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North Korean nuclear tests

Unpalatable as it is, Trump should talk to North Korea

Kim Jong-un’s regime will not be easily dissuaded from developing nuclear arms and missiles; only direct talks with the US will have a real impact

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 4:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 4:03am

North Korea’s weapons programmes are as much about timing as testing. The latest launch of a missile came as US leader Donald Trump was meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and after he spoke by phone with President Xi Jinping (習近平). All three nations have an interest in curbing Pyongyang’s proliferation, yet years of effort have failed. It is time for the new American administration to return to a strategy of negotiation.

North Korea hailed the test, believed to have been of a solid-fuel, medium-range ballistic missile, as a success. It splashed into the Sea of Japan about 500km from the launch site, prompting Abe to call it a “provocation” and Trump to pledge to ensure Japanese security.

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The United Nations Security Council, China and other neighbours and the United States, condemned it, while American, Japanese and South Korean defence officials agreed to work together and with the international community to address the actions. But sanctions and Beijing’s efforts to broker a deal through six-nation talks have not stopped North Korea’s ambitions. The country has already tested nuclear weapons five times, twice over the past year.

Sunday’s missile test followed a string of similar launches and the new year message by leader Kim Jong-un that his country was ready to fire an intercontinental ballistic rocket capable of hitting the US east coast. Trump’s response came in a tweet: “It’s not going to happen.” The American president has also said China needed to do more to “strangle” North Korea, the presumption being that it was not doing enough to enforce sanctions.

The reality is that there is only so much that China can do. Although Pyongyang is reliant on Chinese energy and goods, shutting off the supply would destabilise Kim’s regime and harm China’s security. Trump similarly cannot respond with military force; to do so would selfishly put allies South Korea and Japan under threat from the North’s missiles, potentially nuclear-armed ones. The US prevented conflict in 1994 by striking a deal with the North, but broke off negotiations in 2001.

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Pyongyang has since made great progress in nuclear weapon and missile development and there is no chance that it will scrap its programmes; they are its security insurance. Kim will not easily curtail development, his likely demands being a major aid package and a peace treaty with the US. China can help smooth the process, but only by Trump’s administration entering into direct talks with Kim’s regime is there a hope of curbing the North’s ambitions.