Past the best guide to future in hermit state
North Korean dictator Kim Jongun has demonstrated his contempt for new UN sanctions by firing his longest-range missile yet. It travelled further than a North Korean missile would need to go to hit US bases on Guam.
It is difficult to work out Kim’s rationale. He is certainly a rational actor, but like everyone else, he is also capable of miscalculation.
The main consequences of his latest action seem to be threefold: to demonstrate he will never give up his nukes; perversely to prod Donald Trump into further action; and to embarrass China.
Kim’s calculation may be that if his actions become sufficiently intolerable he will provoke his antagonists into concessions just to get him to stop. That would mean his entering talks with a commitment, probably temporary, to freeze nuclear and missile tests.
This is the long pattern of Pyongyang’s actions and, with North Korea, the past is normally the best guide to the future.
The pattern has been that North Korea takes a series of outrageous and intolerable actions and then receives a diplomatic or financial reward to desist. Sometimes it has even promised to dismantle or give up its nuclear ambitions. But it has always cheated on such promises from the minute they are made, and previous agreements have achieved nothing other than a temporary quiet while the North beavered away on its nuclear programs.
Analysts believe that this time Kim will not agree to talks and a freeze — should the Americans, Chinese and Japanese offer them — until he is confident he can hit the US with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Trump wants in the worst way not to be the president on whose watch Pyongyang acquired the capability to destroy American cities in a nuclear holocaust. However, his realistic options are severely constrained.
The Pentagon has prepared a menu of military options against North Korea, from the smallest demonstration strike, through countless options to take out a missile, either before it launches or on its trajectory, through to a full-scale regime change and nuclear program-destroying massive series of strikes.
Overall, analysts believe Kim is rational, and therefore the best approach remains to deter and defend against him.
If he is rational, deterrence will work. According to this thinking, which is of course surrounded by uncertainty, Kim won’t initiate a military conflict that will result in his destruction.
Some US analysts believe therefore that Kim would not launch an all-out war in response to what was clearly a limited strike. But that would be an incredibly dangerous gamble, and the more limited the strike, the less it would actually accomplish in destroying, or even delaying, Kim’s nuclear program. The most likely way for Trump to escalate is to impose sanctions on those Chinese entities that trade with North Korea.
Kim’s latest missile launch is a huge embarrassment to China.
It comes a day or two after the US Treasury outlined how North Korea was simply getting around UN sanctions to continue to export coal to China. Chinese ships sail to North Korea as clandestinely as possible. They pick up the coal and take it to a Russian Pacific port where it is unloaded. Later, another Chinese ship sails into the Russian port and reloads the coal and takes it back to China.
The Chinese have a long record of not implementing very rigorous sanctions for very long.
Western analysts believe Beijing is genuinely unhappy with North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. But they also believe it is not unhappy enough to do anything that would force, or go near to forcing, North Korea to change course.
That North Korea keeps on going with the highest profile provocations possible, and at such a tempo, makes it likely that Washington and Beijing will seriously fall out about this.
But all these calculations are shrouded in uncertainty.