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north korea

All is not fair in peace and war

Having been a burden on the international community for decades, North Korea's latest transgression has world leaders scrambling for answers as tension grows between the nuclear armed rogue state and the Trump administration, Nathan VanderKlippe reports

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

The White House is considering "some pretty severe things" to bring North Korea to heel, Donald Trump is warning, days after the isolated regime successfully fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile.

"They are behaving in a very, very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it," the U.S. President said Thursday.

What exactly that might be he did not say, leaving unanswered a question that has vexed decades of U.S. leadership, none able to find a way to permanently halt North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear weapon it can lob onto U.S. soil.

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Now, North Korea has brought white-hot urgency to that question after its test launch of an ICBM experts believe is capable of striking Alaska. Mr. Trump and global leaders are expected to weigh response options at the Group of 20 summit this week, at a time of extraordinary tension.

North Korea is, after all, a nuclear-armed rogue state surrounded by the world's three most powerful militaries.

"It already feels like an atmosphere of war. All that is required is a spark, like the gunshot in Sarajevo during the First World War," said Jin Jingyi, a North Korea scholar at Peking University. "It has become very dangerous."

The United States has further stoked fears by unguarded talk of a potential military response.

Bombs, however, are hardly the only option.

China and Russia have called on the United States to abandon joint military exercises with South Korea, in exchange for a freeze of North Korean military tests, a so-called "dual suspension" option.

At the same time, the Trump administration has signalled it wants harsher new economic sanctions against North Korea – doubling down on a strategy that has not demonstrably slowed the country's pursuit of deadlier technology.

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The pessimists, meanwhile, suggest the only realistic option is acceptance of failure.

"The United States has under many administrations and over many years said that a North Korean nuclear capability is unacceptable. More lately it's said a North Korean ICBM is unacceptable. And yet here we are," said Sam Roggeveen, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un now possesses both.

"It's hard to see a solution other than the U.S. living with this problem."

It is equally hard to see Mr. Trump making such a concession, which would mark a humiliating departure from decades of U.S. policy.

So instead, the world's leaders will again be forced to mull a set of options – each flawed, none with any guarantee of success.

This picture taken on July 4, 2017 and released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 5, 2017 shows the successful test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location.

Fighting fire with fire

With the mightiest military on Earth, U.S. attack options are constrained by little more than the cunning of its strategists. One advantage of armed confrontation is its ability to decisively eradicate an imminent threat.

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"One possibility is to take out a missile on a launch pad if we believe it is an ICBM that has the range to hit the United States," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But even a limited strike might prompt North Korea to rain down destruction on Seoul, which is within range of artillery clustered along the border.

There's the possibility, too, that the United States might not hit its target. "If we missed, the risk to our alliance and the credibility of extended deterrence is huge," Ms. Glaser said.

It's also unlikely that the United States possesses the intelligence to eliminate North Korea's nuclear and missile development, since the country secrets away its military treasures in warrens of caves and tunnels.

"We can cause substantial damage to North Korea's nuclear and missile development program. But it might only delay their program for two or three years, maximum," said Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

A more permanent solution would lie in a "full-blown massive large-scale attack," one devastating enough to "effectively undermine the DPRK's retaliatory powers," said Cheng Xiaohe, deputy director of the Centre for China's International Strategic Studies at Renmin University.

The United States can likely still mount such an attack without fear that its own territory will sustain damage.

North Korea has test-fired its ICBM only once, and that weapon remains "slow to fuel, slow to move and currently has additional infrastructure requirements to launch," said Scott LaFoy, an independent imagery analyst who studies ballistic missile technology. That means it would take North Korea a good deal of time to launch an ICBM, time during which "they are sitting ducks," he said.

The bigger risk lies in the wildfire any United States attack could ignite. War is never tidy, and North Korea is surrounded by powerful actors. Any "military action is likely to provoke a massive land war in Asia," said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Small wonder, then, that even some in the Trump White House aren't particularly enthusiastic about the military option. Defence Secretary James Mattis has described the conflict that would result as "catastrophic," involving "probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes."

"It would be a war that fundamentally we don't want," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (right) ahead the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 6, 2017.

The double suspension plan

"Peace is still within our grasp," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March, as he detailed a new plan to still the waters around North Korea.

His idea was, in concept, simple: both the United States and North Korea must give way if they want to banish the spectre of war. The United States, he said, should halt its joint military exercises with South Korea. In exchange, North Korea should quit testing missiles and nuclear weapons. Acts of mutual deference would lower tensions, allowing both sides to sit and talk.

Since then, Russia has joined in calling for the idea, which Beijing and Moscow like because it offloads their responsibility for a solution.

It is "a very constructive proposal," Prof. Cheng said. "If the international community really wants to seek a peaceful solution to the DPRK nuclear ballistic missile issues, then sooner or later they're going to do that."

Yet he also says the North Korean ICBM test makes the dual-suspension idea untenable at the moment.

The United States simply isn't interested. Halting exercises could erode military readiness. More important, a suspension of North Korean tests would do nothing to undo the progress that has already been made, leaving Pyongyang in possession of nuclear bombs and ICBMs. The United States is adamant that any agreement with North Korea include steps toward denuclearization, not maintenance of a potent arsenal.

"It's hard to really figure out how a suspension for suspension gets you to any outcome that is really desirable," Ms. Glaser said.

"I think that Kim Jong-un truly believes North Korea's security requires that he have a nuclear weapon he can deliver to the United States."

Soldiers gather in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea,Thursday, July 6, 2017, to celebrate the test launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile two days earlier.

Doubling down on sanctions

It would seem the worst form of insanity to keep trying something that has worked so badly.

Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, the United Nations Security Council has issued rounds of sanctions against North Korea, a decade of efforts to bar trade in goods or money that could support the country's nuclear-development program. It's had all the effect of dousing a fire with sheets of paper.

Yet sanctions may remain the best available option today – if they can be used to inflict real pain on North Korea.

Last year, the UN began to impose an economic squeeze, capping North Korean exports of coal and banning sales of gold and several other minerals.

After the ICBM test, the United States has made clear it wants to do more, such as halting the export of North Korean workers, a key moneymaker for the regime. Oil flows to North Korea could be restricted, tourists held back, the flow of ordinary trade interrupted, Chinese banks and companies targeted for non-compliance. "If we are unified, the international community can cut off the major sources of hard currency to the North Korean regime," Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday.

As it stands today, sanctions against North Korea remain well shy of the rigorous economic and financial measures once imposed on Iran. If that changes, so will Pyongyang, Mr. Go believes.

"We know that in the Iran case, economic sanctions had some impact after three or four years of implementation," he said.

Yet the United States alone has little ability to impose sanctions. The overwhelming majority of North Korea's foreign trade is with China, which has balked at the imposition of harsh measures out of fear that they will produce chaos on its doorstep.

Critics say China also stands to gain by allowing problems with North Korea to fester, damaging Washington's standing in the region. In the first quarter of this year, China's trade with North Korea actually rose 37 per cent from the year before. "So much for China working with us," Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday.

But Beijing also knows that an unwillingness to act carries its own risks.

"The likelihood of military conflict is on the rise. And if China and the United States fail to co-operate with each other, unilateral military action on the part of the United States will become increasingly likely," Prof. Cheng said.

He is optimistic common ground can be found.

"The DPRK has conducted grievous provocations, and I think China is more likely to endorse harsher sanctions," Prof. Cheng said.

Still, history has shown that there are distinct limits to how much China is willing to press North Korea.

And the international community is plotting against an inscrutable adversary. Tactics that might have succeeded with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may not work with his son, the current leader.

"Under Kim Jong-il, they sometimes made compromises. But now Kim Jong-un is very stubborn," said Prof. Jin, the North Korea scholar at Peking University.

What it all means is "nobody knows what to do with North Korea right now."

With reports from Yu Mei

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