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North Korea’s nuclear threat in 2018 | The Economist

North Korea claims it can now launch missiles that can hit anywhere in mainland America. But in 2018 could the war of words between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump spiral into nuclear catastrophe?

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In April 2018, North Korea will hold a national celebration to mark the birthday of the country’s founding “eternal president” Kim Il Sung. But 2018 will also mark another milestone. North Korea will have nuclear missiles that can reach American soil.

We’ll see an alarming game of nuclear brinkmanship between two of the world’s most hot-headed leaders, Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

As the crisis comes to a head, will 2018 bring cold war or nuclear disaster?

Communist North Korea is a secretive state of 25m people. Increasingly, North Koreans are fleeing the tyrannical regime. Thae Yong Ho is one of the highest-ranking officials to defect to the West. He has unique insight into the inner workings of Mr Kim’s government and its nuclear ambition.

The country is already believed to have the means to deliver nuclear warheads at short and medium range. In 2017, with the world watching, Mr Kim successfully tested his long-range missile.

In 2018 he will perfect and demonstrate the ability to fit a nuclear weapon on a missile and fly it all the way to the American mainland. San Francisco and Los Angeles will be in its reach.

The road ahead will be defined by the pugnacious personalities of Mr Kim and Mr Trump. North Korea has long been known for hurling insults at world leaders. Mr Kim has described Mr Trump as a “mentally derange US dotard” by responding to the taunts with equally provocative language.

Played out in public, the war of words is unprecedented. The so-called “rocket man” is often ridiculed in the West but he’s proven himself to be calculating and callous.

Despite the bluster and posturing there is nothing to suggest either leader wants to go to war. In 2018, Donald Trump must choose between military action and diplomacy. China is key to Mr Trump’s diplomatic route. As a supplier of virtually all North Korea’s oil, China could curb Mr Kim’s behaviour.

But so far China has been reluctant to intervene because it wants to avoid the collapse of the regime which could result in a unified Korea, with American troops on China’s border.

There is a chance, however remote, that in the year ahead, America could order pre-emptive surgical strikes against North Korea’s nuclear-missile facilities.

The impact of an American military intervention would have devastating consequences. North Korea has vast conventional artillery at the ready. North Korea would retaliate by firing missiles already positioned to hit Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

The megacity of ten million people is only 56km from the North’s border.

America has 28,000 troops South Korea. President Trump is capable of deploying cruise missiles, submarines and carriers within hours. Kim Jong Un would reach for his stockpile of chemical, biological and eventually nuclear weapons. The death toll would rise into the millions until American and South Korean forces eventually overwhelm the North Korean military.

But war is 2018 is unlikely. The North Korean leader may be pushing the limits of inflammatory behaviour but there is no evidence that he is irrational.

The appropriate response from America should not be military bravado but old fashioned cold-war deterrence and containment.

In the year ahead, America and China should increase pressure on North Korea with tougher sanctions. In 2018, the world can avoid catastrophe.

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