I’ve been busy latterly. Hence this article over at Telegraph Premium (££) on North Korea and its missiles.

Maybe you’re too mean or too poor to pay for that? Here are some highlights:

Pyongyang has one Great Demand: achieving global acknowledgement/status. Since 2003 when it left the Non-Proliferation Treaty framework (prohibiting signatory states other than the original nuclear powers from acquiring nuclear weapons), the North Korea regime has forced the international community to negotiate on its terms. What better exemplifies the glory of North Korea than sitting down as an equal with Japan, Russia, USA, China and South Korea, and setting the agenda?

Enter President Trump. What if he says: ‘I won’t submit to this blackmail! Let’s end this nonsense!’?

His apparent willingness even to contemplate that question seems to have given Beijing and Moscow food for thought. His Defence Secretary James Mattis is one of the smartest, steeliest people ever to hold that office. If anyone can work up a plan with a respectable chance of success to hit North Korea abruptly with overwhelming force without simultaneously blowing up South Korea, he’s that man.

On the other hand, does President Trump really mean it? His joint statement with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in Washington on 30 June was studiously diplomatic, even sensible:

The two leaders noted, with appreciation, constructive actions by some countries to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on the DPRK to return to credible negotiations on denuclearization. They noted the important role China could play …

The two leaders emphasized that the door to dialogue with the DPRK remains open under the right circumstances.

Likewise President Trump has been quick to call an urgent UN Security Council meeting as part of his diplomatic response to North Korea’s latest missile test. Jaw-jaw. Just the sort of high-profile empty thing President Obama might have done?

Fine. What is to be done?

How united/loyal/tough is the North Korean elite and security establishment? Are they ready to die for North Korean ideology – or are they looking for a chance to scuttle?

Washington variously with Beijing/Moscow/Tokyo/Seoul pores over such questions and discusses scope for agreement on further pressures:

  • stopping ships/planes going to/from N Korea to search for illicit technologies
  • getting private messages to senior regime people urging them to help topple the regime, or at least to stand aside if it starts to wobble
  • going hard after North Korea’s bank accounts
  • starting active planning for the day when North Korea does rejoin the global mainstream: how to manage and fund this complex new transition?
  • talk about quiet but firm understandings about a new reunified ‘neutral’ Korea within respectable Asian security architecture that all can accept?

Such sharp but sustained policy moves require patience, nerve, discipline and willpower. Might a quixotic Tweeting President Trump amaze us and deliver that? Or might concern that he’ll lose his patience and do something reckless spur Beijing and Moscow to try something else?

Wait. What was that missile test in fact? Was it an ICBM? Or just an impressive firework? If the latter, why new sanctions? Russia politely poses the question at the UN, no doubt with an eye on waiting and seeing how Presidents Putin and Trump get on today.

And in any case, according to one Isaac Stone Fish at the Guardian, President Trump’s terrible Korea policies are pushing Russia and China together. Devastating!

Xi and Trump share the quixotic desire for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and the equally unrealistic wish for Kim to act with more predictability and restraint.

The similarities basically end there. Washington wants the peninsula unified under Seoul. Moscow and Beijing both appreciate North Korea’s existence as a buffer state between their countries and the democratic, western-leaning South Korea, which houses roughly 29,500 US troops. While North Korea’s largest northern border is with China, it also shares an important border with Russia.

At a piffling 17(!) kilometres, that border is ‘important’ only insofar as it allows Russia to elbow its way into the issue.

Maybe the way to bring everyone together on this one is to use a very big What If? question, to get away from sterile bickering over Positions and drill down into real Interests and Needs.

What if:

Korea is legally reunited under one flag in a complicated one-country-two-systems sort of way that USA/China/Russia/Japan together guarantee

It accepts as part of the deal a phased withdrawal of US forces and denuclearisation/neutrality

Done. No-one is threatened. Everyone gets richer.