Most responsible rational state actors would shudder when warned by the mighty United States to quit its nuclear weapons programme and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing or risk being attacked. However, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is neither responsible nor rational.
If squeezed into a corner fearing an attack may be imminent, the possibility exists that this infantile ruthless egomaniac could order a preemptive strike against South Korea or Japan. Those US allies are particularly vulnerable to North Korea’s conventional prowess, not to mention its nuclear capabilities.
In recent days, the outspoken US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nicki Haley, reiterated that a military solution remains on the table. “The US is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” she said.
US President Donald Trump followed up by saying he was considering some “very severe things”. US Vice-President Mike Pence avowed America’s “strategic patience” was over. Trump has publicly eschewed Obama-style red lines, but he and his top officials walk very close to that line. To date, no North Korean leader has succumbed to threats, but the country’s stance has been softened in the past as a result of negotiations.
There was one missed opportunity that stands out. A pact was agreed in 1994 between the administration of former US president Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, based on the country’s commitment to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and accept monitoring by the nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency, in return for two light-water reactors and an end to economic sanctions. A Republican-led Congress during the tenure of George H.W. Bush blocked sanctions removal, the promised light-water reactors failed to manifest and the agreement fell apart. Moreover, the North Korean regime has managed to survive in spite of crippling sanctions imposed on the country since 2006. The fact is that sanctions rarely work; countries usually find ways around them.
More often than not, sanctions impact civilian populations as opposed to the head honchos. Ten years of sanctions imposed upon Saddam Hussain’s Iraq were said to be responsible for the death of half-a-million Iraqi children. Anti-Russian sanctions have not dissuaded Russia from cuddling the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria or led to Moscow’s deannexation of Crimea. On the contrary, they boosted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity and bolstered his resolve to increase Russia’s strategic clout.
People tend to rally around their leaders when they feel they are being aggressed by other countries. North Korea’s perceived victimhood is its pretext for building up its nuclear and conventional arsenals, which its leadership reveres as an insurance policy against foreign invasion.
The signs are that China is just as frustrated with its errant neighbour as the rest of the world, but although Beijing is Pyongyang’s most significant ally and largest trading partner, its influence is limited.
America’s strategic influence
China could institute a partial blockade, but fears a massive cross-border influx of starving refugees as well as the expansion of America’s strategic influence in its neck of the woods. Trump’s earlier outsourcing of the problem to his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping was based on misplaced optimism. Judging by Trump’s tweets, the budding relationship between two of the world’s most powerful men is hanging by a thread.
“Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 per cent in the first quarter. So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try,” Trump had tweeted earlier this month.
Those heady days of chocolate-cake diplomacy at Mar-a-Lago appear distant. America’s $1.4 billion (Dh5.14 billion) weapons sales to Taiwan combined with the sailing of a US destroyer close to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea, characterised by Beijing as a provocation, were far from being the icing on that cake.
With respect to the way North Korea should be handled, China and Russia are on the same page. They have put forward a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ solution whereby, North Korea suspends its ballistic missile testing in return for the suspension of joint US and South Korean military exercises. Both urge dialogue.
In May this year, Trump had announced that he would be “honoured” to meet Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances. The ‘circumstances’ right now are dire. Negotiations should always trump military solutions. Face-to-face talks between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president have never taken place. Perhaps it is time they do.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.