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The Straits Times says

Moving beyond the sabre-rattling

The United States made a pointed statement to North Korea recently by declaring that its strategic patience with it was over. Like the superpower, the world too had an expectation that Pyongyang would, over time, see the wisdom of denuclearising and gaining benefits from engaging with various partners. Instead, the reclusive North-east Asian state has gone from bad to worse. Like a juvenile delinquent, to whom every familial concession is a sign of adult weakness, Pyongyang has pursued its nuclear goals, and made it amply clear that it will continue to do so in spite of the international economic sanctions against it. Its avowed reason is to prevent the United States and its other enemies from carrying out a coup, which diplomatically is called regime change. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might be bearing in mind the examples of Iraq and Libya, two non-nuclear states which experienced regime change once they fell foul of external interests and demands. Syria might follow in their wake. Hence, Pyongyang views its nuclear programme as a deterrent against the so-called hostile policies of the US and its Asian partners.

When dictators think of little but their own survival, they see nothing intrinsically wrong with nuclear and ballistic tests, no matter that its domestic economy is in a dire state. Given the peculiar thinking of the Kim Jong Un regime, will ultimatums achieve results?

However, there is a middle way between North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship and its abhorrence of political capitulation to foreign powers. That way is shown by America's nuclear deal with Iran - also an ideologically hostile state - which became possible once Washington signalled that regime change there was not a strategic objective. If a similar deal with Pyongyang were to transpire, it would not imply that Washington was ditching its historical allies, Seoul and Tokyo.

As in the Middle East - where Shi'ite Iran is arrayed against the Sunni Muslim regimes close to the West - a deal could turn necessity into virtue. Such a bargain is by no means perfect. Iran has conducted missile tests this year that have upset US officials and the Trump administration is deeply suspicious of Teheran's ultimate nuclear intentions. But the deal offers a means of tethering Iran to a multilateral agreement and of monitoring compliance.

Such a multilateral format has been used to try and defuse the Korean crisis as well. Importantly, the difference between Iran and North Korea is that the former does not possess nuclear weapons, and the latter does. Given the dangers posed, one has to move beyond sabre-rattling and get the Pyongyang leadership back to the table.

The US cannot solve the problem on its own. Beijing could help by pointing out how punitive further sanctions could be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Moving beyond the sabre-rattling'. Print Edition | Subscribe