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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Liberating 25 million enslaved North Korean people should be our priority

Published by The ipaper (4th September, 2017)

It felt like an earthquake. Tremors rippled out from the underground test zone buried deep in a North Korean mountain and sent lights swinging from ceilings across the border in China. Western geologists said the explosion had magnitude of 6.3, although defence experts in South Korea said it was slightly lower. But even their estimates mean the blast was at least five times stronger than the North’s last nuclear test a year ago – which, to put in perspective, was roughly the same power as the World War Two bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

No wonder shock waves from North Korea’s sixth nuclear test are being felt around the world. Pyongyang claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb, many times more devastating than an atomic bomb. True or not, there is no doubt its lethal arsenal is advancing rapidly under Kim Jong-un. Last year alone, this young despot carried out more ballistic missile tests than his father did in almost two decades running the dynastic dictatorship. In little more than a week his nation has test launched four ballistic weapons, including one that flew ominously over Japan.

This was an extraordinary, if entirely predictable, show of defiance at a time when the United States president is talking so tough. Last month Donald Trump warned Kim not to make any more threats to his country. ‘They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,’ he tweeted. Now North Korea is claiming to have concluded testing of crucial parts of their desired nuclear system: a missile that can reach American shores. ‘Today’s event was meaningful, for we’ve reached our goal of completion of national nuclear power,’ said a state television announcement.

North Korea is a tiny nation with an economy smaller than Americans spend on cats and dogs, but it is projecting its power emphatically with this extraordinary game of nuclear chicken. Even the timing of the blast was provocative with the US enjoying the Labor Day holiday weekend and China’s president Xi Jinping opening a major summit. It also came the day after it emerged that Trump, with incredible if typical short-sighted ineptitude, has begun moves to withdraw from a free trade deal with South Korea.

Clearly bluster and bellicose threats are not going to thwart Kim. So what can be done in this terrifying standoff between two mavericks, one at the helm of a global superpower and the other in total control of a nuclear-armed minnow? Many call for talks – but few offer suggestions for what might be on the table, let alone solutions. Two previous deals with Kim’s father failed since the regime secretly cheated. Aid and engagement simply provided helpful cover for expansion of secret weapons projects, as I have heard myself from defectors.

Jaw jaw is always worth a try, of course, especially when five of the world’s biggest armed forces have troops in and around the Korean peninsula. Conflict would be catastrophic even if nuclear missiles remain in silos. But we must be realistic. Kim is not a madman, as often portrayed. He is a ruthless ruler determined to protect his life, heritage and legacy as demigod in the world’s most gruesome regime. Bear in mind even the Mount Mantap test site was built on blood, with underground tunnels hacked into the granite by forced labourers from death camps. One escaped guard has told me how he drove hundreds of young men there who never returned.

This regime needs to change for the sake of 25m people enslaved by a hideous system. Yet Kim’s weapons of mass destruction – which include a nasty chemical arsenal glimpsed with the murder of his half brother – are defensive, despite those defiant threats. He does not want to end up like Muammar Gaddafi, his corpse on display to the world. And having killed family rivals and never visited another nation since taking power six years ago, he is not fussed about his foreign image. Trump’s tweets only make matters worse, feeding Kim’s paranoia while shoring up a state built on fears of invasion that is technically still at war with South Korea.

In the short-term, the best hope is for cool heads and containment. We have been here before with histrionic calls for pre-emptive strikes on Russia and China when they developed nuclear arms. Beyond that, there are growing signs of Chinese frustration with Kim’s aggression, especially since he has slaughtered their key allies in his inner circle. This mood was seen most clearly when Beijing backed mild new sanctions at the United Nations last month. Pressure should continue to be put on Xi to cut crucial diplomatic, economic and fiscal lifelines provided to Pyongyang.

Perhaps there will be a palace coup and the North Korean regime can evolve, just as Maoist Communism in its giant neighbour changed into a form of authoritarian capitalism. The West, however, must try to persuade China it has nothing to fear from a united and democratic Korea. And it should exert greater pressure on European and Gulf allies to stop using North Korean labourers, which provides a crucial flow of foreign capital into Kim’s pocket. These nations are also exploiting slave labour since those working abroad say their lives are just as rigidly-controlled as at home.

Ultimately, this regime built on secrecy and lies is unsustainable in the digital age. Slowly but surely, the flow of information and flood of technology is breaching even the thick walls of North Korea. The massive challenge facing the world is how to ensure the collapse of the Kim dynasty without sparking conflict – a task that just became even tougher with this latest nuclear test.

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