WHAT IS MOST concerning to this Bystander about North Korea’s latest missile test is not that Pyongyang may have, as it claims somewhat grandiosely, the ability now to strike the United States mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but that the missile was apparently fired from a previously unknown launch site.
If there are more such sites, it means that in the event of a retaliatory or pre-emptive strike by Pyongyang against, say, Seoul or Tokyo, shooting down those missile could not happen until they were in the air. By then, it would be probably too late to save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives in those cities, even if the THAAD anti-missile shield works — and THAAD will not protect against conventional shelling; Seoul being in range of North Korean artillery.
The event that most likely would trigger such strikes is, of course, a military attack on North Korea ordered by US President Donald Trump. That is an option that is becoming more not less likely.
We know that the US military has been asked by the White House to prepare a plan for that, should it be needed. Since Friday’s ICBM test, Pyongyang’s second in three weeks, two US Air Force bombers have flown over South Korea, accompanied first by Japanese and then South Korean fighters, in what is taken as a show of strength by the US and its allies. The bombers passed within 50 miles of the Demilitarised Zone border to the north. The United States has also conducted as successful THAAD test in Alaska, the currently realistic reach of North Korean missiles.
That Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have turned to browbeating China for not reining in North Korea is probably best read as a sign of increasing desperation on the part of the Americans who are edging towards an action that, in the end, they will not want to take.
However, the status quo, while fraught with danger as brinksmanship always is, is preferable to military conflict. Now Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, disarming it is no longer a policy option. Managing that capability in a way that conforms to international norms is the only way forward, and that will have to be done around the negotiating table.
Economic sticks and carrots have had little to no success to date. Pyongyang has rebuffed previous suggestions along those lines and has done nothing to dismiss the notion that it puts regime survival ahead of the famine of its people.
Without nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un, like his father, believes his dynasty could go the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi.
This is also why six rounds of UN-led international sanctions since 2006 have had so little effect.
Beijing understands the point. It does not care much for Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and younger Chinese diplomats express disdain for a regime stuck in a Communist world they barely recognise. However, Beijing’s priority is to avoid regime collapse. That would send millions of refugees into northeastern China, likely trigger a civil war possibly requiring Chinese military intervention, and, in the worst outcome of all, leave a US-friendly regime hard against its border.
For all Washington’s attempts to twist Beijing’s arm to make it participate more actively in the sanctions regime, these efforts will yield little beyond what has been achieved so far and thus have little impact on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
For all Trump’s belligerence towards North Korea, the most likely eventual outcome is not denuclearization through force or negotiation, but acceptance that North Korea is a nuclear power and that a freeze in the further development of its nuclear and missile capabilities is the best that can be achieved.
It will though take a long time and probably many scares before we get there.