As I write this (with our elderly Tonkinese cat tucked under my arm to stop her from sitting on the keyboard), North Korea seems a very long way away. But the problem it poses to the world community has become one of those international ‘questions’ that bedevil world history, on a level with the Balkan Question (one of the flashpoints of European history that led to World War One) or the Near Eastern Question (which dates back to the same period but is essentially still with us).
The problem is two-fold. First there is the undoubted threat to world peace that North Korean aggression poses, although for the moment at least that takes the form of missiles and rhetoric, not armies on the ground. But more insidiously there is the problem of the regime itself, which deifies its ruler (and brainwashes the North Korean people to do the same), allows its people to starve while directing all its resources into its military programme, and stamps out every dissident opinion without any regard for human rights or freedoms. Since the inconclusive Korean War in the 1950s this regime has squatted in its corner of Southeast Asia, glowering and spitting defiance at the rest of the world. We would love to see regime change there, but have been resigned to impotence. Until 2017.
What has changed? Mostly, I think, it is leadership style. The new young ruler Kim Jong-Un seems to be determined to develop his predecessors’ nuclear programme, which grows ever more ambitious, and to carry on their verbal battle with the world, and particularly with the United States. In that country too there is a new leader, and he is impatient of diplomacy and peaceful rhetoric and believes that a show of strength will cow Pyongyang.
There is more than an element of gamble in both positions, as indeed there has been in the North Korean one for more than fifty years. So far their gamble has worked. A nuclear programme which threatened no one very much has been allowed to morph into one that poses significant danger for the region, and even possibly for the far west of the US. Sanctions placed on a country that a) does not care for the economic sufferings of its people, b) is indifferent to public opinion both domestic and international, and c) is perfectly capable of finding illegal ways to make money, really cannot work properly. Trump is now offering a gamble of his own, believing that North Korea does not really have the appetite to start a full-scale nuclear war that it would be bound to lose since the stockpile capacity of the West is much greater than that the North Koreans currently have. Stand up to Kim Jong-Un, Trump says, and North Korea will go back in its burrow.
It is easy to see the attractions of this position. It is generally acknowledged that historically appeasement of tyrants has led them to become more aggressive, not less. Standing up to the bully is a standard piece of advice in school playgrounds (though nowadays actually punching the bully is discouraged), and Trump delights in schoolboy rhetoric. The gamble might also, if the North Korean leadership were sane and followed the normal rules of human logic, be successful. But this is a dangerous assumption. Saddam Hussein continued to sabre-rattle until removed from power forcibly, an action which turned out to have unpredictable consequences and did not lead to greater peace and stability in Iraq as the anti-Saddam coalition had hoped. Trump is gambling with the lives of the Korean people, north and south, and when you gamble it is always best to be certain that you can afford to lose your stake. Since his style is much more the instant tweet than the measured discussion and memo, I wonder whether this reckoning has been done. True, his announcements even on serious issues are often more hot air than reasoned policy, but in this situation the rhetoric matters.
So, what is to be done? Is there mileage still in the existing sanctions? Or do we need a completely new approach?
The key, it seems to me, is China. China supported North Korea, as a fellow-communist state, in the 1950s and has favoured a softly-softly approach to the rogue state ever since, although the two regimes are now poles apart in most respects. China is also very much the dominant power in the region, not least because Japan has no post-war history of defending itself and is heavily (though reluctantly) dependent on the US. China will not allow the West, and particularly not the US, to dictate Southeast Asian policy, nor will it stand by while non-Asian nations get involved in military action in the Korean peninsula. Thus, the North Korean Question is not so much about North Korean relations with the West, which have always been bad and are unlikely to change for the better anytime soon, but about Chinese relations with the West. China does not really approve of Kim’s regime, and as southeastern China actually borders North Korea the threat to Chinese security from a nuclear conflict is immense, but at the same time Peking cannot possibly be seen to collude with the US in destroying it. American recognition of the importance of China’s handling of the region’s politics, and a willingness to discuss the problem of North Korea privately with China in the light of that recognition, would go a long way to resolving the tensions between those two great powers, and thus open the door for China itself to be more firm with North Korea.
At the same time, sanctions could be applied more rigorously and directly to military targets. There is good evidence that North Korea is getting round them and purchasing military hardware illicitly, which the international community could do more to prevent. China would be unlikely to oppose this, and it would not need new UN resolutions to implement. There does seem to be a new level of determination in this area, but there is also the real danger that it is already too late for this to make much difference.
Human beings never seem to learn that diplomacy and peaceful sanctions are always to be preferred to war, whose consequences are very often worse than the situation military action was employed to tackle. If North Korea does actually attack the US or Japan, the situation may then have gone too far to avoid actual conflict. But the US should be warned: pre-emptive strikes are liable to be counter-productive in the long term, however tempting they may be to the self-confident nation. See Japan (Pearl Harbor 1941) for details.