President Trump needs to explore a diplomatic resolution with North Korea

It is true that the clock is ticking towards the moment when North Korea manages somehow to make a bomb than can cross the Pacific Ocean

Tuesday 04 July 2017 18:17 BST
North Korea announced that it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental missile
North Korea announced that it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental missile (Reuters)

No stranger to exaggeration, North Korea’s claim that its latest missile test demonstrated that its armaments could reach the continental United States should be taken with the usual dosage of scepticism. This one, after all, made it no further than the Sea of Japan, and South Korean and American experts suggest that it is merely an intermediate range weapon, and not an especially accurate one at that.

None of that, however, contradicts the prediction vouchsafed by President Obama to the then-President-elect Trump a few months ago that the North Koreans will probably have some sort of weapon, and possibly with a nuclear warhead that could hit the American west coast inside the next few years. It is that that is concentrating minds in the region and around the world.

This test is merely the latest in a series of missiles and warheads lobbed almost at random by Kim Jong-un, the only logic and consistency behind their uneven record of success being his determination to ensure that America and allies South Korea, Japan and Australia know that he has the means and the unpredictability to strike them at will possibly regardless of the consequences.

Key to understanding the policy is the fact that Mr Kim sees the best guarantee of his dynasty remaining in power is the possession of weapons of mass destruction and the apparent willingness to use them. He has watched the demise of other despots, such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who either exaggerated or gave up their own arsenal of weapons, only be toppled by the Americans, and drawn his own conclusions.

That is why pressure from China, North Korea’s only friend in the world, has not proved particularly effective over many years. Even Donald Trump now accepts that there are limits to what Beijing can do to pressure its turbulent and paranoid neighbour. Presently the economic sanctions are so tough that the Chinese are refusing, at least officially, to buy the only valuable export North Korea has to offer, coal.

President Trump, like everyone else, should also sympathise with the Chinese fear of a failed state on the southern border, with our without a war, leading to a mass exodus of starving refugees. It would be a humanitarian disaster and economic shock that the world does not need.

The dilemma of North Korea is no nearer resolution. It may be that some measured and proportionate military intervention by the US to knock out certain facilities could work, as President Trump found to his satisfaction in his air strike on Syria. It might, however, be wise to first follow the guidance of the new South Korean administration and resume diplomatic initiatives. It is true that these have failed in the past and that the “sunshine policy” that sought to coax North Korea into a more conventional and civilised pattern of behaviour achieved very little that was sustainable. It is also true that the clock is ticking towards the moment when North Korea manages somehow to make a bomb than can cross the Pacific Ocean.

Yet while the world still has time to think and talk, and the effects of the latest round of sanctions may not yet have fully worked through, engagement with Pyongyang may be the least worst option. If it meant, in due course, an admittedly bizarre visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by President Trump and his family, and them doing so from an undoubted position of US military superiority, then that historic event should be welcomed.

We are a long way from that, but some radical, even wacky, thinking is needed to frame an imaginative solution to the problem of Kim Jong-un. President Trump is quite good at thinking such thoughts.

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