Military action over North Korea ‘worst possible option’, says UK diplomat


Preventive war waged by Donald Trump would be likely to escalate very quickly, says ex-FCO political director Simon Gass

Military personnel take part in an anti-US rally in Pyongyang, North Korea.
 Military personnel take part in an anti-US rally in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

The UK diplomat who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal has said a military response to North Korea is “the worst possible option”, and would lead to chilling and unimaginable consequences, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Sir Simon Gass, the Foreign Office political director until last year, was speaking at the launch of a paper by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British thinktank, that said war with North Korea was now a real possibility.

He also said North Korea has obtained a nuclear capability, adding: “The toothpaste is out of the tube.”

Gass said all the options in North Korea were now “extremely ugly”, but that at some point there would have to be a return to talks, facilitated by China. He said that the process “cannot be helped by name-calling and exchanges of ritual insults by the main two parties to the debate”.

In a further withering reference to Donald Trump, he said there was a particular difficulty with the US administration in predicting North Korea’s intentions. Gass said: “I have no doubt there is a massive US intelligence community that is specialising in North Korea and knows a huge amount about the country.

“What I have seen with Iran is that you sometimes get political leaders who because they have had very little contact with a country – and sometimes none – have formed a very clear and very erroneous two-dimensional understanding of what motivates the other side. So when their very intelligence community comes to them to explain some of the complexities, they are, if they are not careful, written off as apologists.”

He said it took an astute political leader to accept such advice, and not to be “over-influenced by a trope about what the other side is or thinks”.

The RUSI paper said a preventive war waged by Trump would be likely to escalate very quickly. In an assessment of the crisis sparked by Pyongyang’s intensified nuclear missile testing, the paper said combat would “not be surgical or short”.

War could be triggered by either North Korea or the US but there was a growing risk that Trump would decide to “resolve” the issue sooner rather than later, according to the report.

Gass also said he believed North Korea would have nuclear missiles capable of hitting US cities in two to three years.

Discussing the likely casualty levels, Gass said: “If you think that in metropolitan Seoul, just a few tens of kilometres from the border, there is a population of 26 million people and a North Korea artillery capability, even if that capability is suppressed steadily, none of us need to use our imagination tremendously to realise that levels of casualties could very easily run to hundreds of thousands, and in some circumstances be rather worse than that.

“If you add to that, dislocation of global economy, consequences of nationalism in China and for the US role in the Pacific for the next 50 years – all of these are unimaginably heavy consequences of conflict with North Korea.”

He also said he thought the political mood in the US “would change very rapidly if body bags came back to the US in the substantial numbers”.

Urging the world to think about a return to talks brokered by China, he said: “The version of geostrategic patience that we have been looking at over a period of time is not going to work in the form that it has been followed in recent years.

In my judgment it it is too late to try to stop North Korea’s nuclear capability. It is there and it exists and I see very little likelihood that circumstances would arise in which North Korea would be willing to negotiate away its nuclear capability. There is a further question about ICBMs but in terms of nuclear capability, the toothpaste is out of the tube.”

He advised that if the negotiations with North Korea started with the assumption of eliminating its nuclear capability, or to secure an outcome in which the US wins and North Korea loses, the talks were simply not going to prosper.

He also warned Trump against tearing up the Iran nuclear deal since it would hardly send a message to North Korea that it was worth signing nuclear disarmament treaties if they were likely to be torn up by a future president.

Source: The Guardian

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