Amid global alarm at the speed with which Pyongyang appears to be nearing its goal of developing nuclear missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, three foreign policy experts set out what can be done to rein in the North Korean leader
Sir Hugo Swire
UK foreign office minister for Asia until July 2016
However much China may deny its relationship with Pyongyang, and it does not have a good relationship, it does have leverage, not least through the huge amount of oil. So if China is getting serious, that is manifestly good news, and could be the answer.
China is looking at what is the lesser evil – a reunification of Korea that could be pro-western, a destabilising nuclear-armed North, all-out war on the peninsula with the huge migratory effects into China, a permanent US presence in the region. But what has changed is that, if it goes on like this, there is going to be an arms race in the region.
Based on Korean intelligence reports, the character of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is very competitive and aggressive, even reckless and cocky. He is also very smart in understanding and playing on the divisions between the US, China and South Korea. He understands the geopolitics of east Asia, but there is room for miscalculation. North Korea may not have the reliable technology, via India and China, to hit the American mainland, but it could hit Guam, and that under the US constitution would be an attack on the US.
China is likely to accept all kinds of sanctions except oil. China sends 500,000 tonnes of oil annually, and China knows that, if that stopped, the North Korean economy would be crippled. China wants to make gestures about steps against North Korea, but it does not want to wield a big stick. North Korea has endured a lot and could probably survive six months without oil using stockpiles before it suffered serious difficulties. It probably has 500,000 tonnes stockpiled. But how would North Korea react during that period?
North Korea has been working on this for some 40 or 50 years. Ultimately what they hope to do is decouple the US from the Korean peninsula to create a circumstance where the US is not prepared to defend South Korea and not risk its own population.
The Trump administration has assembled before it all the components of an effective North Korea strategy: cooperation with China; pressure on North Korea through sanctions and isolation; reassurance of allies, including by providing the most up-to-date anti-ballistic missile defences; and a willingness to talk. But for any of these instruments to have an impact, they must be used in concert and with precision in tone and substance – a quality of statecraft that the Trump administration has been slow to master.