Trump’s Cuban missile crisis

The Trump administration is attempting a balancing act on North Korea – and the stakes couldn't be higher.


Pyongyang: its weaponry is more sophisticated than supposed
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.)

The Trump administration is "attempting a balancing act" on North Korea, says Carol Lee in The Wall Street Journal. It is using "bellicose rhetoric" and promises of military assistance for allies defending themselves against the regime, alongside attempts to persuade China to put pressure on its neighbour and ally.

Tensions "spiked" last weekend after Kim Jong-un staged a grand military parade in honour of his grandfather followed by yet another (botched) missile test. On Monday, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited South Korea and emphasised America's willingness to use military force, declaring that the era of "strategic patience" was over. At the same time, he expressed hope that China would "do more" to set a course for peaceful resolution.

North Korea has long been a thorn in America's side. The regime conducted two nuclear tests and an array of ballistic missile tests last year, defying six Security Council resolutions banning any testing, says Edith Lederer in The Washington Post. Sanctions and diplomacy have not succeeded in curbing Kim's military ambitions. The reason for this, adds Ishaan Tharoor in the same paper, is that Pyongyang sees its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles as its "main ticket to survival. For years it has asserted itself on the international stage by sabre-rattling and won real concessions from its neighbours by possessing a potential nuclear deterrent."

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Unless the missiles were "mocked-up dummies", the hardware on display on Saturday was more "sophisticated" than any seen to date, says Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times. They even included an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of 5,000-10,000km known as the KN-08 or KN-14, which Trump had tweeted "will never happen". At best, it suggests Kim's ambitions are greater than we supposed. At worst, it means that North Korea can launch a strike on the US mainland.

China's strategy to date has been to keep the regime afloat, not just to avoid a devastating war on its borders and an exodus of refugees that could damage its own economy, but also to act as a "buffer" against the US military presence in South Korea, says Tharoor. However, Beijing is increasingly coming to see North Korea as a threat to its own security, says Lucy Hornby in the Financial Times, not least because a nuclear-armed Pyongyang could encourage Japan to develop its own arsenal. China's current priority is therefore to get talks "of any kind" started to avoid a conflict on its borders, says The New York Times.

Will self-interest, along with Trump's apparent willingness to consider war, be enough to get China to bring the regime to the negotiating table? And will North Korea be willing? America's approach might work, but it seems "more likely" that the regime "will not back down", says Gideon Rachman in the FT. Kim has embraced his grandfather's "militarism, isolationism and paranoia" and there is a risk that if he concludes that the US is poised to attack, he could strike first. "His incentive to move fast will only have been increased by [reports] that the US's war plans involve an early attempt to kill the North Korean leadership."

On Monday, North Korea's deputy UN ambassador Kim In-ryong said the regime was "ready to react" to any US military action and accused the US of creating a "dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment". Comparison has been drawn with the Cuban missile crisis, and it's an "alarming" one, say David Sanger and William Broad in The New York Times. "While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise", it's hard to dispute the idea that "when national ambition... ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many".

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.