Such is the concern about the mad, cruel, despotic regime of Kim Jong-Un of North Korea that an internet falsehood recently spread that sounded just crazy enough to be true.
According to the apocryphal tale, the untested Kim – chafing under the patronising tutelage of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek – decided he had had enough. Jang was dramatically arrested by the young dictator, stripped naked and fed to a pack of starving dogs.
While this Bond villain ending proved to be untrue (Jang was more prosaically merely executed by firing squad), the simple fact that the hoax was so believable highlights the problem of the West in dealing with North Korea over its nuclear programme. Deterrence only works if the other side is rational. In the case of Kim’s leadership, this is a highly dubious proposition.
As America’s most underrated modern President Dwight D Eisenhower put it, nuclear deterrence is only effective if the other side doesn’t want to die. Ike gauged that Stalin, for all the rivers of blood he caused to flow, was rational to this extent. As such, a peaceful nuclear stalemate was possible. For all the modern world’s many twists and turns, until the advent of the North Korean nuclear programme, Eisenhower’s test has precariously held: no state with nuclear weapons has been open to committing suicide.
However, given the fundamental irrationality of the hereditary communist despotism there, relying on this in the future amounts to more of a hope than a certainty. Indeed, both the outgoing Obama foreign policy team as well as Israeli intelligence have alerted the Trump White House to the rising danger from Pyongyang, stressing that it is the most immediate peril facing the world.
For North Korea’s nuclear programme has not been standing still. In 2016, it conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests, in an effort to expand its nuclear missile reach. In his past New Year’s speech, Kim boldly announced that North Korea is in the final stages of developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which could theoretically reach the American mainland for the first time. Further, many regional experts expect North Korea is preparing yet another nuclear test for the near future, perfecting its ballistic missile programme.
Were this to prove so (Kim’s regime notoriously tends to overstate its capabilities), it would do nothing less than change the basic global strategic equation, constituting a primary threat to the United States. North Korea, equal parts malevolent and incompetent, is playing with fire in thinking that this further exercise in brinksmanship will not elicit the strongest response from the US, as this jarring strategic shift may be something Washington is simply not prepared to live with.
In the end, America and the West have only two basic policy alternatives to halt these very alarming developments: negotiate or take military action to stop the programme, very likely risking a renewal of the Korean War and catastrophically destabilising the volatile Asia-Pacific region, even risking armed confrontation with China.
The obvious, logical, least bad policy alternative would seem to be to talk to the North Koreans. And that is what all recent American administrations have done, achieving absolutely nothing, as the outgoing Obama administration has glumly admitted.
The only real outside driver who can leverage North Korea to halt its grandiose nuclear ambitions is China, whose vibrant economy just about keeps its economic basket case ally going. However, so far Beijing has preferred to tacitly support its difficult friend, rather than joining the rest of the world in standing up to Pyongyang and risking its implosion on the Chinese border. And if negotiations did not work during the time of the Obama administration, they are far less likely to do so now, as the new Trump White House is far more antagonistic towards China than its predecessor.
All this makes for the most perilous of potential crises, and is a wholly underrated political risk roiling the world. North Korea is dangerously aiming to alter the global strategic nuclear balance. Negotiations to curb its ambitions have failed over many years, and are even less likely to work now that the US and China are at daggers drawn. But if negotiations show no chance of success, don’t expect the US to meekly accept the alarming development of an effective, accurate North Korean ICBM which can hit the mainland US.
War, and all the peril it could bring, is very much a possibility. It is past time the world woke up to the growing political risk over North Korea.