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Should you be worried about a nuclear war with North Korea?

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The Telegraph, 10 August, 2017

Thursday’s news that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has announced that it is preparing an attack plan on Guam, a US territory with forces has heightened fears across Asia and the West of a catastrophic conflict.

The past few days contain all the elements of a crisis moving inexorably toward a tragic end. For many, that end seems to be hastened by a US president intent on matching DPRK’s emotive threats.

How close are the United States and North Korea to actual warfare though? Should we be looking to “doomsday prepper” property websites or making another cup of tea and changing channel, safe in the knowledge this crisis, like all before it with North Korea, will die down when both sides really consider their options (and the terrifying outcomes).

As always, with these kinds of black-and-white choices, the truth is probably somewhere near the middle. Looking past the “fire and brimstone” rhetoric, something very real did happen this week and that was the unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council to impose the most severe set of sanctions yet on the North. They will cut the DPRK’s GDP of $3bn by a third.

This is an astonishing diplomatic victory, if one considers that Nikki Halley, the US Ambassador to the UN not only managed to persuade China to vote “yes”, but that she also persuaded Russia to vote “yes”, only a week after Congress strengthened sanctions against it. This is an incredible diplomatic coup and hints at the long-term strategy of the Trump administration all along.

Trump has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth
Like many previous presidents, Trump has used carrots and sticks on North Korea, but this time with Beijing. This is because he believes – correctly, as it happens – that the DPRK’s economic survival depends on China’s benevolence.

Since the regime is ideologically extreme, it seems resistant to low-bar pressures – on reputation, for example – that sometimes drive other middle-sized states. So, Trump – ever the businessman – has predicted that despite their rhetoric, North Korea still needs growth. After all, it has been the regimes secondary policy since Kim Jong-in came into office, after the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Trump’s gambit has been to say, “you can have one or the other, but not both.”

Traditionally, getting China to actually put pressure on the regime (and actually enforce previous sanctions regimes on the North) has always been problematic, and nearly no other president has been willing to risk the trade relationship or good relations. So confident did China become, that it began actively undermining sanctions, in 2011 and 2012.

In his heavy-handed way, Trump has brushed all of the diplomatic considerations aside to apply staunch pressure on Beijing. He has threatened a conflict on China’s doorstep by deploying naval forces to the seas around Korea, while also threatening sanctions on Chinese banks doing business with the DPRK. While China has criticised Trump’s approach and protested its innocent, it has quietly begun shifting its behaviour.

We are where we are because of China’s historical support for the North Korean regime. The first – given the importance of sanctions in Trump’s strategy – is whether China adheres to them at the border. Its past behaviour has been to sign on to sanctions when the pressure is high, and then to undermine them later when Washington was no longer focused on Korea.

If this is Beijing’s intention now, then a DPRK crisis will continue for the next two years, every time Pyongyang develops a technological piece of the puzzle to being able to strike the US mainland. If, however, Beijing decides that it will have to really live up to its sanctions commitments, then all eyes will turn to the DPRK.

While Kim Jong-un’s regime sees much of its own population as “wavering” and “hostile”, it deeply values and depends upon the “loyal” class of Pyongyang-based elites who populate the military, the bureaucracy, and other branches of government. If those elites see that even Beijing has turned against them, and that they begin to suffer real economic hardship, it is likely that they would turn on the Kim family.

While this might sound unlikely, it is precisely the strategy (Operation Matrix) that helped bring down the Milosovich government in Serbia behind the scenes of the 1999 air war over Kosovo. It is also the strategy that took down the de Klerk Apartheid-era government of South Africa. A leadership that is separated from the masses can survive if it keeps the loyalty of the ruling elite and the military – see Assad – but one who is separated from the military cannot last long.

 

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