Opinion: US ratcheting up the pressure on N Korea - and China - with good reason

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The mechanical, electrical or computer systems fault which caused a North Korean ballistic missile to explode soon after take-off last Sunday is a king-sized embarrassment for the emperor-sized ego of Kim Jong-un, North Korea's loathsome despot.

There are fears a misstep by the North or US President Donald Trump could causes disaster.
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The person is fighting for their life after a major smash on SH6 near Inangahua.

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The failure of the missile test has altered the dynamics of the high-stakes contest in nuclear brinkmanship. It has deflated the hollow boasting of Kim's regime and its ridiculous claim that its armed forces have the capacity to "destroy" the military might of the United States.

It buys more time to explore the, so far, slim chances of finding some way of initiating much-needed negotiations between the protagonists.

The missile launch was provocatively timed to coincide with the visit to  South Korea of American vice-president Mike Pence.

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It was intended to display the rapid progress that North Korea claims it is making in developing a reliable long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The missile's failure to make it much further than its launch pad suggested otherwise.

That perception was heightened by suspicion that supposedly new missiles unveiled with great pageantry in a Pyongyang street parade the day before were simply mock-ups, produced for the cameras of the large contingent of foreign media flown in to observe the show of force.

It is highly conceivable, however, that the explosion was the result of a successful cyber-attack conducted by the Pentagon.

A recent investigation conducted by the New York Times found that back in 2014, then president Barack Obama ordered defence officials to step up their cyber and electronic strikes against Kim's missile programme and sabotage test launches in their opening seconds.

His successor has given no hint that cyber warfare is still being mounted on North Korea. If the sabotage was continuing when he took office, it would be most surprising if Donald Trump has halted it.

The new incumbent in the White House has not been so reticent when it comes to verbal assaults on Kim's regime.

Trump's language may seem reckless. The risk of war would seem to have ratcheted upwards accordingly.

It would seem to be a time for cool heads and calm statements.

Instead Trump and senior figures in his administration have been engaged in a game of "anything you can say, I can say tougher" with Kim.

The stances taken by Trump and Obama are not that different, however. That is because a fundamental bottom-line applies regardless of who holds the keys to the Oval Office.

That bottom-line decrees that no foreign regime as rogue as Kim's can be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the continental United States.

Kim may still be some way from fulfilling that objective. But any American president who allows him to do so will be dead meat as far as voters will be concerned.

It has fallen on Trump's watch to deal with the problem - and for keeps.

In Pence's unambiguous summation,  "the era of strategic patience is over".

Trump, Pence and other senior administration figures are taking a punt on Kim not mounting an attack on South Korea.

It is a pretty safe punt. The assumption is that Kim is consumed by survival - and the fastest means of jeopardising that is to get into shoot-out where the bullets are real, not verbal.

That still leaves the question at the very heart of the showdown unanswered: how do you get Kim to drop his nuclear ambitions?

If there is no other option and it comes down to a military strike on Kim's nuclear facilities, then that option has to remain on the table.

But the priority is to open negotiations.

Pence's statement that the patience of the United States and its regional allies had run out was directed as much in China's direction as Kim's.

As evident during Trump's recent summit with President Xi Jinping, Washington has to be very careful not to be seen to be pressuring China to start exerting the undoubted leverage it enjoys in its dealings with North Korea.

The delivery of the message may thus be necessarily subtle, but its content is blunt: if Beijing refuses to do anything to curt Kim's nuclear ambitions, then Washington will.

If China abdicates its regional responsibilities, its inaction would risk the very things it wishes to avoid coming to fruition.

Namely, war on its doorstep, the collapse of North Korea's already miserably-performing economy and the likelihood of a major disruption of trade, plus the downstream recessionary consequences flowing from that. And that's just for starters.

Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war".

Trump's handling of the crisis on the Korean peninsular is a variant on that theme. That talking war-war is sometimes the only means of getting those scrapping with each other to jaw-jaw.

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