Fear drives North Korea to act this way. The US must take a diplomatic lead

The country’s latest ballistic tests are a sign of its insecurity. The US should cease manoeuvres in the region – and find a way to engage with Pyongyang.

North Korea continued flaunting its burgeoning weapons arsenal on Friday by firing off one of its sophisticated long range ballistic Hwasong-14 missiles. This missile landed in Japanese waters. By the end of the first term of Trump’s presidency, experts suggest, similar missiles could be capable of hitting Los Angeles and Washington with thermonuclear warheads.

The test prompted the lastest Trump Twitter assault on China. “Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet … they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.

When Kim Jong-Il, the father of the country’s current leader, was asked why he was spending his country’s scarce resources on ballistic missiles, he replied: “I have to let them know I have missiles because this is the only way the US will talk to me.” His son might put it differently: “It’s the only way the US will not attack us, and the only way they will not remove me from power.”

The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.

I visited North Korea last year with the aim of understanding how people inside the country thought. Of course my experience was restricted. I was accompanied everywhere by minders who were loyal and obedient advocates of the regime. The people I spoke to all saw the outside world as threatening.

Material conditions have improved for some, but psychologically many North Koreans are still victims of their history. They constantly referred to the past – the Korean War, the Japanese occupation, the end of Soviet aid and the looming power of the US. In the Korean war alone, 20% of the population was killed. When the bombing stopped in 1953, the US never declared a full armistice. In North Korean eyes, the Americans still retain the right to attack their country and they want a permanent peace treaty.

One of the reasons it is so difficult to resolve conflict is that we fail to look at our own behaviour and how it is perceived by those we see as our foes. We do business with our friends and not with our enemies. De-escalation and dissolution of tension is seldom achieved by looking though a one-way lens. To Americans, US-led war games in the region may look like a defensive manoeuvre, but to North Korea they look antagonistic.

Trump’s tweet mentioned how “very disappointed” he is with China. “China could easily solve this problem!” he claimed. It is true that China has the most influence over North Korea; it supplies the country with most of its heavy fuel and food. China has its own agenda, however: it does not want to see the collapse of its neighour, and it fears regional chaos and the risk of US troops on its border. It was hardly reported in the western media, but in January Pyongyang proposed that tensions could be eased if the US suspended joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea would respond, they asserted, by suspending their nuclear tests. This freeze-freeze proposal was supported by China and Russia and more recently by South Korea’s new president. Washington rejected it, not wanting to acknowledge any equivalence between their war games and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.

There are no military options to consider in this stand-off. North Korea will hit back in a densely populated region: 25 million people live in Seoul alone. So the only option is engagement with Pyongyang, which needs to be quiet and off the record and without preconditions. First steps could include the scaling back of US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for the North agreeing to freeze its nuclear programme tied to confidence-building measures. Unpalatable as it may seem, the regime has no intention of negotiating away its nuclear arsenal because it sees this as a survival insurance policy. Only when the security anxieties of all parties are considered can the issue of nuclear weapons be addressed.

The current febrile atmosphere is only making things more dangerous. Responses need to be measured to bring the temperature down – undisciplined tweeting will only make things worse. Quiet, off-the-record engagement is essential to establish whether Pyongyang’s behaviour is a perverse strategy for seeking peace negotiations. When a stand-off results in nuclear danger and increasing global anxiety, provocation, posturing and name-calling is far too dangerous a game to play.