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A no-win situation for the US

Martin Fritz, Journalist in Tokio
Martin Fritz
September 4, 2017

Donald Trump's options on North Korea are limited, as it is Kim Jong Un who is calling the shots with his nuclear and missile tests. The US can't rely on China and must look for a neutral mediator, says Martin Fritz.

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

North Korea's hydrogen bomb test on Sunday should be a serious matter for the US. A single such bomb, if used in an attack, could wipe out a city like New York. A hydrogen bomb explosion in the air above the Silicon Valley could completely paralyze the functioning of US technological giants like Apple, Facebook and Google. And Pyongyang will soon have the means to carry out such attacks.

Read more: North Korea preparing ballistic missile launches, says Seoul

The US has so far failed to put a halt to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. It's been 11 years since the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea after the communist country conducted its first nuclear test. Since then, the reclusive regime in Pyongyang has been enhancing its nuclear strike capabilities. It is obvious from Washington's recent reactions to the North's nuclear and missile tests that it did not expect this outcome and is totally unprepared to deal with the situation.

Martin Fritz, Journalist in Tokio
Fritz: 'You can look at it from any angle, but the US is the main loser in the current Korean conflict'Image: Privat

US President Donald Trump has been threatening the regime in North Korea. But neither conventional nor a nuclear strike is a realistic option for Washington. South Korea and Japan, the US allies in the region, would not approve of it, for they would be the immediate victims of any retaliatory strikes. And if the US chooses to build pressure through more sanctions on the North and wait for their impact, Pyongyang will gain more time to perfect its missiles.

Read more: A closer look at which countries trade with North Korea

North Korea wants to negotiate a peace treaty with a guarantee that sanctions will be lifted. But that is not all; the North wants to be recognized as a nuclear state by the international community. North Korean officials cite the example of Pakistan, which has been accepted as a nuclear state by the US. So for negotiations with the North, the US would have to give up its demand for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It could possibly negotiate a restriction on the nuclear arsenal, but nothing more than that. But that would not be acceptable to Seoul and Tokyo.

The "double game" of China is also frustrating for the Trump administration. The US is dependent on Beijing to implement UN sanctions against North Korea. But Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his own goals. The proposed oil embargo on North Korea will not be endorsed by China. Secondly, Beijing wants to weaken Washington's influence in East Asia. Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program is proving to be quite useful for Beijing to counter the US alliance with South Korea and Japan.

Russia, by any means, is not a neutral player in the Korean conflict either. The perception that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to humiliate the US cannot be brushed aside. The rapid progress of North Korea's missile technology raises suspicions about Russian help even though there is no hard evidence for that. In any case, the changed power balance in the Far East points to Russia's importance in the region. Moscow's insistence on talks rather than further sanctions fits this role. 

You can look at it from any angle, but the US is the main loser in the current Korean conflict. President Trump's tweets about North Korea expose this fact.

Washington should look for a neutral mediator to resolve the conflict. It could be Sweden or Germany, for instance. However, the measure would require a high degree of maturity in Washington – something which has been missing all this while.