As the rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang escalates, the world is being forced to think the unthinkable, writes Raymond Whitaker

One of the most chilling expressions of the Cold War was the ‘madman theory’ of nuclear deterrence. When Richard Nixon was US president, some in the White House suggested that the country’s antagonist, the Soviet Union, needed to be convinced that America’s leader was unstable enough to be willing to launch a nuclear strike, otherwise deterrence did not work.

In the present nuclear crisis pitting the US against North Korea, ‘madman’ is just one of the playground insults being hurled between Washington and Pyongyang. Take, for example, Donald Trump’s recent reported comment on his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un: ‘We can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons let on the loose like that. We have a lot of firepower, more than he has times 20, but we don’t want to use it.’

It is a commonplace to depict the isolated and fanatical North Korean regime in apocalyptic terms. As Trump told the United Nations General Assembly, the country’s nuclear programme ‘threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of life’. The Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency estimates that Pyongyang will develop a reliable, nuclear-capable missile capable of reaching the US mainland by the end of next year, according to reports, while the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the respected London-based military think tank, warns that war is a ‘real possibility’.

It is equally common for Pyongyang to issue lurid threats, and for the people of South Korea to carry on as normal. What is new is that no previous president in US history has seemed more capable of launching a nuclear war in a fit of pique, which makes the epithets flying back and forth – Trump calling Kim ‘Rocket Man’; Kim making an unprecedented TV appearance to call Trump a ‘mentally deranged dotard’ – disturbing rather than amusing.

If Trump had been facing off against the old Soviet Union, perhaps the Kremlin might have concluded that with an American leader as thin-skinned and impulsive as the present one, it might be prudent to pull back. But in the North Korean leadership, he has an adversary that not only relishes provoking him, but seems to be positively daring him to strike first. A constant succession of missile launches, and what Pyongyang claimed was an underground hydrogen bomb test, was punctuated by increasingly specific threats. Talkof a strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam was followed by a senior North Korean official suggesting an H-bomb could be detonated over the ocean.

For his part, Trump appeared to be doing all he could to stoke North Korean paranoia, telling the UN that Kim was on a ‘suicide mission’ that would leave the US with no choice but to ‘totally destroy’his country. As the risk grew of a fatal miscalculation, White House officials had to act swiftly to let the world know that a presidential tweet suggesting that the North Korean leadership ‘won’t be around much longer’ was not a declaration of war, as Pyongyang immediately interpreted it. This was accompanied by another threat, to shoot down US bombers in international airspace if they came near North Korea’s borders.

Does this mean that war is imminent? Not according to the experts, who argue that there is method in Kim Jong-un’s apparent madness. Having seen the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up their nuclear programmes and were overthrown, he is determined not to rest until he has a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the US mainland. Then, he believes, he can negotiate from a position of strength – the US, for example, could be forced to withdraw its forces from South Korea in exchange for a promise by Pyongyang not to proliferate its nuclear know-how to other states or even terror groups.

The White House, for its part, insists that that will not be allowed to happen.But as Trump’s predecessors also found, nothing short of war seems capable of halting North Korea’s inexorable nuclear progress. AndPreparing for War in Korea, a paper by Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI’sDeputy Director-General, warns that casualties in such a conflict would be likely to reach the hundreds of thousands, even if no nuclear weapons were used. ‘The war could start in a variety of ways,’ Chalmers writes.‘North Korea could strike first if it believed that the US were moving towards a surprise attack; or a US attack might be triggered by North Korean test missiles hitting the ocean near Guam or California.

‘If war were to begin, it is likely to involve a large-scale US-led air and cyber offensive at an early stage, followed by massive North Korean retaliation against South Korea and US bases in the region, using conventional, chemical and possibly nuclear weapons. In these circumstances, a full-scale invasion of North Korea would be highly likely.’

This is a nightmare for China, the one nation capable of forcing the North Korean leadership to exercise some restraint, as Trump keeps pointing out on Twitter. What he fails to add is that the last thing Beijing wants is a flood of refugees on to its territory and nuclear-armed American and South Korean forces on its border. China would almost certainly prefer a more malleable regime in Pyongyang, but faced with the possibility of that regime collapsing, it regards a belligerent Kim, even with nuclear weapons, as the lesser evil.

China and Russia voted in the UN Security Council for tougher sanctions on North Korea, with Beijing announcing that all North Korean firms or joint ventures on its soil would be forced to close.But an American call for an oil embargo was rejected, precisely because of China’s fears that this would provoke the regime’s fall, although restrictions were agreed that are expected to reduce supplies by 10 per cent. China also imported large amounts of North Korean coal just before the UN’s complete ban went into effect, and has shipped large quantities of food grains to make up for drought and a South Korean halt in aid (since resumed by the new Seoul government), all with the aim of preventing unrest.

The US and South Korea are kicking off a big exercise just as North Korea threatens thermonuclear war
The US and South Korea are kicking off a big exercise just as North Korea threatens thermonuclear war

Given the huge costs the world would suffer if armed conflict broke out on the Korean peninsula, and despite the lack of diplomatic progress and the increasingly harsh rhetoric from senior US officials, Chalmers argues that ‘it is still hard to believe that Trump will be prepared to start another Korean war. In these circumstances, the most likely scenario over the next decade is that North Korea will acquire a credible capability for targeting the continental US with an increasing number of nuclear weapons.’

As with Israel, India and Pakistan, the most likely outcome is that Washington, along with the rest of the world, would reluctantly have to accept that outside pressure had failed to work, and that the number of nuclear-armed states had increased by one. Yet the Trump administration has so far given little indication that it is prepared to accept such a situation, the RUSI expert says.

‘If it is not,’ writes Chalmers,‘it faces a period of, at most, only two or three years – and perhaps much less, given the rapidity of North Korean technical progress – before it reaches a point at which military action can no longer be taken without unacceptable risk of nuclear retaliation against its own territory. Given this stark choice, there is a real possibility that Trump, with the support of some of his most senior advisers, will decide to resolve the North Korea issue sooner rather than later.’

In other words, the ‘madman theory’ is facing its ultimate test.

A former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Editor of The Independent on Sunday,Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs

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