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A misstep on N Korea may lead to first use of nuclear weapons after World War II

Pyongyang’s threats with ICBM’s and nuclear tech need to be handled carefully because a diplomatic misstep in the Korean peninsula could result in the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II

editorials Updated: Jul 05, 2017 17:08 IST
Hindustan Times
North Korea,ICBM,Pyongyang
This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, in North Korea's northwest, July 4.(AP)

A bad boy has got himself a big gun and the neighbours don’t know what to do. That crudely sums up the predicament that the US and, to some degree, China find themselves with North Korea’s first successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Whether the missile could make it all the way to North America is uncertain. But that is almost certainly just a matter of time. There will be a longer lag before Pyongyang can prove it has developed a miniaturised nuclear warhead for use on the missile. Again, this is also a matter of time.

What is clear is that North Korea has fast forwarded closer to the day it can credibly say it can strike continental US with a nuclear weapon. This, in turn, raises the question as to the nature of Washington’s response, especially if it concludes it cannot accept the threat of nuclear blackmail by the most renegade government on earth.

New Delhi will feel a sense of déjà vu at Washington’s predicament. India, after all, has been under the nuclear shadow of another rogue state, Pakistan, for years. And Islamabad’s illicit nuclear weapons programme greatly benefited from North Korea’s sister programme. Unlike India, however, the US does have the ability to militarily stop North Korea at any time, but only if it is prepared to absorb the collateral damage that this would have on South Korea, Japan and its relations with China.

US President Donald Trump has not helped matters by blowing hot and cold on North Korea. While his administration seems to accept that North Korea is their thorniest foreign policy issue, its messaging to Pyongyang has been all over the place. One of the reasons for North Korea’s nuclear-cum-missile brinkmanship has been dictator Kim Jong-un’s demand that the US agree to negotiate directly with him as an equal partner. The US has refused, saying this would be succumbing to blackmail while undermining the regional six-party structure. But Mr Trump initially declared he would be “honoured” to meet the North Korean dictator directly. This was eventually rolled back by his staff but not before encouraging Pyongyang to continue down a path of provocation.

China’s unwillingness nor inability to control North Korea will at least allow US-Chinese relations to shift to a more natural and thus more belligerent status. Washington however needs to provide much more clarity on what exactly its red lines and responses will be to Pyongyang’s actions. This is doubly important given the incoherence that has marked the Trump administration. More than anywhere else in the world, a diplomatic misstep in the Korean peninsula could result in the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.

First Published: Jul 05, 2017 17:03 IST