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The world breathes again

By Tim Potier
We have just successfully got through a very dangerous moment. Kim Jong-un’s threat to fire missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam, if prosecuted, would have necessitated a response from the Americans. Belligerent words would have then been traded and, although a nuclear confrontation would have probably been avoided, the world might have had to suffer some frightening hours.

President Trump was right to make Washington’s position clear, but he needed to do it only once.

By labouring the point, the tension was ratcheted up unnecessarily, thus almost leaving North Korea’s leader no choice but to carry out his threat. Thankfully, Beijing, not only in private, managed to ease the situation by demanding that both sides calm down. It is to be hoped that this near-miss will be a salutary lesson for all concerned.

As I have written before, Pyongyang needs the bomb for the regime’s survival. It would appear to have the capability to reach the US mainland, and some close watchers maintain that it can now miniaturise a nuclear warhead. Washington should give up any hope of stopping North Korea from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Pyongyang has successfully out-manoeuvred its foes, and the rest of the world during the coming decades will have to get used to a situation in which the prospect of a nuclear war (not necessarily starting in the Korean Peninsula) is a real possibility.

Lower-level, at least for the foreseeable future, contacts between Pyongyang and Washington will have to devise a modus vivendi. Pyongyang will have to accept Washington’s continued presence and influence both in South Korea and Japan, including the consequent military exercises that will have to take place. Washington, even if indirectly, will have to give the nod to the manner, location and timing of any future missile or nuclear tests.

Of course, the public reaction will no doubt remain negative, but a “no surprises” approach is vital. Beijing’s role is invaluable; able to advise and guide the two sides, pass on messages to the other, as a kind of umpire (if you will) to help prevent a terrible mistake from occurring.

The world also has an additional friend, at a slight distance, Moscow; close to both sides and able also to cajole and encourage and step-in, should the trust of one of the sides (towards China) momentarily snap. This triple lock of safeguards ought to be enough to avert war between the United States and North Korea.

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The Korean Peninsula is one of the last remaining relics from the 20th century. The world dreams of a unified Korea, but this will take more time. While the Great Powers of the 21st century are managing the hotter aspects of this conflict, the rest of the world (particularly South Korea and Japan) will need to establish more developed commercial relations with North Korea.

It took decades to bring Cuba in from the cold, thus a similar (longer-term) ambition should be crafted with Pyongyang. Once its insurance policy is in place, it should be expected that the North Korean regime will have greater confidence in trading with the rest of the world. For some time, this will be done cautiously and very much according to Pyongyang’s terms, but, eventually, a thaw will occur.

This will enable sanctions, gradually, to be lifted and cross-border contact between North and South to become regularised.

Most policymakers in the Western world might wish for the demise of the regime in the north, but no attempt should be made to facilitate this. Asia is not unused to one-party states, either directed by a single family or cadre.

Any transition in North Korea will have to be gradual and managed to avoid the death of tens of thousands of innocent people; naturally having loyalty to their motherland and unable to escape harm’s way. Indeed, a divided Korean peninsula may have to become a sad legacy of history: one people, two systems.

The events of the past few days should be a wake-up call for everyone. North Korea is not the only country that aspires to have nuclear weapons. Similar ambitions exist in the Middle East.

At some point, policymakers will have to come to terms with the likely outcome of Tehran’s nuclear programme. Inevitably, this will lead to Saudi Arabia reciprocating (no doubt with Israel’s tacit approval).

This could turn out to be a more nerve-wracking dynamic, because, as I first indicated last week, I have every confidence that things will turn out well on the Korean Peninsula.

Dr. Tim Potier is Principal Lecturer in Law at Coventry University

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