North Korea seems to be on a four-year cycle. You can go back and read my post from 2013, explaining why that year’s crisis was much less worrying than the media made out. And if you’re still not convinced, you can read much the same thing in this story from four years before that.
The Cold War is now so far back in history that many people have forgotten (or never learned) what nuclear weapons are all about. So the Guardian, for example, introduces a set of (mostly very sensible) commentaries with a reference to the “North Korean leadership using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip rather than an offensive weapon.”
But the primary point of nuclear weapons – whether North Korea’s or America’s – is neither of those things. It’s deterrence. Possession of nukes sends a message to potential adversaries that any attack, conventional or nuclear, would come at an unacceptable cost. And while it’s an unsatisfactory option for a number of reasons, it’s still true that, as I said in 2009, “nuclear proliferation has a good record at keeping the peace.”
So it’s been a consistent policy of the Kim dynasty to acquire such a deterrent for itself, to avoid facing the fate of Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi. (I don’t always agree with Tom Switzer, but he did a very good job of explaining this a few months back.) In no way does that imply any intention to use it, unless facing imminent attack. Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that that would be suicidal.
One important thing, of course, has changed since the earlier crises. In 2009 and 2013 we could have confidence that the American president was more calm and rational than his North Korean counterpart. That can no longer be assumed.
But it’s not clear that really makes much difference. Nuclear deterrence was often modelled with the ostensibly rational tools of game theory, but it’s a mistake to think that it assumes rationality among its participants – at least beyond a certain bare minimum. On the contrary, a reputation for instability can make the deterrent more effective: Kim might well have taken some risks against Barack Obama that he will not take against Donald Trump.
Auberon Waugh once remarked that “it is one of the most unpleasant parts of any American President’s job that he has got to pretend to be mad, or the nuclear deterrent would lose all credibility.” If he’s not actually pretending, so much the better.
Could Trump start a war unilaterally? In principle, yes, but the realities of his position count strongly against it. Nuclear missiles cannot by launched via Twitter; they require a number of real people to give orders, push buttons, turn keys, all down the chain of command. Those people are unlikely to respond unthinkingly to a Trumpian tantrum. We know that the defence establishment in the 1970s had contingency plans to prevent Richard Nixon launching a rogue attack, and Nixon was a model of rationality compared to Trump.
Guy Rundle told us the other day that Trump’s words “have served to really bring us closer to war,” but he didn’t explain how. No-one is going to try to take on the US military; Trump will only get a war if he starts it himself. And doing that would require more than a moment of anger. It would require a determined plan, pursued consistently – and of that Trump shows no sign.
Wars happen either because someone plans for them, or because someone miscalculates in a context where two sides are prepared for war as a realistic option. That’s what made the crisis over Qatar (now, thankfully, calming down) so scary: there were two competing systems of alliances at loggerheads, posing the risk of rapid escalation.
With North Korea, on the other hand, the other participants – principally China and South Korea – have nothing to gain and everything to lose from increased tension. Trump and Kim can have their shouting match, but the rest of us should chill out.
And while we’re at it, we should persevere, as Tom Malinowski suggests, with the sort of peaceful measures that might hasten the inevitable collapse of the Kim regime from within.