North Korea: Playing a dangerous game

North Korea’s leadership believes it is existentially challenged by the US

The United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea's firing of a ballistic missile over Japan as an "outrageous" threat. Video: Reuters

 

North Korea’s latest missile test represents a significant escalation of its intensifying programme aimed at carrying nuclear weapons to United States targets. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously condemned the test, which fired a ballistic missile over Japan, landing 1,200 miles to its east. It came during the annual US joint military exercises with South Korea that include a simulated nuclear strike, which usually attract provocative retaliatory actions from the North. The dangers inherent in such gamesmanship are heightened this year by the confrontation with president Donald Trump and his administration, which says all military options are now on the table.

The Security Council did not add to the extra sanctions it recently imposed on North Korea following earlier tests. They include bans on its exports of iron, lead and coal to China, which have yet to be fully implemented. Mr Trump wants China to exert influence on the regime of its much smaller neighbour in the belief that this would bring it to heel. But China has neither the will nor the capacity to do that as readily as he assumes. It does not want to see North Korea collapse, which would transform the geostrategic position in East Asia and bring US troops to its own border. President Xi Xinping and President Kim Jong-un have not yet met personally, illustrating the tensions in their inter-state relationship.

North Korea’s leadership believes it is existentially challenged by the US and by the failure to agree a peace and security agreement with its neighbours and the US

This growing crisis is a real test of China’s statesmanship, just as it challenges the political and diplomatic skills of South Korea and Japan. They all have a deep interest in finding a long-term settlement of the persisting North Korean question rather than having to deal with its perpetual escalation under this young leader, who has carried out 80 missile and nuclear tests in the last six years. Whether it is now possible to halt and dismantle its nuclear weapons programme under international agreement and oversight, as distinct from deterring it with overwhelming US nuclear superiority, is a key issue in the present confrontation. The sheer complexity of what is at stake and the real danger of miscalculating an escalating military strategy with two such volatile leaders as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump makes this an exceptionally difficult issue.

North Korea’s leadership believes it is existentially challenged by the US and the failure to agree a peace and security agreement with its neighbours and the US. The six-party talks with them were frozen or abandoned and have little prospect of being revived so long as the US refuses. Mr Trump says the strategic patience necessary for that is over. He now includes China in this calculation, after its failure to exert the expected pressure on North Korea, and seems about to launch a trade war with Beijing. China, South Korea and Japan should work together to stop that happening.

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