Never formally concluded, the wound of the Korean war has been festering for over 60 years; but quietly sidelined by matters considered more geopolitically important, the two Koreas now threaten to be the ground zero of a nuclear Armageddon. The hateful totalitarian nightmare of North Korea has nothing worthwhile to offer the community of nations and its continuing existence in the modern world is an affront to all right-thinking people. Politics, however, is the art of the possible. Given the utter disregard the regime has for the suffering of its own people, there is no pressure that can be brought to bear that might divert it from its goal of acquiring full nuclear capability. The best policy under the circumstances is to let it acquire that capability.
The reality of nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has been one of the decisive factors in maintaining the balance of power globally and regionally since the end of the second world war. North Korea, reflecting the Kim dynasty running it, manifests an enormous inferiority-superiority complex, born of its disastrous economy and continual humanitarian crisis, while at the same time in the grip of a maniacal self-belief and belligerence towards its ideological enemies, which includes just about every nation in the world. Acquiring nuclear capability is the only strategy the regime has to bolster its self-esteem. Despite the impression portrayed in the Western media, it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un is actually mad, so the likelihood of him launching a first-strike nuclear warhead at the United States, South Korea or Japan is remote. He understands that it would be all over in that event. While I have some sympathy for Donald Trump’s response, which has certainly not been less effective than Obama’s aloof indifference, or ‘strategic patience’, I think that repeated warnings of the dire consequences of the North’s repeated violation of every norm of international relations devalues a currency that is already worthless, and makes America look impotent. Neither is diplomacy the answer. Every concession made to the Kim dynasty in return for compliance to nuclear non-proliferation has been a veil behind which they accelerated their nuclear programme. Sanctions also clearly have not and do not work, and, moreover, they rely on the wild-card of Chinese compliance, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, given their own strategic interests in the region and their fear of further destabilising the North.
What would a nuclear capable North Korea mean for the international community? There are both potential benefits and potential dangers. One possible benefit is that the North might stabilise geopolitically, having achieved a major strategic goal; its new-found self-esteem and confidence might induce it to be less belligerent to its neighbours as it could boast being amongst the minority of nuclear powers in the world. Moreover, it could have the confidence that its political system, though the most regressive amongst the world’s established states, would be safe from external threat. This could – even though unlikely – initiate a process of economic reform and a lightening of the burden on its people, following the course that China has followed since the death of Mao. The opposite could happen, of course, such is the unpredictability of the regime. It could use its nuclear threat to blackmail other countries in the region. It could become an exporter of nuclear technology to terrorist organisations such as Al Qaida and IS. Therefore, acceptance of a nuclear North Korea should be backed by siting nuclear weapons in every surrounding country which is presently non-nuclear – South Korea and Japan (China and Russia would object, but China particularly would be threatened by a nuclear Pyongyang), and imposing a blockade on all its shipping and air freight and a total travel embargo on all North Koreans. The nuclear balance should be permanent, the other measures dependent on the North meeting its obligations to coexist peacefully with its neighbours.
America, at the moment, is attempting to control the situation. This is impossible, given that there are no constraints that might plausibly be effective. It is possible, though, to manage it. The management of conflict, rather than the idealistic and impractical goal of eliminating it, is the only form of peace that is likely to be realised on the Korean peninsula in the foreseeable future.