How rude can you get? The US vice-president, Mike Pence, sitting one row in front of the sister of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un refused to turn round and say hi. She was one outstretched arm away from him. For the whole of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics he sat with his back to her. It didn’t have to be a handshake- unless the lady initiated it- but a pleasant expression and a friendly hello would not only be what mother told all us men to do when meeting a lady, it would a way of saying, “We Americans hope that we can substitute ploughshares for the sword”.
It would have complemented what the South Korean prime minister did which was to welcome Kim with a beaming smile and handshake, a meal and a serious round of talks during which she passed on her brother’s invitation to come to Pyongyang for talks. The Americans are rightfully concerned about the power of North Korea’s rockets and the growing stockpile of nuclear weapons but South Korea has been under the hammer for far longer. Long before the North developed weapons of mass destruction it had the capability to destroying most of Seoul with conventional armaments. Today Seoul and Tokyo could be obliterated by a nuclear attack with almost no warning time. The US which precipitated the whole crisis of nuclear confrontation is not directly threatened, although they might be in a couple of years’ time. The Americans at the very least should give the South Koreans space to see what negotiations can offer.
According to Professor Scott Sagan, writing in the influential Foreign Affairs, the administration of President Truman, flushed with its “success” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, considered a nuclear strike to keep the Soviet Union from developing nuclear weapons. Wiser voices prevailed, arguing that deterrence was a safer option. In the 1960s the Kennedy Administration approached the Soviet Union and asked if it would engage in a joint nuclear attack against China’s early nuclear program. Moscow rejected the idea and the US again had to learn to live with a nuclear China which it has with far less hysterics than it has exhibited over North Korea.
In August Trump warned, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” This was a profound change in a long-time policy which had previously warned of military responses only to acts of aggression. Now, Trump implied, nasty talk, bombast or rhetorical overkill would be enough to provoke a US nuclear attack. His senior staff reinforced his message, declaring “all options are on the table”.
Anyone on the receiving end of such words would assume the other side is contemplating a premptive, first strike, nuclear attack even though the country under attack has not gone to war.
If a so-called preventive nuclear strike was never on the table with the Soviet Union and China it shouldn’t be with North Korea. Even if the US would call it “anticipatory self-defence” and quote words from the UN Charter that would seem, at a stretch, to support that right it is not a policy one should let out of its cage. The UN Charter was written before Hiroshima and before one could imagine a situation like this. Moreover, if the taboo on a nuclear attack were broken in this way one could well imagine India, Pakistan and Israel feeling less constrained than they are now. Most importantly, North Korea might feel it was free to launch its own preventive nuclear strike on South Korea and Japan.
The US has got to face up to the fact that the window of opportunity for a successful US nuclear attack to stop the North Korean nuclear program and the possibility of it attacking South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons has closed.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump have passed up the opportunities that presented themselves for a negotiation that would end or severely limit North Korea’s nuclear bomb program. Only Bill Clinton came near to securing a final deal but the Republican majority in Congress torpedoed earlier deals made by him by refusing to implement important parts of what the US had agreed.
The US, in fact, is in the weakest of positions. Seoul is held hostage and, according to Scott Sagan and other well-briefed experts, the US does not know many of the locations of North Korea's missiles. It can’t take out what it doesn’t know is there.
The US has no defensive strategy that would work to protect South Korea once a war started. The THAAD anti-missile system, supposedly able to thwart an enemy nuclear attack, is a long way from being perfect and even if it were some missiles would get through. One successful rocket is enough to blow a big city apart.