Category Archives: Nuclear War

Trump ought to keep his paw out of the North Korean beehive

I sometimes wonder if Donald Trump has ever picked up a history book, or one covering war or geopolitics. It wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t, but he ought to.

I hold out a slither of hope that his advisers are at least more intelligent than he is, because if they aren’t, the United States could be sticking its hand rather naively into a hustling North Korean beehive.

If the president knew anything about Pyongyang’s foreign policy, he would know that missile tests are neither new nor particularly threatening.

During his eighteen year tenure, Kim Jong-il carried out plenty of missile tests, including nuclear ones, and usually for the purpose of playing a little political brinkmanship.

Under Jong-un, this trend has continued, and the endgame is the same. North Korea wants concessions and reassurances, not war. It is a country that can barely feed its people and a place in which electricity shortages are commonplace.

Pyongyang’s behaviour on the international stage has always has a perversely rational tinge to it. In the early 1990s, the communist pariah state’s first missile tests lured the Clinton administration into fruitful negotiations.

A deal known as the Framework Agreement (signed in October 1994) allowed for a sensible trade-off between North Korea and Bill Clinton’s United States: no more nuclear weapons development for relief of military hostility and economic sanctions.

Then again in 2005, after President Bush’s ideological dismantling of the countries’ relationship, Pyongyang offered Washington another deal which explained:

“The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”

The BBC notes in a timeline of DPRK-US nuclear talks that on December 20th 2005, “North Korea says it intends to resume building nuclear reactors, because the US had pulled out of a key deal to build it two new reactors.” The potential for progress between Jong-il and Bush was thus quashed.

There are more lengthy accounts of negotiations between the two countries available online, and given that I only intend to show that non-military avenues have not been exhausted, I do not need to reproduce them in their entirety.

The Trump administration must surely be aware of this important history. If it is, then it knows that war isn’t even close to being necessary. Without negotiations that produce a long-term agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, tensions will continuously resurface.

I have chosen thus far to remain objective about Donald Trump’s presidency, opting not to jump on nauseating pro or anti bandwagons. But Trump’s strike on the Assad regime in Khan Shaykhun the week before last and the use of a 21,000lb bomb in Afghanistan at the weekend tell me that old presidential patterns could be emerging.

A trigger happy state like the United States has employed the sledgehammer technique time and time again, often under the guise of fanciful democracy promotion.

‘Smash everything into pieces, and then when that doesn’t work and new problems spring up, smash those problems into tiny pieces too’.

It seems to me that as we move from a hegemonic world in which Washington could more or less control global affairs into a more nuanced, multi-polar world, with new threats and competing powers, the only noticeable foreign policy strategy coming out of the United States appears to be: ‘suppress any and all stability emerging on the doorsteps of our rivals’.

So in the case of North Korea, it is difficult to ignore the possibility of Trumpian pre-emptive strikes. Any missile attacks on North Korea would be both laughably unnecessary and, perhaps more importantly, intolerable in Beijing.

For China, the prospect of an unstable North Korea, shattered by military action and hollowed out by inevitable droves of fleeing refugees, must be avoided at all costs.

Donald Trump may think, based on his action in Syria, that his military endeavours are isolated incidents and that they will not have long lasting ramifications, but as ever he’d be mistaken. If he strikes Jong-un’s regime, he’ll have lost any remnant of support I ever had for him.

North Korea’s vice-foreign minister Han Song-ryol told the BBC today: “If the United States encroaches on our sovereignty, then it will provoke an immediate counter-reaction.” This seems to me reasonable. I would expect no less than if Trump were to attack Britain.

North Korea undoubtedly lacks a moral compass, but this does not make its declarations of sovereignty or its military mobilisation irrational. Pyongyang does behave outlandishly, but as a stagnant pond left after the departing tides of the Cold War, it was always going to attract unique scepticism.

I ask readers to draw inspiration from past diplomatic successes before succumbing to the appeal of yet another completely unnecessary war.


An analysis of the gathering storm clouds over the Korean peninsula

Back in January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a respected academic journal collating the world’s leading thinkers on global security and threats, altered their ‘Doomsday clock’ (initially established upon the founding of the agency in 1947), setting it to two and a half minutes to midnight. Midnight, of course, meaning: it’s over.

I am astonished the re-setting didn’t get more pertinent media coverage. This is, after all, the most respected journal on nuclear affairs, and any warning signal given by specialists in the field should be treated very seriously indeed.

The clock has been this late before, I should inform readers. The atomic analysts set it to two minutes to midnight back in 1953, upon the ending of the Korean War and heightened hostilities between the world’s two superpowers.

This morning I went back and read their reasonably short and concise report in light of the geo-political movements of recent days. It can be read here, for anybody interested. 

Particularly fascinating are the following two passages, which can be found on pages 3 and 7 respectively, precisely because they articulate North Korea’s role in both the intensifying of friction between nuclear powers and the adjusting of the Doomsday clock:

“North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests, the second, in September, yielding about twice the explosive power of the first, in January. Pyongyang also relentlessly tested missiles, achieving a rate of about two launches per month in 2016. In his 2017 New Year’s statement, Kim Jong-un declared he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range.”

…and

“The United States, China, Russia, and other concerned nations engage with North Korea to reduce nuclear risks. Neighbours in Asia face the most urgent threat, but as North Korea improves its nuclear and missile arsenals, the threat will rapidly become global. As we said last year and repeat here: Now is not the time to tighten North Korea’s isolation but to engage seriously in dialogue.”

I have thought for a while that North Korea, not ISIS, would prove to be Donald Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenge. This was primarily because, towards the latter stages of the previous United States administration, ISIS lost a lot of ground both in Syria and Iraq, whilst North Korea ramped up their nuclear development program. One threat seems to have leapfrogged the other.

The world appears to be inching towards nuclear conflict and an increasing proportion of hostilities are being driven by officials in Pyongyang. But we didn’t necessarily have to have arrived here. It is worth examining historical records.

In 1994 the United States and the DPRK signed what was coined in Washington as the ‘Framework Agreement’. The deal prescribed that the U.S withdraw hostile, pre-emptive military acts in the Korean peninsula and embark upon comprehensive trade and diplomatic relations, in exchange for an easing on economic sanctions and a halting to the development of North Korean nuclear weapons.

The agreement was successful, until about six years later when George W Bush became U.S president. He immediately dismissed the deal and re-imposed harsh sanctions, before labelling North Korea as the third wheel in what he referred to as the ‘axis of evil’.

Richard Perle, the former chair of the Defense Policy Board which advised the Bush administration’ Defense Department, said of the 1994 Framework Agreement that “the basic structure of the relationship implied in the Framework Agreement…is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer.”

In the mind of President Bush, Perle had painted the nature of the Clinton administration’s agreement with North Korea in a misleading fashion, and it may have resulted in a warping of Bush’s attitude towards dealing with the North Korean problem. So US-DPRK ties soured and North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons program.

But, a few years later in 2005, a new agreement was proposed. Pyongyang asked Washington to cease engaging in hostile military acts, to bring an end to crippling economic sanctions (effectively a non-aggression pact) and to enact provisions over a system to provide North Korea with low-enriched uranium for scientific purposes. In return, they promised to suspend their nuclear weapons program. I think this, much like the 1994 Accords, was a reasonable proposal.

Bush did not accept the agreement; something we now know to be a mistake. If we look at the situation now it appears as if, by flouting openly their nuclear progress, North Korea are beckoning for the United States to offer them some kind of deal.

They know that if they want something from the global hegemon, developing weapons is the only action they can carry out that will garner its attention and lure it into a dialogue. In a perverse way it is actually extremely sensible.

No longer can they wholeheartedly rely on the Chinese, too. China has grown increasingly frustrated with its communist neighbour, understandably tense parked next to a promiscuous nuclear state on the Asian continent and worried about a large-scale build up of refugees on the border that the two countries share (this could very well be why the Chinese have warned the US about war escalation).

The concern for the region now is a question of how far Pyongyang is willing to go with its nuclear program. Is it merely trying to attract the attention of the United States, as it has done so repeatedly over the past two and a half decades, with its long held aim of creating nuclear missiles capable of reaching continental America?

If the United States is to act quickly, it will have three options: intensive discussion starting soon, pre-emptive military strikes (which I think will happen) or harsher economic sanctions, which have been tried time and time again and usually result in strengthening Pyongyang’s intransigence in developing nuclear weapons.

John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Seoul University, wrote recently for Foreign Affairs: “North Korea will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation only once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction. And North Korea will consider surrendering its nuclear deterrent only once it feels secure and prosperous and is economically integrated into Northeast Asia.”

I think he is correct. Pyongyang seeks reassurances, and will continue to pursue them aggressively. Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be more forceful than his predecessor, conducting 35 missile tests and four nuclear missiles in his four years at the head of the North Korean regime. Jong-Un will also want to present his country as a force so as to incentivise his neighbours to act in ways that will calm his regime. There certainly seems to be a Machiavellian motive to all this.

Washington, on the other hand, is once again bemused. It is trying to figure out what its approach ought to be towards the DPRK. I fear we will see yet another display of Trumpist unilateral bombing, irrespective of China’s desperation for North Korea to remain as stable as it can possibly be.