United States President Donald Trump is now facing the biggest challenge of his presidency: dealing with North Korea, which test-fired an ICBM that could hit Alaska. Soon, North Korean missiles may cover the entire USA. While the world debates what moves North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump should make, the real question is whether the world is nearing a nuclear catastrophe, bringing back to humanity the suffering that took place at the end of World War II.
According to the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea has 13 to 30 nuclear weapons, which account for 70 per cent of its estimated plutonium and weapon-grade uranium. The atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan in 1945 resulted in the death of 1,39,000 to 2,26,000 people. A nuclear holocaust unleashed by North Korea would be equally horrific.
Trump had criticised the previous Obama administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ in dealing with North Korea, but has ended up announcing the same combination of no talks with North Korea, waiting for North Korea to take steps to dismantle its nuclear programme and tougher sanctions. One reason why Trump finds himself on the same beaten track is that there is no new option for him in dealing with North Korea, which previous US presidents have not tried out.
Soon after North Korea’s missile test, the US requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Nicky Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said war is now an option on the table. She called for an ‘escalated diplomatic and economic response’, warning China and other countries supporting North Korea that their trade with the US could be at risk.
The option of pushing for more sanctions on North Korea has not worked so far. But, as Haley said, these could be extended to countries and firms dealing with North Korea. This could make the sanctions effective while maintaining peace. North Korea has the backing of China. Though China objects to the deployment of THAAD missile systems by South Korea, it does not seem to mind the development of ICBMs by North Korea, as it knows that the missiles are aimed at the US and South Korea. Trump tried to rely on China to rein in North Korea, but now seems to have realised his mistake.
After the ICBM launch, the US and South Korea held a ballistic missile drill to counter North Korea’s actions. Though declaring war on North Korea is a difficult option, one can expect more military drills involving the US and South Korean forces. However, in a tense atmosphere, war may break out inadvertently, sparked off by some missile test that goes off course or incidents involving aircraft or ships.
An article in the New York Times says that the real option for Trump is a change of regime in North Korea by roping in Beijing. However, such a change is not easy and may take years to execute. It can be ruled out in the short-term. One would have to look at other options.
An expert writing in Foreign Policy, says the US has been carrying out joint exercises with South Korea since 2016 for a plan involving strikes on the North Korean leadership. A multiple missile attacks on sites in Pyongyang which are used by Kim Jong-un and his top aides would be practical if a nuclear strike by North Korea appears imminent. However, the plan may not work in the absence of reliable intelligence on the location of Kim, which is the case today. Besides, there is no guarantee that the North Korean command will surrender in the event that their leader is killed.
Thus, Trump has no easy solution for dealing with North Korea. As North Korea expands its capabilities, the pressure on Trump to act decisively will increase. Putting more sanctions on North Korea and extending these sanctions to firms, banks and countries dealing with North Korea appears to be the most promising option right now.