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North Korea presents a crisis in its own right but its effects will be felt far beyond Asia. With the Iranian nuclear deal also hanging in the balance, Tehran must be watching their colleague’s manoeuvres with interest. North Korea is almost certain to sell on nuclear technology, and Iran’s links with North Korea’s nuclear programme have a long provenance. When Israeli planes destroyed Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor in September 2007, they killed a significant number of North Korean technicians working on the project. Iran reportedly channelled a billion dollars into that project. There is every reason to suspect that all parties intended to use the reactor’s plutonium for weapons. As Iran is poised to gain full control in Syria, a twin threat is emerging. In order to comply with the nuclear agreement, Iran outsourced much of its nuclear technology to North Korea. The new suggestion has emerged that North Korea may well be engaged in stockpiling nuclear material on Iran’s behalf in order to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the international deal. The head of North Korea’s parliament made a high-profile visit to Tehran in early September to cement the relationship. If the West’s nuclear deal with Iran fails, North Korea will rapidly be able to help Tehran to develop a weapons capability.

Trump’s foreign policy paralysis is matched by geopolitics which are swiftly spiralling out of America’s control. China, Russia and Iran have all played a part in this crisis. While America was able to secure a fresh set of UN sanctions that go deeper than their predecessors, they fall far short of the measures included in a leaked draft in early September. That draft included a full ban on oil products sold to North Korea and a ban on the assets and travel of top North Korean leaders. These broad measures, particularly the oil embargo, were unpalatable to both China and Russia. Neither of them want to see North Korea collapse. There is a greater geopolitical play at work here. The thought that either North Korea’s missile or nuclear capability developed so quickly without outside help “stretches the bounds of credulity”, as one Foreign Office source put it. Russia in particular has been engaged in sanctions-busting with North Korea and is strongly suspected to have sold them the rocket motors for their missiles. Analysis of missile fragments also suggest pieces from old Egyptian Scuds and from China.

The challenge from North Korea is an affront to regional security but it also represents a wider strategic problem for America. America must engage in structured talks with China about North Korea, at the very least to avoid inadvertent escalation between the two great powers. However, the reluctance of China’s leadership to pressure Kim is based on the fear that Washington ultimately seeks regime change that would lead to a pro-Western reunited Korea, a perceived threat to Beijing’s interests. As one Chinese academic put it: “How can we be sure we can trust you, since when you change presidents you also change policies?”

The Korean crisis also presents an opportunity for Russia. Its involvement intensifies the attempt to reclaim great power status, just as Putin is about to announce he is standing again for president. To this end, Moscow has a range of economic engagements with Pyongyang. Yet again Putin is inserting himself into a geopolitical stalemate involving the US. For Russia, sanctions that successfully force North Korea to alter its military choices or lead to regime change set a dangerous precedent. Equally, much as in Syria, Putin can tie up American resources and attention by fuelling chaos. He can also parlay his influence into helping to control the situation. This has two effects. First, it already seems to appeal to Trump, who has neither the inclination nor ability to handle international crises. Second, Putin will be able to use this power to further intensify divisions among the Western powers on Russian sanctions.

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