Let no one say the Trump Administration has not been creative in foreign policy in its first 100 days. It has created a full-blown crisis over North Korea and it is sustaining it.
The crisis was not caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. It was caused by what the U.S. Administration says about it. “We won’t allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” said President Trump. Vice-President Mike Pence warns North Korea not to test America’s resolve.
America’s resolve is the issue. America now has to back up its bellicose statements or climb down. And as any mountaineer will tell you, climbing down is more difficult than climbing up. We have precedent from the past showing that the need to follow up a promise and show resolve can have terrifying consequences.
There are issues in the world that could lead to serious clashes: China’s claims over parts of the South China Sea; Russia’s actions in the Crimea and the Baltic States; American and Russian involvement on different sides in Syria. But North Korea has made no moves against any other country; it has no designs on any other country’s territory. Its threats, sometimes in inflammatory terms, are of retaliation, what it will do if it is attacked.
We in the West would be happier if North Korea did not produce nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them. This is partly because any increase in the number of nuclear weapons states makes the world more dangerous, partly because of the enigmatic and unpredictable nature of the regime.
But the truth is, we can’t stop them. The UN Security Council has passed resolutions, which will not have the North Korean leaders quaking in their boots. Anything serious we do would invite a response which will make matters worse (which is no guarantee that it won’t be done).
America could attack the missile sites. We cannot be sure that it would destroy all of them. It could certainly cripple North Korea’s programme, by bombing the industrial facilities that sustain it – uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing, high-grade steel production that is necessary for these.
But North Korea would certainly respond, and could respond in any number of ways. It could devastate Seoul, the South Korean capital, with artillery fire from batteries stationed just across the border, 30 kilometres away. What would be the South Korean-U.S. response? Another Korean War, which could only end in stalemate as the last one did? North Korea could attack an American ship, or launch a missile with a non-nuclear warhead against Japan.
From the North Korean point of view, it makes sense to want nuclear weapons as a deterrent. This is a regime that is determined to stay in power at all costs. It is prepared to see its people go hungry while it creates the fourth largest army in Asia. It fears that one day there could be an attempt to unite the Korean peninsula from the South as its predecessor once tried to unite it from the North. It tries to keep its people sealed off from the possible attractions of the other half of the Korean nation, which is democratic and prosperous. The threat is existential. North Korea could disappear from the map, as East Germany has.
For a while it was prepared to halt its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for foreign aid, under an agreement reached with the Carter Administration. American scientists visited the sites of North Korea’s nuclear power programme, to assure themselves that it was civil and not military. But then relations broke down, North Korea pulled out of the agreement and later it became part of President Bush’s axis of evil.
The North Korean nuclear programme is driven by fears of attack. So what does the Trump Administration do? It makes threats: Vice-President Mike Pence says a military option is still being considered. It carries out joint manoeuvres with South Korean forces. It sends an armada into Korean waters (once it finds the way; when the Administration first said it was sending ships to Korean waters they went in the direction of Australia). Is all this likely to make North Korea less determined to go ahead?
The Administration is seeking Chinese help in resolving the crisis. Since America must be seen to be doing something, perhaps it can get help in reaching a compromise that seems to affect the issue but does not seriously damage North Korea.
So the crisis is merely one over words, not over a direct clash. But there is a significant precedent of a crisis caused only by the need to follow words with deeds.
In 1962 the Soviet Union secretly installed missiles in Cuba. In the White House, hidden microphones in the cabinet office recorded the conversations following this. The transcripts of these were made public years later.
On October 16th, the day after the revelations about the missiles, President Kennedy mused about their significance. He told his cabinet that the real problem was psychological. “Geography doesn’t make much difference,” he said. He added that it made no difference if they were blown up by a missile based in Cuba or the Soviet Union. The trouble was, he said, that a month earlier, under attack by his Republican opponents not responding with sufficient strength to Soviet aggressive tactics, he warned the Soviet Union that “the gravest issues would arise” if they developed offensive capability in Cuba.
“I should have said I don’t care,” he told his cabinet. “But when we said we’re not going to, and then they go ahead and do it, and we do nothing…” His voice trailed off.
As today America’s resolve was at issue. So America took action and the world entered a situation in which the most terrible war in history might or might not happen. It did not, but it was a close-run thing.