Editor’s Note: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army officer, is director of Doctors Under Fire, a campaign against attacks on hospitals in war zones. He is also the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear adviser to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
How did it come to this? Kim Jong Un, an unstable and unpredictable dictator, is able to threaten the United States of America with what appears to be a viable nuclear weapon.
Is this a failure of intelligence? Or is it a failure of world leaders, the United Nations and the UN Security Council in stopping nuclear proliferation?
Whatever the reason, it has set an alarming precedent and does not bode well for those who fear Iran and other global “destabilizers” obtaining “the bomb”.
I have recently returned from a trip to the United States and Australia, where the reaction and coverage of the North Korean missile crisis is very different from what we are seeing in Europe – where politicians in the United Kingdom and Brussels are unable to deal with anything other than arguing about Brexit. People are very concerned.
President Donald Trump is being his usual bellicose self. In deference to this, Kim Jong Un appears be walking back on his threat to attack the US territory of Guam – then again, he does change with the wind.
My guess would be that this disaster scenario is far from over. Therefore, this brief pause presents an opportunity for Trump to get the backing of the Security Council, in particular its five permanent members – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear capability. Otherwise, we could be in for a whole heap of trouble.
In theory, if he needed to, Trump would be able to attack North Korea in order to prevent an attack on American soil – or, in a worst-case scenario, in response to an attack – he would be covered by UN Article 51.
But by seeking a Security Council resolution, Trump may encourage China and Russia – both of whom are more likely to have a constructive dialogue with the North Koreans – to get more involved in the diplomatic process. He should be encouraged that both nations have supported the UN resolution on sanctions thus far.
A Security Council resolution could prevent this crisis escalating to a global nuclear conflict if Russia and China are on the side of the United Nations in demanding North Korea is rid of nuclear weapons.
Disappointingly, the Security Council has been inept in resolving the Syrian crisis, so I do not hold out any great hopes for a coming together over this – unless the council’s permanent members, also known as the Permanent Five, lead the way.
And pleasingly, there appear to be fewer conflicts among the P5 countries over North Korea than with Syria.
Paradoxically, further UN sanctions might make the situation worse. North Korea is desperately poor and relies heavily on its trade with China.
With this flow of money stagnating – and the world allied against Kim Jong Un – the North Korean leader may feel he has no option but to shoot his way out. Guam is stratospherically strategically important. Attacking it would be the same as attacking the White House.
Conversely, a mishap by North Korean generals with missiles pointed at Guam – or a misjudgment of missile tests toward Japan – could see Trump’s “fire and fury” unleashed on North Korea.
They would undoubtedly release what they could toward Seoul, South Korea’s capital, before being flattened by US power .
Kim Jong Un is a mad man, the leader of a regime that has been accused by the South Korean government of using the deadly VX agent to kill family abroad – something Pyongyang denies. I do not think he would have any qualms about pressing the red button in this context.
Luckily, Rex Tillerson seems to be talking a lot of sense and at the moment, President Trump appears to be listening to his secretary of state.
But in my opinion it is the Security Council – most especially the P5 – that holds the key for both the United States and North Korea to get out of this rut without bringing with it Armageddon.
Though Kim Jong Un appears for now to be pulling back from attacking Guam, there is a chance that this has more to do with the fact that his missiles are not quite ready, rather than him coming to his senses.
Is this crisis a serious threat to world peace, or just a bully wanting some attention? What is clear, is that the international community’s counter-nuclear proliferation strategies have not been effective. The Security Council must review this as a matter of urgency – and the P5 must lead this review.