How do you solve a problem like North Korea?
After a successful new test on Friday, the so-called hermit kingdom is boasting of a dramatic escalation in its capabilities when it comes to launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aimed at the United States.
Most North American cities may now be within range of a missile carrying a nuclear bomb, which means much of Canada is also vulnerable.
The United States, in response, has lashed out at the Chinese government for a perceived failure to put a stop to the tests through harsher sanctions against North Korea. Washington is also readying its defensive systems and flying bombers over the Korean peninsula, making it clear it is “done talking.”
On the surface, at least, things appear to be coming to a head. But should the world really be bracing for all-out war? And what options, if any, remain to prevent armed conflict?
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“I think we should perhaps start with where (the U.S. and China) should not go, which is to engage in a war of rhetoric between President Trump’s tweets and the Chinese foreign ministry responding that the United States should not just lay blame on China,” said Tina Park, an expert on North Korea and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
“We’re not seeing any form of mature partnership between the United States and China.”
The first order of business, therefore, will be figuring out how to work together to confront a common threat.
Sanctions and resolutions
Park says there’s no doubt that China does have “significant leverage” as tensions escalate. Ninety per cent of North Korea’s trade goes through that country.
But China has resisted creating new sanctions, Park explained, mainly because it is worried about triggering a regime collapse in the impoverished North Korea, followed swiftly by a huge influx of refugees across the Chinese border.
Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Monday that existing UN Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea have been totally ineffective, and her government is done asking the UN to intervene.
John Delury, an expert on Chinese-Korean relations at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told CNN on Tuesday that Haley has effectively made “herself and the UN process irrelevant if she says there’s nothing we can do here.”
Russia, meanwhile, is another major player that hasn’t been working toward a coherent policy position on North Korea with its allies, said Park.
“What we’re seeing is this vicious cycle where the major stakeholders involved have all sorts of different interests,” she said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the world should stop talking altogether, Park added, and Canada could have a role to play as a champion for a diplomatic solution. A new framework for engaging with North Korea’s unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, was even floated recently by South Korea’s president Moon Jae In, she noted.
The alternative — unpalatable to just about everyone — is war.
As the rhetoric continues to heat up on all sides, Park said, it’s important to take a step back and consider a few things when it comes to the possibility of a first military strike by either North Korea or the U.S.
A big one is geography.
“The geopolitical position of the Korean peninsula at the centre of northeast Asia does not allow for an easy military engagement,” Park said.
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Other experts have noted that Kim Jong Un is likely aware that any military attack he launches on U.S. soil would be ultimately suicidal, drawing a swift and devastating response from the Americans.
“Nobody wants war, and in fact nobody could risk war,” Park said. “Everybody is aware of that … the game-changer here is that President Trump’s administration is more unpredictable than his predecessor.”
It is, in fact, difficult to know how far Trump might go. While Park notes the likelihood of open warfare remains “low,” a joint American military exercise with South Korea later this month is still scheduled to go ahead. That could easily enrage the north and trigger more missile tests.
Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said “all options are on the table,” and in an interview with the Today Show on Tuesday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham said the president told him personally that the U.S. would go to war with North Korea if the missile tests continue.
“He has told me that,” Graham said. “I believe him.”