sought to assess the threat of nuclear annihilation, but now it also takes into account a broader range of catastrophes, including climate change and the risks posed by cyberwarfare.

The latest decision to move the Doomsday clock forward was prompted by the breakthrough made by North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, wavering public confidence in democracy, cyberattacks, climate change and President Trump’s rhetoric on nuclear weapons. We have a President in the White House who, on being briefed about US nuclear capabilities, reportedly demanded: “If we have these weapons, why aren’t we using them?”

But events have a habit of changing perceptions, sometimes overnight. A month ago, the world watched with amazement images of a beaming President Moon of South Korea standing beside the sister of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, applauding the triumphant entry of the joint team of athletes from the Korean peninsula.

Across the Korean divide, a touch of warmth and diplomatic courtesy appears to have produced a temporary reconciliation. Could the global festival in the snow have halted the seemingly inexorable drift to military confrontation and even nuclear war in northeast Asia?

Suddenly there appears to be the possibility of rapprochement. Despite Kim Jong-un’s paranoid isolation, he also has a keen sense of diplomatic theatre. The result at the Seoul Olympics has probably exceeded his expectations.

The North Korean dictator has supposedly undertaken to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests and offered talks with the aim of giving up nuclear weapons.

Trump has responded by welcoming the “great progress made” and agreed to meet Kim Jong-un by the end of May. His announcement of face-to-face talks is a calculated gamble, but offers the only feasible path to peace. Indeed, Kim Jong-un has already achieved the biggest diplomatic reward of all – a summit meeting with the US President.

But given Trump’s mercurial instincts and the proven deceit and bellicosity of the North Korean regime, a dose of scepticism is in order about what can be achieved in direct talks. Lacking any diplomatic experience, Trump is liable to overestimate his powers of persuasion.

Though there were plenty of soothing noises during the Winter Olympics, it is unlikely these precipitated the current change of heart

The facts of the stand-off on the Korean peninsula are unchanged. It is an aggressive regime subject to sanctions. Though there were plenty of soothing noises during the Winter Olympics, it is unlikely these precipitated the current change of heart. The fact is sanctions are hurting North Korea’s economy and Kim Jong-un wants relief. The apparent turnround in his nuclear stance is likely to be a calculation born of isolation and weakness.

The reported concessions by North Korea of a freeze on nuclear tests, a commitment to “denuclearisation” (still to be defined), and acceptance of US-South Korean military exercises have not been confirmed. Any first steps to a deal limiting North Korea’s nuclear programme should not be done at the price of US withdrawal from South Korea or lifting sanctions.

It would need stringent and intrusive verification measures to be credible.

Overridingly however, this may be the opportunity for a bold rethink of American policy in the region, based on an idea mooted by a former director for strategic planning at the US National Security Council, Philip Bobbit.

It entails China – whose role in the area, and in any talks, is indispensable – extending its nuclear deterrent shield to include neighbouring North Korea in the same way the US shields its allies in South Korea and Japan, in return for Kim Jong-un giving up his nuclear ambitions.

The incentive for China would be an agreement, jointly brokered with the US, to end the Korean War. A formal deal would reassure China and North Korea that toppling the Kim Jong-un dynasty is not on the US agenda and that borders will not change.

A conference to end the Korean War would create the diplomatic space to be politically inventive. Trump should take the risk. Kim Jong-un is in large part China’s Frankenstein monster and there is only one non-military way of bringing him under control. China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, should take the responsibility for helping Trump to rein in Kim Jong-un.

The West – most importantly the US – should welcome, as Trump has done, this possible new opening in relations with North Korea. President Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy in 1972, began a thaw in relations with Mao Zedong that irrevocably altered relations with China to this day. Détente in the 1970s began the gradual transformation of Europe and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are precedents.

In 1975 the Helsinki conference acknowledged Europe’s Cold War borders and made possible a period of east-west détente. America did not lose face by making an agreement with the Soviet Union then. There is no reason why a cautious deal with China on Korea should be any different now.

Détente, as history has shown, has a momentum of its own. It was détente that brought China in from the cold and eventually led to the end of Soviet communism in Europe.

Will Trump, the dealmaker, finally fulfil his bombastic promises by pressing for such a negotiated settlement on the Korean peninsula with China?

It seems worth a try.

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