IT WOULD be bad enough if we were being troubled by one unpredictable megalomaniac leader surrounded by sycophants. But in the stand-off between North Korea and the United States the worry is that we are dealing with two.
With Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea, and Donald Trump in charge of the US — both of them prone to unstable behaviour — the chances that the world will blunder into a catastrophic war feel alarmingly high. The Korean leader seems to be going out of his way to provoke President Trump, last week sending a ballistic missile over Japan, and this week conducting his country’s largest-ever nuclear test — a bomb ten times bigger than the one dropped on Hiroshima.
And the President has been duly provoked as intended, sending out tweets threatening “fire and fury and frankly power”, asserting “Talking is not the answer,” and announcing that the US is considering “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”, which effectively threatens a globally calamitous trade war between the US and China.
Thank goodness for a voice of sanity. Gary Locke, the Chinese-American diplomat who was US ambassador to China until 2014, this week tried to inject some reasoning into the situation by unpacking the motives of the parties to the conflict. Jong-un has seen what happened to President Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear-weapons programme and was swiftly overthrown with the help of the West. The North Korean leader has concluded that only nukes can guarantee his survival. It is time to talk to him, since the previous policy has clearly failed; under Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump, the US has refused to sit down to talk unless North Korea first ends the development of its nuclear arsenal.
But will President Trump listen? He wants China, rather, to increase sanctions on Pyongyang, since Beijing is North Korea’s main trading partner. China is undoubtedly unhappy with the present situation, but it does not want to make matters worse. North Korea is a fragile neighbour; antagonising it could send its secret agents to do mischief in China. Or provoke a devastating artillery bombardment on the capital of South Korea, Seoul, which could kill hundreds of thousands of people. Or provoke a US invasion of the north which would result in US troops stationed along China’s own border.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, recognised the realpolitik of this the other day when he said: “Ramping up military hysteria in such conditions is senseless; it’s a dead end.” The North Korean regime, he said, “will eat grass, but will not stop their [nuclear] programme as long as they do not feel safe. . . There is no other way to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, save that of peaceful dialogue.”
President Trump will not have this. Talking to Pyongyang is “appeasement”. He has already upbraided South Korea’s leader, Moon Jae-in, for counselling against military action. President Trump has threatened to scrap the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement in retaliation. Mr Moon must be starting to wonder whether the greatest threat to peace lies in Pyongyang or Washington.
He is not the only one.