It will be difficult for President Donald Trump to step down from his threat to destroy North Korea if President Kim Jong-un continues down his “suicidal path”, says the writer. Picture: Evan Vucci / AP
The morning after President Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly that the US was prepared to destroy North Korea if necessary, I was in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) looking out over North Korea.

A paradise of lush green landscape and a river teaming with birdlife lay ahead in the 4km no man’s land. But underneath its natural beauty lies a sea of landmines, and blockaded secret tunnels that North Korea constructed in the 1970s in order to infiltrate the South and take it over.

The third tunnel, discovered in 1978, could have secretly infiltrated 30000 North Korean troops into Seoul in the space of an hour.

The situation in the DMZ was so tense this week that our specially arranged tour to the site of past negotiations between North and South had to be cancelled. The building lies precisely on the border line between North and the South in the heart of the DMZ, and guards fear that the most minor of provocation could set off a war.

I had just finished marathon meetings in Seoul the day before with North Korean policy experts. What was glaring was the lack of real concern about the possibility of a US attack on North Korea.

To even the most informed, a conventional or nuclear attack by the US was unimaginable as South Korea would probably suffer just as many casualties either from radiation or a retaliatory attack launched by North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. They believe that Trump has at least minimal rationality, and would never play Russian roulette with the lives of millions of South Koreans in the name of US national interests.

What made the policy experts so confident was that many of them had travelled to Washington last week, and been assured by officials in the US policy establishment that a military solution was not the way forward. Much of the US security establishment and state department would probably argue forcefully against any military solution to the North Korean crisis. They are all too mindful of the fallout after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un File picture: Wong Maye-E

The problem is that they might be wrong when it comes to Trump’s intentions. At the end of the day he is the commander-in-chief of US forces, and his speech to the UN indicates that he is being driven by a sense of ensuring “good” triumphs over “evil”, and if that means the annihilation of an entire country if diplomacy fails, then so be it.

Whether Trump was grandstanding or not, it will be difficult to climb down from his threat to destroy North Korea if “Rocket Man”, as he calls him, continues down his “suicidal path towards self-destruction”.

What the North Korean experts all agreed on was that Kim would not stop his missile tests or his race to militarise nuclear warheads. Since the election of the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in in May, who strongly advocated dialogue with the North, Kim has launched 10 missile tests, including a hydrogen bomb. There is nothing holding him back, if anything Trump’s threats have egged him on to work even faster.

Even if South Korea’s policy experts don’t think a war is coming to North Korea, South Koreans are more concerned. According to statistical surveys, previously 85% of South Koreans trusted the US president but that has plummeted to 17%. Seventy percent are concerned about a possible war.

Pressed to comment on South Korea’s preparedness for nuclear war, the policy experts responded that South Korea was woefully underprepared. Unlike Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, South Korea does not have an extensive and deep underground subway system that can double as nuclear bunkers with blast doors, for thousands of people, capable of storing water and food supplies.

While the standard line among policy analysts in South Korea is that sanctions should be tightened further, the reality is that even tighter sanctions are unlikely to deter or significantly slow down North Korea’s race to militarise its nuclear warheads. Even during the worst human suffering in North Korea at the height of the great famine in the mid-1990s which led to about three million dying of starvation, estimates are that the regime of Kim Jong-il spent $6billion on its military budget.

Despite existing UN sanctions against North Korea, the Bank of Korea says North Korea’s economy grew by 3.9% last year.

China and Russia will never allow an economic meltdown in North Korea as they have too much to lose in terms of refugees and instability, so they will probably keep the economy afloat one way or another.

With few diplomatic options left to coerce North Korea into halting its provocations, what will Trump do at the sign of the next missile test, and then the next? You can be sure that they are coming.

Independent Foreign Service