North Korea is fast becoming the biggest headache in international politics. Indeed, when it comes to the question of what to do about the so-called hermit kingdom—along with the pot-bellied boy king who rules over it—the world is caught between a rock and a hard place. Between, that is, an ongoing humanitarian crisis and existential nuclear threat that if left unaddressed has the potential to destabilise the entire region, and a grim reality in which all the usual political and military solutions risk making the situation even worse. Factor into the equation an American president whose own lucidity is not beyond question and, suffice it to say, you have a real powderkeg.
Inactivity is no longer an option. That’s the first thing to be acknowledged. For too long the North Korean question has been one the major players in world politics have preferred to kick down the road, in the spirit of a problem deferred being a problem (at least partially) solved. However the unexpected speed at which the regime’s missile programme has advanced over past few years has exposed the underlying flaws in an approach that at times has bordered on appeasement. All the more so when you consider the billions in foreign aid that North Korea has been able to extract from the US, Japan and others.
Given the dangers to its immediate neighbours and much of the world beyond that a nuclear DPRK poses—not just in terms of possibly firing its arsenal in anger, but also in regards to the geological risks arising from continued underground testing—the international community simply cannot continue to turn a blind eye in the hopes that the issue will somehow resolve itself. Nor for that matter can Pyongyang’s other provocations be ignored, the alleged sponsoring of the kind of cyber-terrorism that brought chaos and disruption to the NHS last May included. This is a sinner with no interest in stopping, never mind repenting. Something must be done. The question is what.
Sanctions have done little to dent the regime’s resolve. Instead, as is pretty much always the case their main effect has been to make life harder for an already embattled population. On the other hand the unintended and beforehand unknowable consequences that would inevitably result from military action and/or attempts at regime change would in all likelihood have the effect of making a bad situation even worse. Indeed, given the longstanding siege mentality of the North Korean state, the very last thing that should be done is to provide it with a pretext—however flimsy—for firing its warheads. And this, of course, is the inherent danger of the kind of macho bravado Donald Trump has chosen to engage in, wherein pushing Kim Jong-un’s buttons could potentially result in him pushing the button.
Nuclear war, all rational-minded people will doubtless agree, is the worst outcome imaginable. It would represent a complete and utter failure in diplomacy, in the capacity of our species to resolve problems and differences without annihilating each other. Thus, rather than being drawn into a dangerous game of brinkmanship that could potentially lead the world down this path, POTUS no. 45 would do well to learn from one of his predecessors.
Speak softly but carry a big stick, that’s how Theodore Roosevelt thought it best to deal with hostile nations. This means being open to dialogue and even cordial in your dealings, yet resolute in face of provocations and clear that there will be consequences if such behaviour continues. Accordingly, when applied to the DPRK this means an olive branch can be offered to the pariah state, both in terms of guaranteeing its safety from outside attack, as well as in regard to providing much-needed material assistance. Yet it is a branch that must come with conditions, immediate international supervision of the North Korean weapons programme in particular, possibly in conjunction with an at least in principle commitment to future disarmament.
In this way can the international community chart a course between the two extremes of hoping the problem will resolve itself and embarking on potentially catastrophic attempt to remedy it by force. However for it to work a united front is nigh on essential. A united front, moreover, in which China would surely need to take a lead. The problem here however is that Beijing’s exact role and interests in North Korea remain rather opaque; it’s desire to actually apply real pressure on its troublesome neighbour, uncertain.
Of course maybe this whole argument rests on a flawed premise and in time the sinner will in fact repent. That the DPRK leadership has recently indicated it’s open to talks could be taken as a sign of just that, with many choosing to credit Trump’s bullishness for this supposed change of tack. However there’s a real danger of misreading these developments, of seeing what we want to see and being ignorant to that which escapes our field of vision. After all, we in the west understand even less about what motivates Pyongyang than we do Beijing. With that in mind the recent volte-face could just as easily be a ruse aimed at fostering division among the regime’s opponents, primarily by pitting a doveish South Korean premier against a hawkish US president. It is a possibility that cannot be easily discounted.
That said, even if we suppose the best, that the Kim leadership is genuinely willing to come to the table, this would still only be the start of a long process of no doubt often difficult negotiations. For the unfortunate truth is that when it comes to a problem like North Korea there’s no easy answer, just an incredibly tricky situation with some truly terrifying consequences if handled incorrectly. So yes, speak softly and carry a big stick. But at the same time be extremely cautious about using—or threatening to use—it. That, in a nutshell, is how to deal with the DPRK.