Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

North Korea: sunshine or mushroom clouds?

AUGUST 2017: US President Donald Trump's erstwhile suggestion that he would be "honoured" to sit down with North Korea's enfant terrible Kim Jong-un, "if the situation is appropriate" is a sign of how desperate Western governments have been - not to mention Japan and South Korea - as the nuclear standoff continues. The rhetoric escalated to terrifying proportions by August with any prospect of talks fading as the USA and North Korea traded barbs, insults, and TV screenings of missile launches, bomber overflights and aircraft carriers steaming in. Both China and Russia joined in increased sanctions against the Kim Jong-un's regime.

"Dead people don't need money," said a CNN commentary, stating that North Korea believes "that without nuclear weapons they will be as good as dead." A stark memory hanging over their heads is "the fate of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, the only dictator in history who agreed to abandon his nuclear program in exchange for promised economic benefits."

The Guardian writes, "Among the many terrifying facts that have emerged in the last several days, perhaps the scariest relate to the nuclear button over which now hovers the finger of Donald Trump." There is nothing that scares Seoul or South Koreans more.

Says The New York Times, "North Korea, a small and poor country facing far stronger adversaries and the perpetual threat of its own collapse, would not seem a likely state to defy four consecutive American presidents. Yet it is precisely that weakness, analysts say, along with the country’s history and internal dynamics, that drives its leaders to pursue nuclear and missile programs at virtually any cost — and that robs the world of almost any option to limit them."

This is the essence of the North Korea dilemma. "How could any outside threat possibly exceed the risk that North Korea already takes on itself? How could any concession remove the North Korean weakness that drives its behavior?" US strength is also its weakness writes the NYT. "The United States’ relative strength is also, paradoxically, a weakness. North Korea knows that it would quickly succumb to a full American attack, making its only option to escalate to nuclear strikes almost immediately at the start of a conflict."

Seoul's respected Joongang Daily says, "North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is foolish if he believes the brinkmanship his father used to get his way with the international community over the last two decades would still work. First of all, its longstanding patron China has turned its back." The newspaper concludes: "There is also a possibility that Trump and Xi struck a bargain over the North Korean nuclear issue during their summit. Kim could be pushing his state towards doom if he foolhardily tests the two superpowers."

The difficulty of taking out North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities is explained by Joongang Daily. "Military experts are skeptical of airstrikes on North Korean military facilities. Its nuclear and missile facilities are spread out across the country and hidden. Attacks on confirmed sites may not be very effective. Moreover, many of them are along the borders with South Korea and China."

The Daily Caller argues there is no solution in hurtling towards armed conflict that in all simulations has had a "100% chance of ending in nuclear conflagration." The way forward, it believes, is through a North-South Korea rapproachment.

"There is no military solution to the problem of North Korea. Nor is leaving it to the Chinese going to work. There’s just one way to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, and that is by encouraging the process of North-South reconciliation that was begun some 16 years ago with the “Sunshine Policy.” That’s when South Korea’s then President Kim Dae-jung opened up talks with the North, and, in spite of US opposition, his successor traveled to the North, and met with Kim Jong-il: thousands of South Koreans followed suit, crossing over to visit long-lost relatives."

This is exactly what newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in hopes to do in his overtures for military talks with Pyongyang. – Asian Conversations