I fear for the future when the world’s fate hangs on these two mavericks

Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th April, 2017)

Outside my window in one of the world’s most advanced cities, I can hear protesters chanting angrily against ‘Crazy Trump’. Barely 120 miles north, the world’s nastiest regime is displaying its military muscle in a menacing show of strength. Just beyond them, the biggest army on earth is gathering on the border. To the east, a naval strike force sent by the planet’s superpower is steaming fast in this direction.

As the crisis over North Korea heats up with incendiary posturing and talk of nuclear attacks, these are fearful days – and Seoul is the planet’s hottest spot, trapped in the midst of a terrifying tussle between two maverick leaders. There is dark humour on the streets of the South Korean capital but behind the jokes, nerves are jangling.

For this mega-city of 24 million people – overflowing with tech firms and fashionable teenagers – has most to lose if war breaks out again on the Korean Peninsula. It sits squarely in Pyongyang’s sights, in reach of conventional artillery dug into North Korean mountains only 35 miles away over the border, never mind Kim Jong Un’s arsenal of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Yet growing dangers of conflict on this peninsula could spark far wider conflagration. I am not given to scaremongering, having reported on crises and wars around the world. But today there’s no doubt in my mind we face risks more dangerous and pressing than at any time since the first year of my life, when in 1962 the nuclear-armed US and Soviet Union came so close to fighting over placement of missiles in Cuba. Even cautious Chinese officials warn of ‘storm clouds gathering’.

The core issue is missiles again – only this time North Korea’s secret and rapidly accelerating development of nuclear weapons aimed at America. Back in the Sixties, at the height of the Cuban drama, cool heads prevailed.

Now, look at the nature of the two men squaring off in this new arms struggle: the brash property baron who won the White House unexpectedly versus a portly young despot who inherited the blood-splattered throne of a hermit kingdom. Both men are impulsive and unpredictable, playing to domestic galleries to disguise deep-seated problems in their nations. Maybe the rhetoric will turn out to be just that.

Yet in this game of diplomatic chess, small mistakes could have global consequences. Donald Trump has discovered a sudden enthusiasm for intervention, with attacks on Afghanistan and Syria despite disavowing such activities during his campaign. Confronting him is the world’s youngest head of state, who has shown ruthless determination to cling to power and contempt for international norms. Trump’s armada has provoked Kim to threats of not just pre-emptive action but nuclear annihilation.

Six years after taking over his family dictatorship, Kim still runs grim gulags that enslave 120,000 people. He has ramped up rewards for border guards who kill defectors. He has used a banned nerve agent to kill his half-brother. And having butchered some of his father’s most senior advisers, even his own uncle, which aide would dare counsel caution?

Yesterday saw more symbolic defiance and sabre-rattling, with massed ranks of soldiers marching to military bands through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square. Alongside the tanks, troops and guns were new submarine-launched ballistic missiles and weapons designed to hit mainland America, while the People’s Army talked of ‘merciless’ retaliation to US provocation.

Trump has pledged to halt the nuclear progress. I have sympathy for his desire given the vile nature of Kim’s fascist regime, which sees nuclear weapons as a means of survival, to restrain enemies and keep the ruling dynasty in power.

But in rising to this provocation, Trump is playing into his enemy’s hands, since the Kim regime relies on supposed threat of invasion from South Korea and the US to justify repression and poverty. Now that ‘threat’ is backed up by childish tweets from the 45th President – met with typically blood-curdling talk of retaliation from Pyongyang.

There are signs the north may be preparing its sixth nuclear test even as the heavily-armed US flotilla steams forward. So what can be done? I have met prominent South Koreans who favour a military strike to force regime change. Yet if US forces fail to eliminate Kim Jong Un, it could produce a lethal response. Given his rhetoric, it is hard to see how Kim Jong Un would not retaliate.

It might be a few shells lobbed at Seoul. But it might be hit squads, nerve agents and even nuclear weapons. Sensing escalating trouble, Bill Clinton’s administration pondered air strikes on North Korea in 1994 to stop fuel rod reprocessing at a nuclear complex. The plan was pulled after military advisers warned up to one million people might die if Pyongyang hit back.

Casualties could be far higher this time. So, how do we avert doomsday? The simplest way would be for China, the main ally and trading partner, to pull the plug. Its leaders dislike Kim’s provocative behaviour and don’t want such an erratic leader having weapons of mass destruction.

Yet China prizes regional stability and fears seeing a unified, US-supporting Korea on its doorstep. Despite cutting coal imports and hinting at stopping oil supplies in the event of another nuclear test, trade has been growing fast between the two nations. Perhaps the best hope is for Beijing to find a way to remove Kim Jong Un and evolve the regime, similar to changes seen in China over recent decades.

People talk of other solutions. Perhaps a few US nuclear mis-siles could be moved to South Korea to strengthen deterrence, although that might only inflame a volatile situation. Still tougher sanctions? This is a regime unperturbed by a famine that may have killed two million.

Yesterday saw the crisis ratcheting up another notch as North Korea’s leaders pledged response to ‘all-out war with an all-out war’. We have heard such bellicose talk before from this repulsive regime.

But these are dangerous days of brinkmanship in a deathly new missile crisis that could so easily explode into dreadful horror. Apocalypse Now? We must hope not. But only a fool would rule out this fearsome possibility.

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