Ever since Pyongyang this summer tested a missile capable of striking the US mainland, Washington has been forced to rapidly rethink its approach to the East Asian nation. A more recent test of what appears to be a thermonuclear device, several times more powerful than the ones America dropped on Japan 73 years ago, has intensified the panic.
Donald Trump has responded with bluster and noise. He has threatened to bring “fire and fury” upon North Korea, he has criticised South Korea for what he considers appeasement and, without mentioning China by name, he has threatened sanctions against nations that trade with North Korea.
Alongside this, other senior figures within the Trump administration, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have continued to play up the path of diplomacy and talks. At times, whether intentionally or not, their comments have appeared to contradict those of the President.
“We’re going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign, as I have described it, working with allies, working with China as well to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table,” Tillerson said, following the most recent rocket launch.
It has been reported that when Trump was preparing to enter the White House after his surprise election victory, Barack Obama, then with just a few weeks left of his presidency, warned the man set to succeed him that North Korea, its young leader and its aggressive nuclear weapons programme would be among the most pressing challenges he would face.
In recent weeks, as North Korea has continued to surprise US experts with the pace of its testing and the sophistication of its weapons, Obama’s forewarning has appeared only more prescient. How can this nation of 25 million, a dictatorship whose people have endured famines and human rights abuses, be challenging a superpower?
The West frequently falls back on cliches when talking about the East Asian country. We hear North Korea is a “rogue nation”, that its leader Kim Jong-un is “crazed” or, in the words of senator John McCain, is a “crazy fat kid”.
But while North Korea’s leadership and its 33-year-old head of state remain mercurial, some experts see a consistency to Pyongyang’s actions in recent months - a steady and measured declaration of its nuclear status that has sparked global jitters, but has almost certainly strengthened its own position and that of its leader.
Jon Wolfsthal, an expert at the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that anyone who proclaimed they knew North Korea’s desires was “lying or guessing”.
Yet he added: “All the information we have suggests that North Korea is rational. They seek regime survival, and nuclear weapons are a means to that end. Beyond that it's uncertain.
“They may be seeking nuclear weapons to further undermine the US position in the region and disable South Korea. On the other hand they may hide behind their nuclear shield and engage an economic development and other domestic activities.”
Alison Evans, deputy head of the Asia-Pacific Desk, Country Risk, at IHS Markit, said this was North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and it appeared to be preparing a seventh.
‘“Bellicose rhetoric from President Trump and high-level officials, intended to deter North Korea, probably reinforce the North Korean leadership’s belief that such a capability is essential to deterring the perceived US threat.”
North Korea has previously engaged in diplomacy. Six-party talks involving Pyongyang, Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and Seoul were launched by George W Bush in 2003. They achieved mixed results and were most recently suspended in 2013 after Kim Jong Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il.
As the talks towards disarmament continued, North Korea also watched what happened to those leaders who handed over their nuclear weapons (Muammar Gaddafi) or suspended their programmes years ago (Saddam Hussein).
If North Korea’s actions appear predictable - however condemnable - Washington’s response has seemed shifting and uncertain. Trump’s approach appears to have created divisions among America’s regional allies, such as South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, his suggestion of sanctions against China opens the prospect of a trade war with a country the US currently does $578bn worth of business with.
“Unfortunately, US policy under President Trump has been uncoordinated and poorly communicated,” said Wolfsthal.
“Given his unpredictability I think it would be very dangerous for President Trump to directly engage Kim Jong-un. Right now, the most important thing is direct military-to-military engagement to avoid miscalculation and conflict.”
While people such as Mattis insist the US has “many military options”, nobody thinks any of them are any good. Most immediately, the lives of millions of civilians in Seoul would be at risk from a retaliatory strike if the US were to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea.
“We always have military options, but they’re very ugly,” Mark Hertling, a retired US Army general, told CNN. In short, the US has no genuine alternative but to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.
Shortly before he was fired, Steve Bannon, until recently a special adviser to Trump, was asked by a reporter from Prospect magazine about the US’s military options for North Korea.
“Forget it,” he said.
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
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