The North Korean crisis is going to explode–just not yet

“The essential ingredient of politics is timing.”

–Pierre Trudeau

It is true in dancing, love, and politics; timing is everything.

A lack of appreciation of this basic fact explains the failure of much of the fruit-fly analysis seen in today’s newspapers, as well as the pathetic prognostications of many of my political risk competitors. European populism is staved off this week; crisis solved! Trump’s lack of knowledge has not been as big a hindrance yesterday as we had feared; not a problem! China’s artificial spending binge has not laid them low this morning; not to worry!

But of course beneath this veneer of the immediate—where the commentariat loves to dwell—there do sometimes lurk genuine sea monsters. This continual failure to reckon with the seminal factor of time would be downright amusing, if it did not have the most dangerous of consequences.

The present crisis with the Crazy Fat Kid (as Senator McCain has so immortally nicknamed him) Kim Jong-Un of North Korea is the starkest case in point. The almost constant American media misrepresentation of the standoff between Pyongyang and the US over the former’s expanding nuclear programme is as a ‘new Cuban Missile Crisis,’ never mind the fact that in 1962 the whole episode played out in 13 days (the exact title of Bobby Kennedy’s 1969 book about the event).

It was perilous, quick, and a decisive outcome almost immediately reached under conditions of unbearable pressure. None of this describes what is likely to happen over North Korea. This analytical mistake is far from trivial. For if the timing–the rhythm of an event—is not understood, the very policy options put forward as solutions are likely to be woefully lacking, and not fit for purpose given that the true nature of the present crisis has a very different time frame to it.

Over Cuba, the missiles that would destabilise the strategic balance between the US and USSR were set to be operational in days, if not in hours. In the case of North Korea, experts estimate the country is several years away (say around 2020) from succeeding in miniaturising its nuclear devices and placing them on an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Such a technological breakthrough would enable Pyongyang to strike the west coast of the United States with nuclear weapons whenever it wants to (as it already uncomfortably can over Japan and South Korea).

This is the true red line, the moment when the geostrategic calculations of the United States would be decisively upended. President Trump is right; it is totally unacceptable. However, the key codicil that understanding time gives us is that it is—unlike in Cuba—not going to happen tomorrow. Such a basic grasp of the rhythm of the crisis must condition America’s policy responses if they are going to prove successful.

As such, as a political risk analyst I care far less about when the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson sails toward the eastern shore of North Korea, as this is an utter sideshow for cable news junkies. What matters between now and 2020 is that Washington convinces the Crazy Fat Kid’s patron China (which provides a mammoth 90% of foreign trade with the economic basket case, such as the essentials of food and energy) that the North’s nuclear build-up will not be shamefully allowed to drift for another two decades, as it has done under the utterly failed US doctrine of ‘strategic patience’, which became code words for talking with North Korea and doing absolutely nothing.

Only if Beijing believes Washington is serious about not allowing the development of a North Korea ICBM—that the Trump administration is prepared in the medium-term to deal with the matter militarily if necessary–will it bring North Korea (kicking and screaming presumably) to the table, to conclude a real, enforceable deal that stops them short of developing this destabilising capacity.

This is the hinge point of the whole crisis. While the clock is certainly running, there are still years ahead for the Trump strategy to work. As such, Washington is right to lean on Beijing now to get things moving, while as loudly as possibly rattling its sabre. But the important fact for analysts to keep in mind is nothing decisive is going to happen tomorrow, or in the next 13 days. There is still plenty of time for diplomacy to work, spearheaded by a China that fears America might just be determined enough to deal with this on its own soon.

So with the failure of the latest North Korean missile test (quite possibly due to American cyber interference), look for the issue to recede from the headlines, for the sea monster to submerge. But don’t for a second take your eye off the ball as the fruit-fly commentariat is bound to do. For he is still there, lurking beneath global waters. Timing is everything, and the North Korean nuclear crisis has just begun.

Published in City AM London, April 24, 2017.