Some, like Nicky Morgan, have a record of favouring military intervention in Syria. She puts her case on this site today. Others, like this site, have a history of opposing it. There would be less disagreement were the Assad regime carrying out nuclear weapons tests with the explicit aim of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Which brings us to North Korea. Its leaders have made it clear that such is their objective. Five tests have been carried out. The latest took place only last week. It may have ten nuclear weapons or so, with enough material to craft 100 more. Last September’s test was reportedly the strongest up to that point, with the weapon used being stronger than that deployed at Hiroshima. On the one hand, the expert consensus is that North Korea doesn’t have the delivery capacity to attach a nuclear weapon to a missile capable of reaching America. On the other, the picture is murky, and a nuclear North Korea is anyway a threat to its democratic neighbours, such as South Korea and Japan.
It is, as Fiona Bruce and Benedict Rogers have written on this site, “without doubt the most closed country in the world, and one of the worst human rights abusers. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea has described it as sui generis – in its own category. The North Korean regime is, arguably, in breach of every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump felt his way towards a position on North Korea, as on so much else. At one point, he suggested that he would be willing to speak with Kim Jong Un. Soon afterwards, he said that “I wouldn’t go to North Korea…I wouldn’t go there. The last thing I’d do is go. I would never go to North Korea”. He later suggested that China should “disappear” the dictator altogether. But the core of his approach was to suggest arming South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, and compelling China to rein in North Korea with the threat of a trade war if it did not. In short, his attitude to the regime had the same non-interventionist flavour as his approach to foreign policy as a whole.
This seems to be changing. Trump’s response to North Korea’s latest test was to send a naval strike group towards the western Pacific. A state-run newspaper in China is reported today to say that the President’s decision to strike the Assad regime was taken with North Korea’s regime in mind. It would be a mistake to see his action in Syria solely through the lens of North Korea, but there is clearly plenty of overlap.
The timing was significant. Trump held a summit meeting with Xi Jinping, China’s president, in the wake of authorising the Syria strike. One of its purposes was clearly to put pressure on China over Kim Jong Un and his gang. “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” he said to the Financial Times in an interview last week. One cannot blame him for a moment. But it is frighteningly hard to find a solution with a low threshold of risk. Last week, William Hague floated the possibility of China reining in its ally, or even of Trump negotiating directly with the North Korean regime after all. Both options look remote.
Military action could spark a North Korean attack on South Korea, as well as conflict with China – a terrifying possibility. And if the regime collapsed, North Korea might leap from tyranny to anarchy in a single bound. Furthermore, Trump would have to win Congress’s backing for any major intervention in the western Pacific. That cannot be guaranteed.
But the bottom line is that America cannot simply sit back, and wait for North Korea to become a direct threat. We don’t always smile on Trump on this site. But it is impossible not to feel for him as he ponders this hideous dilemma.