North Korea is nearing a nuclear threshold from which few ever return – a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting targets in Asia and its supposed arch-nemesis, the United States.
Pyongyang’s weapons capability is now undeniable. But the bigger question when it comes to any nuclear-armed nation is how rational its leaders are. In the case of the former Soviet Union, its leaders were rational actors, but when it comes to the North Koreans, many policymakers or interested parties would have their doubts.
So who believes Kim Jong-un is a rational actor? Does his newfound capability pose a threat, or is he only reassuring his own existence?
Russia, China, France, Britain and Israel could annihilate their perceived or real enemies with their nuclear arsenals, but no one believes Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron or Benjamin Netanyahu would launch. Can the same be said of the North Korean regime?
Foreign Affairs argued convincingly in a recent article that Kim’s father Kim Jong-il could be “informed and eminently rational, in the estimation of world leaders who actually dealt with him, such as former US secretary of state Madeline Albright, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, and former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi”.
That’s doubtful; Kim Jong-il was about as rational as Josef Stalin. Both were homicidal maniacs and liars who deceived any ally or country wanting to bring them into the international order. But current US Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo believes Kim Jong-un is being rational when he goes against US President Donald Trump, Asian countries, Putin and even his main benefactor, Xi.
History should be Pompeo’s guide, and history shows that North Korea will use whatever means necessary to acquire further weaponry to threaten Asia, for the simple reason that it needs hard currency to continue hosting the most repressive regime in the world.
A recent analysis by SBS News’ Kelsey Munro laid out two basic scenarios for the world consenting to North Korea’s current trajectory: “Accept a nuclear North Korea or prevent it from becoming nuclear as soon as possible. But geopolitical experts seem to be split on which scenario is the more sensible one to follow.”
The scenarios play out this way – if acceptance happens, then war is averted; moreover, this stops hundreds of thousands of casualties from happening, the entire Asian economy isn’t disrupted and oil prices don’t skyrocket. If compliant acceptance is the route and Pyongyang continues its aggressive nuclear push, then more than likely Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and possibly the Philippines and Vietnam all go nuclear under US guidance or under their own sovereign jurisdiction. This pushes the world closer to a nuclear war, and now China has historic enemies with nuclear capability, which should be avoided at all costs.
UK-based consultancy Wood Mackenzie reported last month: “An open military conflict in Northern Asia would disrupt more than a third of global seaborne crude-oil trade. Some 65% of North Asia’s production and refining capacity would be crippled that is located in China, Japan and South Korea.”
Unless China stops supporting the Kim regime, proxy war seems inevitable. And sanctions haven’t worked because China has allowed them to be flouted while North Korea’s economy continues to grow.
These actions have caused China to stock up on crude oil, and its oil majors will watch the North Korea predicament play out with grave concerns. Certainly China will watch its economy crater if North Korea launches a nuclear weapon, and the humanitarian disaster will overwhelm the Xi government.
China is still the game changer when it comes to North Korea, but there are influential voices in the Trump administration calling for a military solution. US National Security Adviser H R McMaster asserts that no one can be deterred – particularly North Korea – using classical deterrence theory, since “the kind that prevented war with the Soviet Union does not apply to a regime that imprisons and murders anyone who seems to oppose that regime, including members of the leader’s own family, using sarin nerve gas in a public airport”.
Within the Trump administration, McMaster is the leading advocate for military options on the Korean Peninsula. None of his counterparts in Southeast Asia have strongly countered his narrative. Few would content that McMaster is nihilistically reckless or seeks brutality.
Others keep calling for direct negotiations, but that tired channel hasn’t worked, and those folks keep forgetting the history of negotiating with, buying off or placating the Kim regime. “Economic engagement” is another buzzword or catchphrase that supposedly will deter the North Koreans’ current trajectory, or at the very least “cap their capabilities and render them less threatening by reducing hostilities”.
Only China can inflict direct economic pain on North Korea by shutting off the border, closing down all imports from and exports to its neighbor, and wholeheartedly supporting the latest round of United Nations sanctions. Per Reuters these include imposing an oil embargo, banning its exports of textiles and the hiring of North Korean laborers abroad, and subjecting Kim to an asset freeze and travel ban.
It is time for the Chinese to inflict blunt pain on North Korea, otherwise this will be their mess and their fault entirely. If Xi gave the word, this made-up crisis would be over in a week, but since China still holds World War II grievances, and keeps playing geopolitical chess with its proxy as a counter to perceived US hegemony in the Asian hemisphere, this crisis will only continue to grow more dangerous.
According to Walter Russell Mead, the US is at a crossroads. Mead states that the United States has “two deeply undesirable alternatives”. On the one hand, it can “abandon seven decades of national strategy and risk growing instability in Asia; on the other, it can risk an ugly and dangerous war with a vicious and unprincipled opponent”.
In other words, Mead and other leading experts won’t make the hard call that needs to be made: Prepare for war with North Korea and even China. That is a horrific thought but no one has any better options other than waiting for North Korea to come to its senses while possessing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and eventually marching toward acquiring submarine-based nuclear weapons, the most deadly part of a nuclear triad.
Mead and others like him around the world won’t use sober language and the variables of history, human nature, ideology and regime type to come to the conclusion that China won’t make North Korea change and Kim’s regime will only grow deadlier as each day passes.
For the sake of billions of people and the threat of generations of progress coming to a grinding halt, let’s hope the Chinese, Russians, Asian allies, and the US come to their senses and prepare for war – at least economic war – to stop Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.