North Korea will not give up its plan to become a nuclear power. If the world didn’t know that before it should now.
Pyongyang’s provocative decision this week to launch a missile over Japan was designed to make the point.
In effect, dictator Kim Jong Un was telling America and its allies that neither threats nor flattery will deter North Korea from developing and deploying nuclear weapons capable of hitting the continental U.S. and allies like Japan.
The unarmed missile launch came just weeks after both U.S. President Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, praised North Korea for its restraint.
“I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us,” Trump said of Kim then.
Tillerson hinted that continued good behaviour on the part of North Korea might lead to formal talks with Washington.
Kim’s rebuff seems to have scuppered that possibility, at least for now. “Talk is not the answer,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in his own news release, Kim called the Japan gambit “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” the American Pacific island territory that houses a key U.S. airbase.
What he didn’t need to say is that the overflight was also a reminder of Japan’s vulnerability should the Korean crisis escalate into a full-scale shooting war.
Japan certainly understands how dangerous its position is. The missile launch set off air raid sirens and warnings to take shelter. Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, suspended regular programming for three hours.
Rising tensions with North Korea come at a time when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to promote constitutional changes that would make it easier for the country’s military to wage war. Monday’s overflight, while denounced strenuously by Abe, may turn out to be politically convenient for him.
Other leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were equally strenuous in their condemnation of North Korea’s missile test. But there is very little they can do about it.
Economic sanctions against North Korea, while severe, are not working. China, North Korea’s chief sponsor and trading partner, is unwilling to do anything that might bring down the regime in Pyongyang.
A pre-emptive U.S. military strike against the North would lead to an unthinkable and bloody war in the Korean Peninsula.
The only remaining alternative is to accept the fact that North Korea has become a nuclear power — and then deal with it.
There are precedents. Pakistan, an unstable country in a dangerous neighbourhood, has nuclear weapons that it occasionally threatens to use against archrival and equally nuclear-armed India.
Yet the world interacts and trades with both countries. Canada, whose technology India illicitly used to build its first nuclear weapon, even sells uranium to that country.
Similarly, it may be possible for the world to coexist with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Certainly, there would be repercussions. Already some South Koreans are arguing that they can no longer count on the U.S. deterrent and should instead develop their own nuclear capability to counter the North.
Even Japan, with its well-known allergy to atomic weapons, might find them more acceptable when faced with a nuclear-armed North.
In other words, accepting the fact of North Korea’s nuclear status is not the perfect solution. But short of reigniting the bloody 1950-53 Korean War, I am not sure that there are any others.
As well, once the nuclear question is out of the way, it may conceivably be possible to have the real and substantive peace talks between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang that have been promised since the armistice of 1953 suspended fighting in that war.
Until this happens expect more of the same. North Korea will be outrageous. Washington, as it tries to figure out way to stop something that is virtually unstoppable, will be confused.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.