Clever brinkmanship or madness?

China may be aghast but unlikely to do anything to destabilise the regime in North Korea


Editorial September 16, 2017

The firing by North Korea of yet another missile that overflew the Japanese mainland on Friday 15th September has ratcheted up tensions yet again. The altitude reached and the range from firing to splashdown indicate that North Korea can now target American bases on Guam. One again the failure of international sanctions is brightly lit, as is the complete failure of diplomacy whether it is by American back channels or Chinese arm-twisting. A hydrogen bomb was detonated in an underground tunnel and pictures suggest that the device is small enough to fit on top of one of the missiles currently having the sea as their target.

Given the impermeability of the regime in North Korea, it is difficult to know whether the leader, Kim Jong-Un, is of sound mind or otherwise. There appears to be an emerging consensus that he is dangerous but not clinically insane. He pulled back from a direct strike on Guam and instead menaced Japan that is hamstrung by any number of treaties and heavily dependent on the US for help in a crisis. He was not going to risk a dent in the Trumpian pride that might trigger a response beyond the merely rhetorical. North Korean hatred of Japan is almost as visceral as that of the US, and there is reportedly greater public support inside North Korea for a strike against Japan than there is for a hit on America.

China may be aghast but unlikely to do anything to destabilise the regime in North Korea; and looks to Syria and Libya as examples of the chaos that can ensue when strong men are challenged and in the case of Libya toppled to catastrophic consequences. Carrying a big stick and talking softly did not work for Bush or Obama but ultimately President Trump will have to tread the same path having been outplayed — for now — by his equal when it comes to pulling cunning stunts.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 16th, 2017.

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