Trump’s apocalyptic speech to the UN, combined with Mattis’s comments, are designed both to daunt Kim Jong Un and to alarm China and Russia into putting more pressure on him.
In a Pearl – or Irritation – in early July, I said that in persisting with their policy of provoking the United States by nuclear tests and missile launches Kim and his regime were making two big bets, first that the US would conclude that it does not have a viable military option against North Korea, and secondly that sanctions will not be severe enough to bring the regime down.
Since then North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb, and flown a missile that could reach Guam over Japan.
But instead of the US seeking direct talks with North Korea to address this situation, as Kim would have wished, President Trump has said that “if it is forced to defend itself or its allies (the United States) will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”. National Security Adviser McMaster has said that the US does have a military option. Defence Secretary Mattis has said that use of a military option need not involve “grave risk” to Seoul. And the US has over-flown the Korean peninsula with nuclear-capable bombers.
None of this looks as if the provocative North Korean behaviour is about to achieve its assumed objective. Will Trump’s, McMaster’s and Mattis’s most recent remarks lead to a change in that behaviour?
On 19 September, in an ABC TV interview with Stan Grant, Kevin Rudd canvassed an eventual “Grand Bargain” between the US and North Korea, under which North Korea would agree to abandon its nuclear and missile programs in return for the US and South Korea ceasing their joint military exercises. I must say I think it most unlikely that North Korea would agree to that, although it might eventually accept a moratorium on tests and launches. Such a moratorium could lead to a state of affairs more bearable to the US and the West from the points of view of appearances and public aggravation. However if that was the full extent of North Korean concessions, unless a strict inspection regime was imposed on it, it would be free to continue to add to its arsenal, at whatever stage of scientific and technological development it had reached by the time of such an agreement. Kim has said that his goal is an “equilibrium of force” with the US.
It is not likely that such an outcome would be acceptable to the US, which reiterates its goal of denuclearisation of the peninsula. In fact a report in South Korea’s “Joongang Daily” of 5 September claims that in May a North Korean delegation to “unofficial” talks with the US offered a halt in testing in return for a peace treaty and security guarantees, which is essentially the “double freeze” that China and Russia have been unsuccessfully promoting.
Trump and the US must now be hoping that if China and Russia conclude that the “double freeze” is not a go-er, and come to believe that US military action is a real possibility, they will do what Trump wants them to do, that is join in imposing sanctions severe enough to radically modify North Korean behaviour.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and Japan, and Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.