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North Korea Crisis Demands Change of Tactics

05/04/2013 13:42 BST | Updated 04/06/2013 10:12 BST
AP Files

Somewhere in Pyongyang there is a button. A button that, if pushed, could unleash nuclear devastation upon South Korea. Following Wednesday's order for an unlikely strike at the United States, and the American move to install a missile defence system on the Pacific island of Guam, it is clear tensions have never been so high. But is the US adopting the correct strategy to defuse the situation?

The first issue to consider is the personality and outlook of leader Kim Jong-un. As the world's youngest head of state, he offers a number of challenges which his predecessor and father, Kim Jong-il, did not. At one level, he is keen to implement a "radical" economic restructuring programme, but on another, he refers to nuclear weapons as "the nation's life", refusing to relinquish them for anything which might, in western eyes, achieve the former goal.

In fact, strange as it may seem, his early leadership bears an ominously similar style to Henry VIII, a dictatorial giant of his age. Henry was only 18 when he ascended to the throne and within a week he ordered the execution of his father's two most unpopular ministers. His determined, single-minded nature and fascination of war with France resulted in England going to war with her great foe in June 1513, just four years into his reign. Henry's policies could be heavily influenced by the power-hungry Privy Council; a mirror image of Kim Jong-un's relationship to his close circle of military generals.

Without realising, Kim Jong-un has placed himself in a difficult, inflexible situation. By taking such a hard-line stance so early since his election in 2011, he risks being unable to backtrack on his policies in the face of severe criticism from his generals, the guardians of North Korean power. As with Henry VIII and others throughout history, young leaders have tended to feel the need to over-exert themselves in the field of international policy to compensate for their perceived inexperience. From Kim Jong-un's point of view, he doesn't want to represent a puppet to the North Korean people.

Second, there are grave risks that each side is on a different wavelength when it comes to understanding basic objectives. For example, it seems the North Koreans interpreted the US and South Korean military manoeuvres last month as offensive, when they were in fact a defensive deterrent, conforming to Theodore Roosevelt's famous policy, "speak softly and carry a big stick". Although the North has stopped short of military mobilization, the knee-jerk reaction by Kim Jong-un to what is, don't forget, an annual exercise epitomises his unpredictability.

At the same time, however, the US needs to adopt a flexible position and President Obama cannot give in too easily to public's demand for a hardline military stance. Because North Korea feels it needs to ramp up the rhetoric to be taken seriously there is a danger the regime's frustration may eventually boil over with America's "big stick" policy. Many analysts believe Kim Jong-un is actually seeking a fresh round of negotiations for the first time since 2009; the US should take the initiative, enter these talks and test his resolve. As it stands, the line to tread between military deterrence and provocation of North Korea is becoming thinner with every passing month.

Greater flexibility with an eye towards diplomatic channels must be the ultimate goal, whatever public opinion might say. For instance, while the new South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has stated an interest in diplomacy talks without the requirement for the North's disarmament, the US still demands this prerequisite. Despite being unsuccessful to date, opening up diplomatic channels with China may also hold the key to pacifying North Korea's inexperienced, erratic leader.

Simply put, America's continuation of this "business as usual" course is likely to have grave consequences at some point in the future. As history has demonstrated time and again, it only takes one slight mistake or act of aggression during a tense period to spark a catastrophic conflict, beyond the point of no return. Above all, the recent crisis has armed North Korea with yet more excuses to push that deadly button and turn everyone's worst fears into a horrifying reality.