The Straits Times says

North Korea should not play with fire

North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship took it closer to a showdown with the United States when American President-elect Donald Trump responded to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's latest missile threats. "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won't happen!" Mr Trump tweeted. Mr Kim had precipitated that cryptic but visceral response by declaring that his nation is on the brink of testing its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a rocket which, equipped with nuclear weapons, can reach the US.

The North Korean autocrat should be faulted for a lack of strategic realism. First, there is a gap between the intention of using nuclear weapons as a bulwark against perceived or imagined efforts to overthrow his reclusive regime, and the possession of a credible deterrent ability to do so. Second, there is a clear mismatch between American and North Korean nuclear prowess. For America, only Russia, and China to an extent, presents a theatre of mutual nuclear deterrence. North Korea is nowhere close to that league. Third, no major powers support Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. China, its only great-power ally, supports the regime's political survival, but not even Beijing would be prepared to underwrite Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions were they to be tested in pre-emptive war.

Yet, the potential nuclear reach of the North Korean regime threatens the Asian landscape. Asia is displaying signs of deep strategic unease. The trilateral relationship that developed among America, Japan and China, when they faced up to the Soviet Union, has been consigned to Cold War history. Today, China is moving towards a vision of Asia drawn in the image of its own rise to greatness. Japan, unnerved by the prospects of a resurgent China, has embarked on defensive strategies that could lead one day to remilitarisation. South Korea is caught in a strategic blind. Its historical memories are tied to Japanese aggression but its contemporary concerns are not divorced from China's military rise.

A nuclear North Korea would complicate strategic outcomes in these circumstances. Contrary to its own interests, it could bring South Korea and Japan closer to the US, whose nuclear umbrella represents the ultimate security guarantee for the two Asian nations. Should Mr Trump stick to his challenge to Tokyo and Seoul to go nuclear, that, too, could subvert Pyongyang's strategic calculus. It could be surmised, therefore, that North Korea's nuclear tests and its ICBM aspirations are designed to throw its rivals off course. Here, it is China that can exercise its considerable influence on even the erratic Pyongyang leadership to make it see reason. There is a place for North Korea in a stable Asia - and perhaps none otherwise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2017, with the headline 'North Korea should not play with fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe