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Bigger threats from President Trump benefit Kim Jong Un

September 5, 2017 3:40 AM
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Bigger threats from President Trump benefit Kim Jong Un

Warnings of "fire and fury" strengthen the myth North Korea needs to defend itself, writes Sky's new US Correspondent Mark Austin.

As I moved into my Washington flat at the start of a year covering events here for Sky News, the phone-in on one of many the local radio stations made for uncomfortable listening.

Should President Trump bomb North Korea was the question. And the answer I heard from a number of callers was all too clear: yes.

The Trump rhetoric - threatening fire and fury never seen before - may play well with his core support. But curiously, it also plays straight into the hands of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The cult status of the Kim dynasty is built on the myth that its single most important role is defending the motherland from a menacing and all-powerful foreign enemy - aka the United States.

The bigger the threat - and one thing Mr Trump excels at is threatening big - the better it is for Kim Jong Un, who knows his very survival rests on being the anointed defender of the Korean people.

It has always been thus. Way back in 1992 I managed to get into North Korea, which was then led by the current leader's grandfather Kim Il Sung, to secretly film a series of reports.

I attended a rally where the ageing dictator invoked the threat of American invasion to unite his audience and the wider country.

It's astounding. It seems you can let half the population starve, consign millions more to poverty and deprive the rest of the people of any sort of political freedom - and yet if you persuade them that you're the Great Leader ensuring their glorious destiny and protecting them from the evil influence of foreign powers, then all will be well.

Even in those days, by the way, the race to build nuclear weapons was on. It was seen then, as it is now, as the best way to ensure the survival of the regime. And that is everything. It is all that matters.

To Donald Trump perhaps - and certainly to his base support - the military solution sounds good. The problem is that every possible military option is bad. Some less bad than others, but all are bad.

The option most talked about is the preventative strike - a crushing, overwhelming attack to take out the nuclear weapons, eliminate the threat once and for all, destroy the country's military and remove Kim Jong Un from power.

Tempting perhaps, and in some sort of fantasy, Hollywood world it may work. But in the real world it is utter madness. Such an assault is unthinkable because it would essentially unleash mass slaughter across the Korean peninsula.

Even without his nuclear weapons, the Kim regime has a huge conventional arsenal, chemical and biological weapons and a million man ground army.

An American attempt to crush North Korea - even, and this is highly unlikely, one carried out with an element of surprise - would almost certainly lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths, many of those in the South, which would come under sustained attack within minutes.

It would be catastrophic at best. And at worst it may lead to the very the thing it is designed to prevent: a nuclear conflict.

Another much talked about possibility is the so-called "warning strike", a punch on the nose that would be punitive enough to slow the nuclear programme but not so devastating as to guarantee a response from Kim.

All very appealing on the face of it. The most likely target under this scenario would be one of his nuclear sites such as the reactor at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium.

There are several problems. An attack on nuclear sites may release radioactive material which could be disastrous.

But more worrying still is that a limited strike may not be interpreted as that. And once the shooting starts it is very difficult to gauge where it will end.

A limited operation may well turn into a protracted and costly one. Miscalculation or misunderstanding have triggered many full-scale conflicts.

A third option is targeting the North Korean leadership. This is often called the "decapitation" strategy. US and South Korean troops have taken part in exercises for just such a strike.

Again there are problems. It would be hugely difficult to pull off, would require inside help that almost certainly doesn't exist, and if you bumped off Kim Jong Un who would replace him? They may be much worse.

And here lies the slither of hope in all this. Kim Jong Un is clearly a jumped-up narcissist, with strange habits and a terrible haircut. But he's not crazy.

Indeed it could be said he is winning this high-stakes game of poker. His nuclear programme may not be all he says it is, but it has clearly come on in strides since he took over.

The evidence is that he is not seeking a military confrontation but is rather coveting the H-bomb as a means of long-term survival.

The key in all this is China. It does not want a nuclear armed North Korea, but even less does it want the Korean regime destroyed. It's afraid that would lead to a Korean peninsula under the firmer grip of the Americans. And US forces on its border is not something it would welcome at all.

So there is a chance that if China really does fear a conflict that could lead to the Kim regime being swept away, it may just put real pressure on Pyongyang to step back.

It's possible. So perhaps, after all, Donald Trump is right to talk of a massive military response?


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