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US overreacting to North Korean missile tests

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 5, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.

North Korea’s second successful test launch of its Hwasong-14 missile has resulted in typically fiery rhetoric and sabre rattling from Washington.

Firstly the US stepped up its military exercises with South Korea, flying B-1 Lancer bombers “across the Korean Peninsula” (presumably that means across South Korea, though the way the flight is being reported appears intended to convey the undoubtedly false impression that they might have also overflown North Korea).  Then there was the announcement of a THAAD interceptor missile test.

President Trump meanwhile has been railing at China for its supposed failure to bring the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programme to a stop.

Not to be outdone, Nikki Haley, the US’s ambassador to the UN, has issued a statement saying the US will not seek a further UN Security Council Resolution to press North Korea to disarm and has also in effect blamed China for the impasse

In a sense Nikki Haley is right.  China and Russia made clear following the previous North Korean Hwasong-14 test that they were not prepared to countenance the sort of suffocating sanctions on North Korea that the US wants.  When Nikki Haley says that

An additional Security Council resolution that does not significantly increase the international pressure on North Korea is of no value.  In fact, it is worse than nothing, because it sends the message to the North Korean dictator the is unwilling to seriously challenge him.

She gives the game away.  She knows perfectly well that China and Russia will not countenance the sort of ‘suffocating sanctions’ resolution that the US wants, and neither she nor anyone else in the US wants to risk a Chinese and Russian veto which would simply highlight the fact.

That is why – with Russia supporting China and with China having possibly the support of other non-permanent members of the Security Council as well – Nikki Haley does not want to risk a Security Council debate and a vote which will simply expose the weakness of the US’s position.

Since however it seems that the Chinese and Russians are looking to convene a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the latest North Korean missile test, it is quite likely one will happen whether Nikki Haley or the US want one or not.  If that does happen notwithstanding Nikki Haley saying the US doesn’t want it to, then nothing could better illustrate the blind alley US intransigence on the North Korean issue has led the US into then the fact that at China’s and Russia’s initiative the UN Security Council is discussing the North Korean issue against the wishes of the US.

The trouble is that apart from military action – of the prospect of which see below – the US acts as if it has no options other than to rail at China to solve the North Korean problem for them.

The reality is that the US most definitely does have other options.  Before it exercises them the first thing it needs however to do is calm down.

I do not think the US truly understands how self-indulgent its behaviour appears on the North Korean issue to the other north Pacific powers.  China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have all been within range of North Korean missiles for many years now.  In the case of South Korea its capital Seoul is said to be within range of North Korea’s artillery as well.  All of these countries have been obliged to live with this “threat” for years, and are by now used to it.  The US for its part did nothing for them during all this time, and took no step to put an end to this “threat” to them even as they were being “threatened”.

It must be beyond vexing for all these countries that the moment North Korea test launches just two missiles which may have the range to reach the US – though this is disputed by the Russians – the airwaves suddenly fill with talk of the extraordinary danger North Korea poses.  These countries must wonder why a danger to the US from North Korea matters so much more than does a danger from North Korea to themselves.

In reality, though the test launches of the Hwasong-14 missile represent an impressive technical achievement – all the more so because the missile is mobile and road launched – the missile appears to be still in its development stage, with its payload apparently small and with great uncertainty as to whether the North Koreans have miniaturised their nuclear warhead technology sufficiently to arm it.  There is therefore still time before the missile enters service and does so in any quantity.

Beyond these questions there remains the overriding fact that even if North Korea does eventually field a number of operational missiles of this sort its nuclear capabilities will still be overwhelmingly dwarfed by those of the US, a fact which because of the immense industrial and technological disparity between the two powers will never change.  What that means is that unless the entire North Korean leadership – including Kim Jong-un – are intent on a bizarre form of suicide, there is no possibility of North Korea launching nuclear armed Hwasong-14 missiles at the US except in self-defence.

The US can therefore afford to take these North Korean missile tests in its stride.  By contrast threatening military action against North Korea – or worse still actually engaging in it – is the one thing that might actually provoke North Korea to strike against the US – or more realistically against one of the US’s allies – of which in all other respects no risk exists.

Ultimately the solution to the conflict in the Korean Peninsula lies through the same route which it has always done: through direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.  There is no need to involve China in them all the more so as the US has never explained why China would want to pick Washington’s North Korean coals out of the fire.  As the Chinese have repeatedly and correctly explained, North Korea with its missiles and its nuclear weapons ultimately is not their problem.

Victor Gao, a former diplomat who the BBC says is a Chinese government adviser, is reported by the BBC to have said that President Trump’s comments about China on the North Korean issue were “unhelpful” and that the US is acting like a “spoiled child”.  On the facts it is difficult to disagree.

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