Past the best guide to fu­ture in her­mit state

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - GREG SHERI­DAN

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.

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