Why it may be time for the US to clip North Korea’s wings
It has fallen to President Trump to state the blindingly obvious: a pre-emptive strike could put North Korea’s nuclear programme back a decade
“If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will” – President Donald Trump,
It is amazing that it has taken so long. America’s most maverick president facing off against the world’s most capricious head of state. The two snarling dogs of war are locking eyeballs – and I’m not talking about the Xi-Trump summit this weekend.
Anyone who has lived and worked in Seoul knows that they take air raid drills extremely seriously. When the sirens go off, the place locks down and traffic stops in situ. If you are lucky, you find yourself in the basement of a mall where you can repair to the nearest watering hole and wait for the all-clear. If you are not, it is disconcerting to know that you are minutes by fast attack jet from a border where ceasefire has been declared – but never peace.
North Korea has been a running sore in global diplomacy. When Kim Jong-il passed away there were fleeting hopes that his son, Kim Jong-un, might be of a different hue – but he has turned out to be more like a Pharaoh than a dictator. North Korea is run by a man who, like Peter Pan, has never really grown up. Like Peter, he claims questionable greatness. The brutal and public assassination of his half-brother, on someone else’s soil, allegedly by direct order, has hints of a Shakespearean tragedy – Hamlet or Macbeth.
Peter Pan has a punch. The unfolding soap opera of North Korea marrying its development of delivery vehicles with the obvious testing of nuclear warheads means only one thing – that Kim is gearing up for attack. In the fantasy world of Peter Pan, it is feasible to defeat the US with one missile – we should not be so naive as to rule out a first nuclear strike.
Kim is a leader who is willing to default on international obligations and keep his people in absolute subjugation. He is in turn kept in power by China, which does not care for a unified Korea on its doorstep. It is not hard to see why. A single Korea of 75 million people would be one of the most sophisticated industrial countries in the world with a literally hungry labour force. South Koreans would be two thirds of a United Korea, with a current GDP per cap of US$26,500 while North Koreans have GDP per capita of just US$583 per annum. A unified Korea would be a major economic competitor. North Korea is an archetypal buffer state.
China has found it increasingly difficult to control its puppet’s moods. It has fallen to President Trump to state the blindingly obvious, that a pinpoint, counter-proliferation, pre-emptive US strike could put North Korea’s nuclear programme back a decade.
Such a strike would be child’s play for the US. It would be similar to Operation Babylon, the attack by Israel on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981. The Stuxnet attack, of unknown origin in 2010, ruined a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges but initially looked like an unfortunate accident. It is too late for cyber-sabotage; Pyongyang itself is a world-class hacker.
Such an attack would make China very, very angry indeed. They would criticise the imperialist running-dog aggressors all the way to the doors of the United Nations. In public, this would make China appear strong but there is almost no chance of them reacting any further. Indeed, there are strong reasons why China would like to see the US take such action – and perhaps even approve of it behind closed doors.
It would remove the embarrassment of China being unable to control its vassal. It would also eliminate a threat to China should one of the North’s half-baked rockets go off course and end up in Dalian. China will look best if someone else disciplines Kim; they can then look like the good guy running to the defence of their ally.
None is this would be likely to affect the global economy, apart from a little volatility in the markets. Trade between China and the US or Europe is just too important to let a little temporary skirmish stand in the way. Such a disagreement among friends is soon mended.
At the Xi-Trump summit this weekend there will be some frank exchanges and some cooked-up deals. One might be a plan to clip North Korea’s wings – for if Peter Pan actually understands the fragility of his situation, he may well have to grow up.
Richard Harris is a veteran investment manager, banker, writer, broadcaster and financial expert witness