Achieving the impossible: Paul Sinclair discusses President Trump's approach to the challenge presented by North Korea.

AuthorSinclair, Paul

Holding the moral high ground when dealing with North Korea should be easy. But President Trump has achieved the impossible. In making his 'fire and fury' threat to North Korea, he descended to a level normally associated with the leadership in Pyongyang. He subsequently, at the United Nations, doubled down on his threat by warning that North Korea faced total destruction. Trump's rhetoric confirmed Kim Jong-un's suspicions that the United States' primary objective is regime change. This renders a nuclear deterrent all the more important in North Korean eyes. Kim has pressed on with his programme with amazing speed.


President Trumps 'fire and fury' threat to North Korea is the sort of language we expect from Pyongyang. Although there was widespread consternation over this remark, he has not retreated from it. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nicki Haley, subsequently emphasised that this was not an empty threat. Trump was not the first US president to use these words. They appear to be borrowed from President Truman's announcement that nuclear weapons were being unleashed on Hiroshima in August 1945. The Hiroshima analogy rendered President Trump's words even more disturbing.

Five years on from Hiroshima Truman refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. In subsequent weeks he endeavoured to walk back from that, but the threat left a lasting impression on the regime in Pyongyang. It was reinforced a few years later by the United States' deployment of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, where they remained until 1991. At their peak there were 950 US nuclear weapons in South Korea.

The other participants in the UN Command objected to the United States unilaterally abrogating one of the key clauses of the armistice agreement which brought the fighting to an end in July 1953. This stipulated that the belligerents must not admit new military capabilities into the peninsula. In doing so, the United States opened the door to subsequent serial violations of the armistice by North Korea. The problem that North Korea today presents lies at least in part in the Korean War concluding with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The United States and North Korea are, therefore, technically still at war.

Following the fire and fury speech, the president doubled down on his threat to North Korea, when addressing the United Nations, warning that North Korea faced total destruction. This is not language we expect from the leader of a country whose values we have been accustomed to admire and relate to. Like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un is convinced that Washington's primary objective is regime change. Trump's speech confirmed Kim Jong-un's suspicions. US officials regularly deny that the United States has any such objective. The conduct of the recent so-called decapitation exercises by US and South Korean forces undermines those denials. Trump's UN statement prompted Senator Markey, a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to comment that Trump 'engages in escalatory language that only induces further paranoia in Kim'.

Nuclear capability

The speed with which Pyongyang has accelerated its nuclear weapons and missile programme has amazed Western analysts. An expert from the well respected British International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated that no other country has advanced from a medium-range capability to an intercontinental ballistic missile capability in such a short time. Attributing this breakthrough to the sudden acquisition of more reliable rocket engines, he suggests that the Hwasong 12 and 14 missiles are both powered by versions of a high-performance Soviet missile engine that the North has acquired by stealth. The North could not have developed such a large rocket from scratch. Only two factories produce this type of engine; one is in Russia and the other in Ukraine. I suspect the latter to be the more likely. North Korea may well have taken advantage of the chaos that enveloped Ukraine following Russia's seizure of the eastern part of the country. Although Ukraine security officials deny this, two North Koreans were arrested for spying on the factory in 2011.

There is one further step that the North is yet to master and that is a re-entry vehicle that will protect the nuclear warhead during its descent through the Earth's atmosphere. Given the advances made so far, that is not regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. Since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, his regime has conducted four nuclear tests and tested close to 90 ballistic missiles, more than his father and grandfather combined. However, despite North Korea's rapid progress, the president's defense secretary, General Mattis, has stated that North Korea's missiles have not yet posed a threat to the United States or its allies.

Military capabilities

Most attention focuses understandably on the advances North Korea has made in its nuclear weapons programme. But the North's military capabilities are not one-dimensional. There is a wide range of chemical weapons, some biological weapons and an impressive conventional armoury. Thousands of artillery pieces, many capable of hitting Seoul, are positioned just across the border.

North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world with a strength of 1.2 million. Among them are 100,000 highly trained special forces personnel whose purpose is too infiltrate South Korea should hostilities occur. Pyongyang now claims that as many as 5 million North Koreans have indicated their willingness to join the army to counter American aggression.

The most recent sanctions imposed following the nuclear test are the eighth set to be imposed on North Korea. Yet it has been able to accelerate the development of its nuclear and missile capabilities. The sanctions imposed in November 2016 were at the time hailed as a circuit breaker. UN members were required to report on their implementation. By early August 2017 only 77 of 193 UN members had done so.

North Korea has coped with all the sanctions to date and to some extent it appears to have prospered. I was speaking to a New Zealander last August who had just returned from Pyongyang. While there he travelled from the capital down to Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone. He told me that in the two years since his previous visit, the number of cars appeared to have tripled. Old buses had been replaced by a new and expanded fleet. He was surprised, too, to see the range of luxury items for sale in Pyongyang shops, and the prevalence of cell phones. He considered locals to be more confident and to be taking considerable pride in their country's military progress.

Defiant response

Each set of sanctions has resulted in a defiant missile test or nuclear test or both. Until recently, it had been thought that North Korea was dependent on external sources for the fuel needed for its missiles. That being the case, the latest set of sanctions would directly inhibit the further development of the ballistic missile inventory. But it is...

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