The North Korea problem

North Korea
North Korea has been a dormant conundrum for years, and recent sabre rattling from Kim Jong Un, matched by Donald Trump, could ignite it.

There have been two key recent developments with regards to North Korea: First, we have learnt that their advances in missile technology are moving quicker than expected; and second, their belligerent rhetoric is now being returned by the American president.

North Korea has long been testing missiles capable of hitting it’s neighbours in the region, but made a breakthrough recently with the successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which would be capable of hitting the United States.

In the wake of that news, we were reassured that the regime was still some way away from being able to make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a missile. Now the Washington Post reports that they have that capability.

For many years, North Korea’s stated ambition of becoming a nuclear power has been offset by the knowledge that they don’t have nuclear weapons yet. Their recent progress in this regard is now a massive threat to regional and global stability.

Many American presidents have been unable to deal with North Korea, and the prevailing strategy has been to kick the can down the road. Now the same problem presents itself to Donald Trump just as it seems to be nearing a tipping point.

And how did the US commander in chief respond to these latest developments? By threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and the full might of the American army. This has not calmed the situation.

Trump’s comments were reportedly not a calculated response after consultation with his generals, but more a spur-of-the-moment retort to the latest developments. Nevertheless, his vague warnings were answered with an unusually specific threat from North Korea.

In a statement from the country’s state-run news agency, North Korea laid out how it is “seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam,” the American island territory in the Pacific.

In their statement, North Korea explained how they would use four intermediate-range ballistic missiles that would fly “approximately 2,085 miles” over South Korea and Japan before hitting Guam. It would take about 20 minutes.

So does this mean that the United States is going to war with North Korea? Hopefully not. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured Americans that they “should sleep well at night”, and was actually in Guam as recently as Wednesday on his way back from Malaysia after a tour of the region. Meanwhile, recent sanctions against the country help maintain hope of a diplomatic solution.

Of course, in any actual conflict the United States would outgun the Hermit Kingdom. Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that the North Korean military would “be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

But it wouldn’t be as simple as that. The South Korean capital of Seoul is a mere 70km or so from the North Korean border, putting its population of 10 million well within range of the North’s conventional and chemical weapons. Any move by America could be devastating for the people of Seoul.

And that is why President Trump’s threats are hollow. He says he won’t allow North Korea to wield nukes, but would have Seoul’s blood on his hands if he uses military force to try stop them. But surely he has to do something about a seemingly mad regime’s increasingly significant steps towards becoming a nuclear power?

It has often been noted that there are no good options for North Korea. Recent UN sanctions, which included the support of China (who are seen as a key ally in any attempts to pressure the North) are viewed as a positive step, even though they seem like an insufficient response to a potentially apocalyptic threat.

The only other option, it seems, is to negotiate with the supreme leader. Kim presumably does not want to see the Korean peninsula to go up in flames. Like any dictator, he will value survival of his regime above all else. Nuclear weapons are supposed to help him achieve that.

Kim is like a bank robber threatening to kill the hostages: Actually doing so will remove all his bargaining power, but he needs to maintain a credible threat if he wants to get out alive. In this metaphor, Trump is the negotiator, trying to defuse the situation with minimal casualties. Trump sells himself as the master dealmaker. Whether that has any truth to it or not, the people of Korea might need him to make his biggest deal yet.