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Thinking the Unthinkable

Stephen White
© Romolo Tavani /

As the rhetoric between America and North Korea ratchets up serious people have to ask the question ‘What if someone does something very silly and presses the red button?’. If you saw the 2015 TV movie War Book where a fictional role play re-enactment of this type of scenario (in the movie’s case a nuclear explosion in India instigated by Pakistan) with War Office/COBRA personnel trying to strategize as events take place you will know that the effect of such an incident will be devastating.

The first and easiest mistake is to assume that Northern Europe will not be directly involved, either physically or politically, in the aftermath of an aggressive episode which will probably happen in South Korea or Guam or somewhere in the Pacific or maybe even the US West Coast – all many thousands of miles away. But if we have nationals who happen to be in these places and get killed, or trapped, we become involved even if we don’t want to. Once we are involved we have to take sides – the Special Relationship between the UK and the US carries responsibilities. And once we take sides we become a potential target for the enemy. And all that can happen in 24 hours.

So given this Armageddon possibility, what should the UK be doing now to broker a deal between the madmen who are squaring up to each other. The natural place to turn is the United Nations, but the UN is not a peace keeper; it is a political organisation made up of member states each with a political agenda. In the last 2 years it has singularly failed to bring peace in Syria, in Ukraine, or in Yemen, and there is no good reason to believe its members would be any more motivated to do so with this dispute.

So maybe back door diplomacy is more appropriate. We should use the Special Relationship to try to calm the invective coming from Donald Trump. Fine, but if the language is moderated only on one side it looks and feels like surrender, and I don’t think Trump does surrender.

So should  we demand that China invokes its special relationship with North Korea to speak sharply to Kim Jong Un and get him also to back off. Yes, except that he appears to be a weirdo who doesn’t take any more notice of his ‘friends’ than he does of his enemies.

Sanctions? They’re already in place and fierce, they are broadly ineffective and anyway they only work long term. Isolation? North Korea is about as isolated as it could be – short of denying Dennis Rodman the capability of travelling there (he is a basketball star much admired by Kim Jong Un and who has been to North Korea several times in recent years).

It seems to me that all of these pressure tactics fail because they are negative. They are designed to punish;  we can see they haven’t worked so far and there is no reason to believe that will change.

As in most situations where negotiators have to decide whether to threaten or incentivise, the better strategy is to think positive. To offer North Korea economic riches beyond its wildest dreams. At a price. And the price would be carefully managed regime change. The problem is that all our recent attempts at regime change – in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya – have been abject failures. Does that mean that we are incapable of it? Perhaps it is just that it needs much more intellect and wisdom than we have applied previously.

Don’t confuse this view with appeasement or liberalism. I’m for taking firm punitive action as quickly as the next man when it stands a chance of working. But where two men who are the essence of  unstable and disruptive behaviour square up to each other I don’t fancy the odds of success.

What have we got to lose? The future is as bleak as it gets anyway.

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