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Friday, 28 April 2017

Playing chicken with Pyongyang

Let's see if, just for a moment, you can tear yourself away from the election campaign and avert your gaze from Brexit.

And then let's see if you can bear to consider the scarily dangerous game of chicken that's currently being enjoyed -- if that's the right word -- by political leaders in Washington and Pyongyang.

As you may recall, when President Obama sat down with Donald Trump following his election victory last November, the then president named North Korea as the number one foreign policy issue that would be faced by his successor.

Since then, Mr Trump has torn up the Obama doctrine of 'strategic patience' and replaced it with a doctrine that could be summarised as 'Don't you bloody dare.'

To which the North Korean response has been, more or less: 'Just watch us.'

Watch us test another long-range ballistic missile. (Sure, the last one blew up as soon as we had launched it but, hey, that's what tests are for.)

Watch us conduct another nuclear test. And then, Mr President, Bring It On.

None of this leaves me feeling very happy. As the security analyst Fred Kaplan of Slate.com wrote a couple of days ago: 'A mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity -- fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two -- makes for a potentially lethal concoction.'

Between them, Kim Jung Un, his father and grandfather have ruled North Korea for nearly 70 years. That is quite an achievement for a modern dynasty, although admittedly, it's not quite as impressive as the Japanese royal family which claims a dynastic line going back more than two and a half thousand years.

The current Kim has no intention of being last in the line. And he is convinced that nuclear weapons are the dynasty's best guarantee for survival. After all, look what happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as soon as they abandoned their own nuclear weapons programmes. They are not examples designed to enable brutal dictators to sleep easy in their beds.

In a fascinating essay in Foreign Policy this week, the Russian Korea analyst Andrei Lankov wrote that North Korea's political leaders 'believe that without nuclear weapons they are as good as dead. That’s a disaster for the region, but a perfectly logical choice by the Kim family.'

Perhaps some of this is what President Xi Jinping of China tried to explain to Mr Trump when they had their cosy little chat over dinner in Florida earlier this month. Perhaps President Xi also tried to explain why China is not over-keen to see the end of the Kim dynasty just yet.

Imagine what a unified Korea would like like from Beijing. A staunch US ally, host to more than 20,000 US troops, on its border? An open, pluralist, capitalist democracy, on its doorstep? And if the Kim regime were to collapse in chaos -- perhaps as a result of economic melt-down caused by yet more international sanctions -- how many hundreds of thousands of desperate North Koreans would want to seek refuge in China?

When President Trump summoned all 100 US senators for a North Korea briefing this week, he left them distinctly underwhelmed by the clarity of his strategy. The (Republican) chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, called it 'an OK briefing.'

Sen. Jeff Merkley (Democrat, Oregon) said: 'We learned nothing you couldn't read in the newspaper.' Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Democrat, Illinois)  said: 'It felt more like a dog and pony show to me than anything else.'

But you know what? I was pleased. Despite all the bluster, the Trump administration seems in reality to be prepared to wait a bit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said as much on Fox News on Thursday: 'We'll wait as long as it takes.' Just don't call it strategic patience, because that was Obama's idea and was, obviously a Very Bad Thing.

Kim Jung Un is as ruthless and determined as Mr Trump is mercurial and unpredictable. One false move from Pyongyang and all bets are off. After the US president's decision to launch cruise missiles against Syria, and then to authorise a massive bomb strike against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, I just hope he isn't developing a taste for theatrical gestures involving terrifying amounts of high explosive.


For now, the official Washington position is that the US intends to tighten economic sanctions and pursue diplomatic measures with its allies and regional partners, including -- shock, horror -- via the United Nations. Let's hope it stays that way. The alternative is far too frightening to contemplate.

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