North Korea and the nuclear question

The alarming game of nuclear brinkmanship in prospect between America and North Korea

Asia

In early 2017 President Donald Trump stated via Twitter that it simply “won’t happen”. But in 2018 it will. North Korea will demonstrate that it has developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching mainland America.

The rogue state will do this by test-firing an ICBM that lands somewhere out in the empty Pacific, but with a range that makes it able to hit San Francisco or Los Angeles. And it will also seek a way to show that its boffins have made a nuclear device small enough to place on a missile warhead. By far the most provocative way would be to conduct a thermonuclear test in the atmosphere over the same hapless ocean.

The upshot will be a year of nuclear brinkmanship. No longer will America be able to pretend that with the right sanctions and diplomatic pressures, North Korea can be persuaded to abandon its nuclear and missile programmes. Instead, as rhetoric and military posturing mount, the world will stare into the abyss. 

The North Korean nuclear crisis of 2018 will be likened to a rolling version of the Cuban missile crisis, the last time the world contemplated Armageddon. Only this time will seem more dangerous. After all, it was not Fidel Castro, itching for a fight, who had his finger on the nuclear button in 1962, but Nikita Khrushchev, appalled that the Soviet Union was being dragged into nuclear conflict with America and keen to find ways to climb down. In 2018, by contrast, Kim Jong Un, the North’s callow dictator, will call all the shots on his side. Neither Russia nor China, North Korea’s supposed friends, hold sway there now. Indeed, China’s relations with its impossible little neighbour will come close to breaking-point.

It is far from reassuring that Mr Kim’s American counterpart is if anything more thin-skinned. The biggest danger is that either leader, in a war of words, boxes himself into a corner and feels compelled to lash out. Similarly, with tensions high, one side’s wholly defensive military preparations might appear to the other as a prelude to war. It is through miscues and missteps that any descent into combat might take place. And Mr Trump’s blustery tweets aimed at “Little Rocket Man” will only appear to be egging conflict on. Even Mr Trump’s generals, hitherto a restraining force, may argue for strikes on North Korean facilities now that American cities are directly threatened.

Cooler heads must, first, attempt to convince Mr Trump that no such thing as a surgical strike on North Korea exists. Its nuclear facilities and missiles are well concealed—often underground—or on the move. The same goes for its troglodyte leader, making “decapitation” of Mr Kim hard. And hostilities would quickly expand as North Korea struck back, even if without nuclear weapons. The Korean peninsula is densely populated. Thriving Seoul, capital of South Korea, is within range of the North’s artillery. The North has big stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons too. A conflict on the peninsula would be unimaginably bloody. The widespread assumption that the 21st century belongs to economically dynamic Asia will be the least of the victims.

Bad, maybe, but not mad

Next, those around Mr Trump must help him to understand his antagonist’s mindset. For all that Mr Kim, a third-generation dictator, comes across as a wild-eyed fanatic, everything suggests he wishes to die peaceably in old age, as his father and grandfather did. Like them, Mr Kim sought a nuclear capability not in order to bring destruction on himself but as a deterrent against American aggression. He saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when they gave up their respective quests for nukes, and will not be reassured if Mr Trump tears up the nuclear deal with Iran. But Mr Kim surely knows that to use his missiles will invite his destruction. They are at their most potent when left sheathed. The despotic Mr Kim may be bad, but he is hardly mad.

Given that, the appropriate American response should not be military bluster but old-fashioned cold-war deterrence and containment: shoring up missile systems, preventing proliferation and enforcing a stringent sanctions regime. Once the risk is acknowledged of misreading the other side’s intentions in a potentially disastrous game of chicken, then common-sense actions ought to include reopening diplomatic relations and establishing hotlines. America must prepare to wait the North out, until the tinpot state crumbles under its own contradictions. If it worked with the Soviet Union, it can work with North Korea.

In the meantime, though, the stakes are too high for something bolder not to be attempted. That means exploring a diplomatic agreement, involving China and South Korea as well as North Korea and America, designed to stop the region lurching down the path to war. Such an agreement, which some call a kind of Potsdam for north-east Asia, should seek to defuse tensions by offering cast-iron guarantees of North Korea’s security in return for Mr Kim giving up his intercontinental nukes. And it should seek a formal end to the unfinished Korean war of 1950-53, in return for a peace treaty and a resumption of full diplomatic and economic relations between North Korea and its neighbours.

As it happens, before his boss undermined him, the American secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, signalled a willingness to pull back from the brink by assuring the Kim regime that America has no intention of bringing about its collapse, or sending forces across the 38th parallel dividing North from South. And bearing in mind Mr Trump’s absence of dogma, his mercurial disposition and his taste for the deal, then American openness to a grand bargain is not entirely inconceivable, even if it seems unlikely. In fact, on a hopeful day, the odds of such a bargain in 2018 still—just—look slightly better than those of a nuclear winter.

VIDEO>> What will be the top ten stand-out moments in 2018?
The World in 2018 brings you tomorrow's water-cooler moments, today

Credit: Getty
You are reading a small selection of content from The World in 2018.
To read all the articles in this year’s edition download The Economist app.
Download 'The World In 2018 iOS app'
Download 'The World In 2018 Android app'