Why North Korea could reach for the nuclear trigger
Donald Trump has vowed that the US will stop North Korea’s nuclear programme and has hinted he's prepared to take pre-emptive military action. The FT's chief foreign affairs columnist Gideon Rachman talks to Daniel Garrahan about the dangers that North Korea could lash out first.
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
Donald Trump has vowed that the US will stop North Korea's nuclear programme, and he's hinted he's prepared to take preemptive military action. But what are the dangers that North Korea could lash out first? Well, joining me now to talk about it is the FT's chief foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman.
Gideon, Mr. Trump is clearly ramping up the rhetoric. What do you make of it all? What do you think it's designed to do?
Well, at its simplest level, Trump has vowed that North Korea will not be able to develop a nuclear missile that is capable of hitting the United States. At the moment they've got nuclear weapons and they have missiles, but they haven't yet miniaturised the nuke so that they can put it on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten California. But people think they might be two years away from doing that. So Trump said he will stop that.
He hasn't been clear about exactly how he'll stop that. He said his preferred route is to put pressure on North Korea through China, it's closest ally and largest neighbour. And the implication he's left is that if China doesn't-- he said if China doesn't deliver, we'll sort the problem out ourselves. The implication, clear implication, being that America is willing to take military action.
And there must be big risks involved here. In your latest column you argue that Kim Jong-un may even act first and may even pull the nuclear trigger. Why do you think that is?
Well, I mean, that is obviously a very extreme scenario, and it's hard to believe that he would do that. But if you look at both what North Korea has said, what it does through military exercise, and some of the independent analysis of people who follow this issue very closely, there is a legitimate fear that built into North Korean planning is the idea of potentially doing a nuclear first strike. That this is apparently what they have been rehearsing in military exercises.
Indeed, the North Korean government, in an interview only yesterday, talked about preemptive nuclear strikes. And some academic analysts, not all, believe that they're both capable and willing to do that. So there's a chap called Jeffrey Lewis, who runs something called the Asia Nonproliferation Programme, who has written that he thinks that their thinking is that if they are about to be destroyed by a preemptive strike from the United States, better to use nuclear weapons early, in their immediate neighbourhood, in the hope of so intimidating people that they're forced into talks.
Now that seems like a crazy idea, because I think the Americans' reaction if North Korea were to use nuclear weapons would be massive retaliation.
Yeah, wouldn't it wipe them out completely? If they were crazy enough to do that.
Yes, but on the other hand, if they think they're about to be wiped out themselves, and they only have this one thing, the nuclear weapon, the danger is-- I mean, the whole scenario is so crazy that, you know, why would anyone think of using nuclear weapons in this context at all?
But once we have a regime that has developed nuclear weapons, that has incorporated them into its nuclear doctrine, that has threatened to use them, that has shown a willingness to commit acts of terrorism, and that is extremely indifferent to the loss of human life. Even in North Korea itself, where hundreds of thousands of people died in famines, the government didn't shift. So I don't think they'd have any moral compunction.
So what's this all about? I mean clearly, we don't want get to the point where nuclear weapons are being used, or even being threatened to being used. But, what's it about, then? Do you think it's all about ramping up pressure on China mainly?
Well, I mean, what's it all about for both sides? I think for the North Koreans it's about survival. Then there really is only one thing that they want to do and that is to prevent being invaded and taken over. And they regard the nuclear weapons as their ultimate insurance policy. They look at what happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to Gaddafi in Libya. Gaddafi, who had weapons of mass destruction and gave them up, and say, OK, we're not going to make that mistake.
From the Americans' point of view, it's about, how do we finally deal with this problem that has been building for 20 years? And I think that Donald Trump sees himself as the tough guy who is prepared to take the difficult decisions that he argues that Obama and Bush before him both avoided.
It's a very different approach to his predecessors, isn't it?
Yeah. I mean, although it is true that Obama, in his first conversation with Trump, we know said, this issue is building and you're going to have to deal with it. But sure, he is very keen on distancing himself from the previous administrations.
And I think you're right. He has said China is the key. But interestingly, he's also admitted that in a brief conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, that Xi had explained to him that it's a bit more complicated than that. That China may not simply be able to deliver North Korea in the way that Trump had assumed.
And what happens then? I mean, what happens if there are sanctions agreed with China, pressure is piled on the North Koreans, but ultimately they don't back down on this issue?
Well, I think that is the likeliest scenario and the biggest question, because I don't think that North Korea will give up nuclear weapons. As I say, they've tolerated extreme privation in the past. This is a leadership that looks after itself but really its people. And they are also regarded as their ultimate insurance policy, so I don't think they will give them up. The question is what does Trump do then? He's possibly on the horns of either taking an enormous, and I think, unconscionable, risk, or losing faith.