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Gale's View - North Korea

August 16th 2017

The 1960s American student satirist, Tom Lehrer, once wrote a song called “We will all go together when we go”. Set in the context of the Cuban missile crisis, when the World was right on the brink of Armageddon for three days, that black humour summed up the position with stark reality.

At the time of writing we appear to be on the brink again. The point of a nuclear deterrent is that it is supposed to deter. It is based upon the assumption that faced with mutually assured total destruction any two, or more, sides in a potential conflict will back off and in 1968 it worked. President John F. Kennedy quickly but carefully constructed the necessary political consensus across all parties in the US Legislature, spoke via television to the American people and then made his position clear to Russia. The Soviet Union`s President Khrushchev got the message and turned his missile-carrying ships away from confrontation.

Deterrence is, though, based also upon the assumption that the parties involved in a dispute are rational and recognise the danger of escalation to the point of the deployment and use of even limited nuclear weapons. In the case of North Korea`s Dictator Kim Jong Un, a man who has a touching faith in his own immortality as a demi-god, the term `rational` does not apply. It remains to be seen whether the “hell fire and brimstone” message from the Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces, President Trump, has any desired effect but it seems more likely that the belligerent rhetoric will escalate further and we have to hope and pray very hard that this does not then translate into open warfare between, on the one hand, the militarily most powerful nation upon earth and on the other hand a regime that is possibly willing to sacrifice its entire population on the altar of one man`s crazed ego.

There is small comfort, either, in the fact that President Trump appears to announce his intentions by press release from a bunker, even if that bunker is literally a sandpit on one of his many golf courses. The President of the United States has a battery of military advisers and expertise in his arsenal and it would be good to think that the military options and consequences were considered before Mr. Trump made his parody of President Truman`s speech following the nuclear bombing of Japan. It would be good to think that but there are no signs that Mr. Trump`s utterance was anything other than personal and impetuous.

On the brighter side the United Nations, tardily but for the first time, has determined to tighten the screw of sanctions upon the economy of North Korea and while as always it will be the `ordinary people` that will suffer first and fastest there is some hope that, behind the scenes, other cogs have begun to engage. That both Russia and more significantly China, the only country with which North Korea has a treaty, have signed up to the sanctions is important. China could, and even at this late stage might, still wield sufficient power and influence to intervene and precipitate the downfall of Kim Jong Un. That possibility of course begs the question “Who or what will replace him if he goes” and we have seen in Iraq, Libya and other countries the consequences of leaving the succession question un-answered.

What is terrifyingly clear, however, is that if Kim Jong Un remains in power then it will be when and not if that he achieves a nuclear warhead deliverable by ballistic missile and the probability that he would scarcely think twice about using such a weapon has truly awesome consequences for mankind. Under those circumstances the decision that will be taken by the United States is whether or not to launch a non-nuclear pre-emptive strike and to take out the regime, the nuclear and rocket facilities and probably tens of thousands of North Korea`s civilians as well in the interests of preventing a nuclear holocaust. We have to hope that those decisions will be taken with sanity and calm reason and not with the petulance for which this White House has established a reputation.

If it goes wrong then, as Tom Lehrer said, “There will be no sorrow and no mourning when we get four minutes warning: we will all go together when we go”. I have five grandchildren and I want them, and those who are dear to you, to grow up in a world that is at peace but first they must be afforded the chance just to grow up and even that, at present, seems at risk.

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