The announcement by North Korean state media that the country had launched the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile – potentially capable of striking Alaska – marks the most difficult threat a US president has faced in recent history.
The missile reached an altitude of 2,800 metres and flew for 39 minutes. Such a result should not come as a surprise – North Korea has steadily improved its capabilities, testing, tweaking and modifying. Therefore, a successful result was inevitable.
Kim Jong-un’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons must be seen in the context of domestic politics and self-preservation. Handed the throne after his father’s sudden death in 2011, at a young age in a deeply Confucian society, his inexperience meant his personal grip on power was at serious risk.
To strengthen his control, Kim Jong-un brutally purged his internal enemies, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and sought to prove his leadership credentials by turbo-charging North Korea’s missile program. This in turn demonstrated to his domestic audience that he was a leader strong enough to “protect” North Korea from its perceived enemies, while also providing a realistic deterrent against the risk of foreign intervention – his own ultimate insurance policy.
So what can be done to reduce the risk of escalation? The options on Donald Trump’s desk offer no immediate solutions to this problem. As the president found out shortly after he came to office, when faced with the reality of considering military action, the costs are simply far too high to contemplate. Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, has suggested that such a war would cost $1bn to fight, causing $1tn worth of damage and leaving up to a million dead. It would be simply devastating.
Sanctions have been placed upon North Korea for decades – and while they have no doubt had a significant impact, the country has become so used to such measures it has essentially become immune. Sanctions are symbolic, but will not change the survival instincts of the regime, nor its pursuit of weapons.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s tweets on the situation do not provide immediate clarity either – but in fairness, this situation is not of the president’s making. For decades, North Korea has skillfully manipulated successive presidents and the international community in the build-up to this moment.
China, so often mentioned as the key to solving the North Korean puzzle, certainly does have leverage, but it does not have control. China also has its own interests, and seeking the removal of its neighbour may very well not be one of them.
Last week, South Korea’s newly elected President, Moon Jae-in, had a meeting with Trump in Washington during which both sides discussed the security situation on the peninsula. President Moon is in favour of talking with North Korea, and recently suggested the joint-hosting of major sports tournaments.
The US-SK alliance is absolutely vital for anything Trump wants to achieve with North Korea. He must look at giving Moon the opportunity to develop better dialogue with the North and ease tensions – to quote Winston Churchill, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. The US administration must also urgently appoint an ambassador to South Korea, a position which has been vacant since Trump took office in January.
The world may now have no choice but to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. This means working towards other means of purposeful engagement – however difficult this may be. Far from irrational, North Korea carefully considers its actions and can be seen as Machiavellian, “playing the game” to keep the dynasty in power. This, paradoxically, also means talking may not be completely futile.
In the immediate future, both sides must urgently reduce the risk for miscalculation, so that the threat of war does not become a devastating reality.