After the NHS cyber attack from North Korea, Donald Trump is our only hope of taming the rogue state

It is getting more urgent as every nuclear missile launch becomes more sophisticated, accurate and longer-ranging

Sean O'Grady
Friday 16 June 2017 17:40 BST
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un inspects the medium-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un inspects the medium-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test (Reuters)

The treatment the North Koreans evidently meted out to Otto Warmbler, an American student who fell foul of the authorities, was appalling and utterly disproportionate to whatever minor offence he committed. It is, though, perfectly normal in a nation that routinely imprisons its enemies in the most barbaric and inhuman places.

The stories that are told by the few dissidents fortunate enough to escape tell of virtual death camps run by the state where starvation, beatings, rape and maiming are considered normal prison practice. This is a country that endured starvation so bad in the 1990s that some in the countryside turned to cannibalism. Some say the camps are reminiscent of institutions run by the Japanese in the war or Stalin’s gulags.

Many thousands of Korean prisoners have been though what Warmbuer has been though, being abused so badly that it caused brain damage. Maybe the guards did so with added violence because they have been taught that the Americans are sub-humans. They may have murdered an American citizen, and done so with maximum cruelty. The reaction of the American people is rightly distressed; the difficulty is how their president can exact some sort of justice without igniting a regional conflagration.

It is getting more urgent as every missile launch becomes more sophisticated, accurate and longer-ranging. Meanwhile, the North Koreans are also becoming world-leaders at cyber warfare. We know that they have endangered the health of many people in this country too. For we now know it was from inside North Korea that the NHS was brought to its knees using WannaCry ransomware.

The world's last Stalinist state needs the money from such ransom attacks to fund – in the correct order – Kim Jong-un's lavish lifestyle, to pay off anyone who might dethrone him (such as his vast army), to finance is nukes and missiles programme and the welfare of his devoted people. North Korea's leader will do anything to get the cash, as did his dad and granddad. This, as we now see, appears to include sponsoring a bunch of formidable hackers to develop malware to bring in some much needed forex.

It should not be a shock. The North Korean rogue regime has long been known to have got up to any manner of illegal activities to fund itself, from uncannily authentic-looking $100 bills (“fake Benjamins”, after the portrait of Ben Franklin they bear), arms trafficking and the manufacture and smuggling of narcotics. Plus people trafficking and the kidnap of hapless Japanese citizens. You name it, they’ve done it.

Sometimes, as with the attack on Sony Pictures after the release of the hilarious comedy movie The Interview, it is out of pique at being mocked; mostly it is just a question of money or gathering intelligence. The great irony is that nobody in North Korea apart from a few in the elite is able to access the internet or even make a telephone connection abroad, while the country's leaders can terrorise the world with their digital expertise (the WannaCry attack had a flaw that limited its damage; we may not be so lucky next time).

The Kim dynasty has had a long and disgraceful record in abusing its status as sovereign state and the “diplomatic bag” to indulge in crime. It highlights how desperate the regime is. The Chinese, it is no secret, are the state's main supporter and have long been running out of patience. China claims that it cannot control Kim, and it is right.

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North Korea produces many things that the world does not want: Vinylon, for example – a coarse flammable synthetic fabric made out of processed coal, responsible for the permanently-pressed look on the Kim’s outfits – some low grade manufactured goods, some rice. The only thing that it knocks out in quantities to keep things going is coal – and the Chinese buy most of that.

Now China is applying sanctions to North Korean coal, and purchasing far less of it. The danger is – a risk that is well appreciated in Beijing – that they push things too far, and heaven knows what the Kims will do in retaliation, from a nuclear attack through to unleashing another cyber hack that could prove the most effective in history. More likely, there might be an economic collapse that would create unstable regime change and floods of refugees cloning across the border. Armed conflict, of some sort, wouldn’t be far behind.

The Russians also view any North Korean breach with China as an opportunity for them, though the Kremlin is wise enough to realise what they are getting into. Seemingly just for the sheer hell of it, the North Koreans have also now detained a Russian yacht supposedly in their waters, and not for the first time. (The roots of their uneasy relations with Russia date back decades. North Korea’s historic devotion to Stalinism guaranteed friction with the old Soviet Union after the Russians denounced Stalin’s reign in the 1950s. In the great ideological and now forgotten Sino-Soviet ideological split on the issue the Kims were firmly on the side of the Chinese. Now Stalinism has in any case been replaced by worship of the Kims and their home-grown philosophy of socialist self-reliance, “Juche”. The massive portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin that used to be commonplace have long-since disappeared.)

At least the Chinese have some idea of what to do, tricky as it is. Here in Britain we have to rely on the Americans to attempt to restrain Kim. This incident also demonstrates, were it further necessary, that Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is quite useless even against a rogue state that actually has nuclear weapons.

If British citizens are harmed by the actions of the DPRK should we react? Yes, in principle. Can we practically deploy Trident against targets in North Korea? Without US permission? Of course not. (And nor could America when, in a historic humiliation, the North Koreans managed to capture a US Navy vessel in 1968 – the USS Pueblo, now proudly displayed as war booty at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang.)

All that leaves us with one man who could do something about Kim: Donald Trump. The problem is that every previous policy, from the “sunshine” approach during the Clinton years pursed with the enthusiastic support of the South Koreans, through to the toughest of UN sanctions, has failed to have much effect.

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Kim has seen the example of despots around the world, such as Saddam, Assad and Gaddafi, who have either given up their weapons of mass destruction or just been found to be bluffing, and faced lethal changes both to their rule and to the lives of themselves and their families. He knows that the only thing keeps him on his throne is his nukes. The West (that is, Trump) has to persuade him that he will be able to stay there and prosper at the expense of his people without those nuclear missiles, and, indeed, without threatening hospitals in Britain. Even the most dedicated appeaser or deal maker would find that a difficult challenge.

Donald Trump may yet do it. I have written before about the value of an audacious, even reckless, visit to Pyongyang by President Trump to make some sort of breakthrough, whether by bribing, bullying, cajoling or even charming America's most unpredictable of enemies. That may not be for now, given the rawness of the emotions after Kim’s latest crime against humanity.

A world where President Trump is our only hope against the ruthless Kim is not a comfortable place.

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