By accident or design, Kim Jong-un is playing with fire
North Korean leader’s belligerence over nuclear and missile programmes could spark conflict with the US that would destabilise the entire region
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should be fully aware of the hazards his country faces from his dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons. US President Donald Trump has made plain that American patience towards the threat of bombs and missiles is wearing thin and his ordering of an aircraft carrier battle strike group and nuclear submarine to the Korean peninsula, phone calls to his Chinese, Japanese and German counterparts and upcoming briefings with lawmakers shows his willingness to act.
Pyongyang has responded not with caution, but a desire to meet challenges head on; after a pledge to launch a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike” against the perceived aggression, it marked the 85th anniversary of its army yesterday with a display of artillery might. Unless Kim sees reason, there is every chance the overestimating of his military’s capabilities will drag the region into a conflict.
During his conversation with Trump, President Xi Jinping (習近平) called for restraint from all sides and committed to strengthening coordination in countering the nuclear threat. The American leader is pushing for harsher United Nations Security Council sanctions, but decades of this approach and successive rounds of six-nation talks sponsored by Beijing have failed to stop the weapons proliferation. Anticipated tests of either a sixth nuclear device or an intercontinental ballistic missile did not materialise yesterday and while North Korea staged a successful rocket launch earlier this month just days before Xi and Trump met in Florida, another scheduled for April 15 on the 105th birthday of Kim’s grandfather and the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was unsuccessful. Amid the posturing, a third US citizen has been detained by Pyongyang, raising the tensions.
Troops in the region have been put on heightened alert, particularly in border areas with the North. Negotiations are the best way to ease tensions, but that cannot happen without Kim understanding the dire situation he faces. No government supports his push for nuclear weapons; the North’s closest ally, China, has deserted him. Trump, although still formulating his foreign policy, has articulated through visits to East Asia by his vice-president and secretaries of state and defence and subsequent military deployments that continued belligerence is no longer going to be tolerated. US missile strikes against Syria in the wake of a chemical attack on civilians showed he is not all bluster.
Xi is right about the need for restraint; should military conflict erupt, the toll would be devastating. The US is justified in taking measures against threats faced, but Trump’s priority should be to seek a peaceful resolution. Most of all, though, Kim needs to reassess the situation so as not to misjudge the risks.