It must rank as an irony of international relations that last Sunday’s missile misadventure in North Korea has staved off a crisis in the peninsula. Nonetheless, it has been a major loss of face for Pyongyang as the missile ~ part of a military parade ~ exploded seconds after it was launched on the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung. The failure of a missile-launch isn’t exactly breaking news for the North, but direly embarrassing is that the disaster had marred the ceremonial grandstanding associated with North Korea’s founder. Not that a confrontation with the US was dangerously imminent, but the threat of a catastrophe appears to have receded for now.
Neither Donald Trump nor Kim Jong-un have followed up on their threats; equally neither has compromised on their respective positions, when not a defiant show of belligerence. No wonder the retreat from the brink has been fraught on both sides of the divide. The scaling down of tension is inherently deceptive as there has been no change in the fundamental positions and causes of the friction.
The North Korean regime remains ruthless and firm in its determination to buttress its nuclear programme. President Trump is much too impetuous to even attempt a sober evaluation of the US equation with President Kim Jong-un. A North Korean general’s bluster that his country could defeat all its enemies so that there would be nothing left even to sign a ceasefire mirrors the escalating fantasies provoked by tension.
No less belligerent was Trump’s tweet ~ “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” The war of words has not abated even in the aftermath of the missile misadventure if the caveat of the US Vice-President, Mike Pence is any indication ~ “The era of strategic patience is over.”
The nub of the matter must be that strategy and patience are not exactly Mr Trump’s forte. The outlook today is more awesome than what it was in 1994, when the Clinton administration had considered a pre-emptive war with North Korea. A war is the worst possible outcome to the crisis; the devastation can be unimaginable both in terms of human suffering and the world economy. North Korea, like perhaps Iran, is loath to give up its nuclear arsenal.
One could even argue that the recent cruise missile attack on Syria has served to strengthen Pyongyang’s resolve... though one country is a long way from another and not merely in terms of distance. Given the opaque administration, details of the North’s nuclear arsenal may never be known; but it is generally believed that its missile is capable of targeting Japan. However daunting the crisis, a jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Winston Churchill had once remarked.