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Best of The Interpreter 2017: North Korea

Highlights from The Interpreter on the challenge of North Korea.

Mansudae Grand Monument, Pyongyang (Photo: Evan Ritli/Flickr)
Mansudae Grand Monument, Pyongyang (Photo: Evan Ritli/Flickr)
Published 4 Jan 2018   Follow @danielflitton

In February, a man wandered through the hall of Malaysia’s international airport, seemingly just another anonymous face in the crowd. But unknown to those he passed by, this was Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-un, and he would not remain anonymous for long. Rod Barton:

The circumstances look like something from a James Bond movie … Kim Jong-nam was approached by two young women, one from behind and the other from the front, and his face was smeared with a liquid. Analysis of samples from Kim’s face and clothing indicate that the substance was the chemical warfare agent VX, a highly deadly nerve agent.

Kim Jong-nam was dead within minutes. Malaysia subsequently deported North Korea’s ambassador, sparking a rare diplomatic rupture with perhaps something personal at stake. Euan Graham:

On the North Korean side, it is likely that Ambassador Kang Chol was aware of Kim Jong-nam's visits to Malaysia but had only the sketchiest knowledge about any assassination plot … Knowing that his career and probably his liberty were on the line, Kang's safest option was to escalate the dispute in order to demonstrate his loyalty … Put simply, the Ambassador's displays of public anger were primarily about saving his own skin.

But North Korea was soon grabbing headlines for very different reasons. Morris Jones:

North Korea has been prolific in launching missile tests in the past year, with varying results.

And this soon became a focus for a tetchy US President Donald Trump, with demands that China do more to rein in Kim Jong-un. Frances Kitt:

Since February, China has slowly but 'seriously' implemented the ban on coal imports, turned back cargo ships, allegedly cut vital oil supplies, and perhaps even urged North Korea's nationals to leave … China is well aware that its North Korea policy – and all discussion of it – is closely watched.

Yet North Korea is one of those problems that defies solutions, former US official Jake Sullivan told Erin Harris about the approach by the Trump administration:

I think they are casting about, just like we would have done if we had won, for a potential solution to a wicked problem.

Maybe the answer lies in a crackdown on North Korea's online crime? Ben Flatgard

Cyber-crime is now a billion-dollar industry for North Korea. Cracking down on this criminal enterprise presents a strategic opportunity to apply further pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime.

Meanwhile, as Trump tweeted threats at ‘rocket man’ Kim Jong-un and North Korea fired verbal volleys at the ‘dotard’ in the White House, Robert Kelly wasn’t fazed by talk of war.

I don't know one person in the Korea analyst community who thinks war is likely. Nor do I know anyone serious who has advocated air strikes or other kinetic options. Even hawks know that bombing North Korea is hugely risky … In my own TV experience, I am constantly asked if war is about to break out. I often have the impression the hosts or producers are slightly disappointed I am not more alarmist.

But others feared worse. Crispin Rovere:

North Korea's ability to hold at risk American cities changes the fundamental strategic calculus in Northeast Asia.

The rhetoric grew stronger, leading Malcolm Turnbull to warn ‘if there is an attack on the United States by North Korea, then the ANZUS Treaty will be invoked’. But what if the US attacked first? Hugh White:

If Australia’s government does think a pre-emptive attack would be a mistake, then would it not be wise to say so officially and publicly?

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