August 13, 2017

Word: Handling North Korea

Pragmatic recognition of this incontrovertible, albeit regrettable, fact – that North Korea, like the US, is a nuclear power with offensive as well as defensive capabilities – is now the only sensible place from which to start rebuilding an internationally agreed strategy for lasting peace in the Korean peninsula. It is no use Trump and his Fox News chums threatening Armageddon. Peace cannot be attained by military means. Nor is there any point in the US trying to go it alone in terms of sanctions, isolation of the regime and other non-military methods. It simply does not have the power and influence any more.

One of the hard lessons of the 21st-century world, which Trump has not begun to grasp but many other Americans are beginning to, is that the US can no longer expect to have things all its own way. China is the key player in the North Korean dispute. Ignore Beijing at your peril. If Trump were to do so, the various unfortunate outcomes could include an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea (there was more evidence of that last week), heightened friction with Japan and South Korea and damaging global trade and financial market strains.

The telephone conversation on Friday between Xi Jinping, China’s president, and Trump was significant in this context. Xi called for restraint and emphasized the diplomatic path. If Trump truly wants Beijing’s help in pressurising North Korea, as he says, then he has no rational choice but to heed Xi’s advice. Perhaps he or, more likely, calmer heads in the state department, already have. Unconfirmed reports from New York suggest a back-channel diplomatic route to Pyongyang has been reactivated. If so, this is long overdue. But any renewed talks will get nowhere unless the US drops its unrealistic precondition that North Korea unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal. As China says, denuclearisation of the entire peninsula must be the ultimate aim. That means both North Korean and US nukes.

The US would also be wise to consider other relevant factors. One is North Korea’s powerful folk memory of American war-making during the (still technically unfinished) 1950-53 Korean War, when more than a million civilians died. Why, they might ask, has Washington never signed a peace treaty? Why does the US still maintain large military bases in South Korea and elsewhere in their region? It is perhaps unsurprising that regime propaganda falls on fertile ground. Given their history, many North Koreans may fear American-led military “liberation” more than repression at the hands of their government.

Another under-discussed factor is global nuclear disarmament. In short, this is something the US expects other countries to do but not itself. Like Britain, Russia, France and China, the US has never honoured its legally binding commitment under the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty to work towards the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. Instead, it has enhanced and expanded it. Leaders who did renounce nuclear weapons, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, or who failed to obtain them, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, paid the price. It is unrealistic to demand North Korea do something the world’s great powers, plus non-signatory nuclear states such as India, Pakistan and Israel, refuse to do themselves.

Trump should heed Xi’s advice and that of Germany’s Angela Merkel, speaking for Europe, by calling a halt to the name-calling and foolish threats and offering a goodwill token – by cancelling this month’s unnecessarily provocative military exercises. If Trump does not, the grown-ups in Washington must call him to heel. For the sake of all the Korean peoples and the wider world, it is time to end the talk of war and relaunch a process of diplomatic negotiation under UN auspices.

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