US, North Korea both need to rein it in

opinion April 19, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Trump will have to offer China a sweeter deal to talk Pyongyang out of its reckless behaviour

North Korea’s envoy to the United Nations has in recent days warned of potential for thermonuclear war, blaming the United States for creating a situation conducive to an all-out conflict.

Speaking at a rare press conference at the United Nations in New York just hours after US Vice President Mike Pence visited the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, Kim In-ryong condemned the US naval build-up off the Korean Peninsula. He also used the opportunity to castigate Washington over the missile attack on a Syrian airbase earlier this month.

America, he said, “has created a dangerous situation in which thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to world peace and security”. While there is nothing new about North Korea’s militant posturing against the United States, this time the rhetoric has reached a much higher, even nerve-wrecking pitch. “The US is disturbing global peace and stability and insisting on the gangster-like logic that its invasion of a sovereign state is ‘decisive and just and proportionate’ and contributes to ‘defending’ the international order in its bid to apply it to the Korean Peninsula as well,” said Kim. He said his country is prepared for any “mode of war” and that any missile or nuclear strike by the United States would provoke a response “in kind”.

Also more worrying than was the case in the past, the bravado is this time not coming from North Korea alone. Asked earlier this month about working with China to counter North Korea’s menace, US President Donald Trump said, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” True to his word, Trump refused to elaborate on what might happen if Beijing were unable to coax Pyongyang out of its belligerent attitude or if it refuses to try harder. With Trump resorting to his signature “I know best” stance, China issued a statement urging both countries to tone down the machismo for the world’s sake. 

Setting aside Trump’s thoughtless brashness and Kim Jong-un’s flights of harmful rhetoric, the realities of the current situation begin with North Korea’s newfound military capabilities and its quest to be a global nuclear power. Next, America’s strategic patience with the hermit state has steadily shrunk in the last decade and Trump is signalling that it’s reached the breaking point.

It can only be hoped that the spitting contest between the two governments will not lurch out of control and translate into military confrontation. One way or another, Washington is going to have to work with Beijing on this matter. 

China could certainly do more in this regard, but it views the North as a valuable buffer to Western hegemony in the region and will have to be persuaded to apply pressure on its junior ally. It does not want regime change there to destabilise the already precarious geopolitics. Trump the deal-maker will have to come up with a better offer beyond promising not to punish China for manipulating its currency to the detriment of the global economy.

In short, regime change in North Korea should not be on the agenda, at least at this stage. In the long run, should Kim continue to imperil the region, his forced removal might be considered, but what’s crucial right now is that everyone involved calms down, stops the militant posturing, and reduces the scope for lethal miscalculation.

The US is correct to inform North Korea that there is a limit to its patience, but that shouldn’t automatically lead to a military solution. Other means of pressuring Pyongyang must continue until it sees the benefit in earnestly negotiating an end to its nuclear programme.