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Danger does not lie in Korean nuclear expansion, but in the West’s response

By John Jones

Within recent weeks, North Korea has claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb capable of being loaded onto a long-range missile. Whilst these claims must be treated with caution, the alleged tests represent a significant milestone in North Korea’s military build-up, and the country’s continued defiance of international opposition to its nuclear programme. But is this development really a problem? Upon looking at the history of nuclear conflict, one may think not. After all, nuclear weapons have only ever been used twice in warfare, and, despite the huge arsenals of the USA and USSR, the Cold War never turned ‘hot’, due largely to a shared understanding of Mutually Assured Destruction. However, the current stand-off between the USA and North Korea is a far more perilous situation. The caution and calculation of the Cold War era has faded. North Korea’s motives for nuclear expansion remain largely shrouded in secrecy, and the opposing alliance of states have been left guessing. For me, therefore, the danger does not lie within the Korean nuclear development itself, but rather within the uncertainty surrounding the style of response that the USA and its allies choose to make. Act too lightly, and North Korea may grow increasingly threatening. Act too firmly, and a nuclear apocalypse could follow.

In August, President Trump warned that further provocations from the Koreans would be met with “fire and fury”, and has consistently championed hard power over diplomacy during his presidency. Whilst the USA certainly has the militarily capability to back up Trump’s confrontational rhetoric, now is not the time for peacocking. Dealing with a potential nuclear conflict requires a steady and calculative approach, something for which the President is hardly famed. If Trump continues this dangerous war of words with Pyongyang, then he is not only putting the USA’s security at risk, but also that of its East Asian allies. If he was lured into launching an offensive against Kim Jong-Un, retaliation would surely follow against Japan and South Korea. Another option is to increase sanctions against North Korea, but, as Vladimir Putin has argued, Jong-Un is so determined to expand his nuclear capabilities that he would likely allow his people to starve at the expense of his regime’s survival. History supports Putin’s view; sanctions have been imposed ever since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, but a further five major tests have followed, with increasing severity. A final alternative for the West would be a return to diplomacy with North Korea; however, this too has few takers, due to limited past success, and, more recently, Pyongyang’s refusal to hold talks with either the USA or South Korea.

The only thing that all parties in the North Korean crisis can agree upon is that there is simply no easy solution. However, what is clear, is that this is not just a matter between Pyongyang and Washington. Rather, it is truly in the global interest that a sustainable resolve to this issue is found. Responsibility lies mainly with the world’s political elite, but success will only be achieved through cooperation with all concerned. There should be no opportunity for Trump’s hot head to rule negotiations. This is no place for risk-taking, and a calm, measured approach must be adopted. Millions of lives depend on it.

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