With the year drawing to a close, it's that time again where journalists and commentators start pondering what the next twelve months will hold. The deluge of predictions at the moment remain firmly focused on Brexit and the likely outcome of the second round of negotiations. There is, justifiably, a lot of concern on both sides of the Brexit divide regarding the progress of these talks. However, the real concern for us in 2018, should not be Brexit, but the growing prospect of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, which is likely to come to a head in a matter of months.
Normally, I'm quite sceptical about open conflict between nuclear-armed countries ever coming to bear. Game theory and logic both dictate that losses to each country in such conflict would massively outweigh any gain - there is no benefit for either nation going to war, no matter how much they hate their enemy. 'Mutually assured destruction' has, with perverse irony, arguably been an effective way in keeping the peace between major nations. In the Cold War, the confrontations between Russia, China and the West were played out through proxy wars, such as the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Since then, the only real threat to nuclear conflict has been incompetence, cockup or civil war - the classic Hollywood scenario of a misinterpretation of communications, perceiving a non-existent enemy threat and launching a pre-emptive strike, or a rogue general going against his orders.
However, I recently listened to financial expert, Jim Rickards, who helped detect that insider stock trading took place the days leading up to 9/11, who advises the Pentagon, and who has contacts with many of the key defence staff in Washington.
His argument is compelling and persuasive. North Korea is currently engaged in what can be branded as 'break out mode.’ As we are all aware, they have nuclear material and the ability to launch long-range missiles. But they still lack the ability to combine the two technologies to create a devastating nuclear missile which could be used against the US mainland. The final piece in the puzzle which North Korea needs to develop in order to achieve this is: miniaturisation of nuclear warheads. It is a tiny technological step, but has enormous and long-lasting ramifications for global geopolitics.
At the moment, without miniaturised warheads, North Korea cannot fit nuclear material on a long-range missile which could strike an American city.
It does indeed have the ability to launch devastating strikes against Japan and South Korea – America’s key allies in the region. But the ability to launch against the US mainland would change the field completely and it is unlikely that President Trump, of all leaders, would allow this scenario to develop, because nuclear deterrence against a rogue state such as North Korea would not work as it conventionally did in the past.
This is because one of the proxy conflicts of the Cold War era, the Korean War, still remains unresolved. And this situation makes military confrontation between the US and North Korea very likely, unless either nation changes tact.
North Korea and South Korea are split according to an armistice, not an international peace treaty. What would happen, for example, if Kim Jong Un developed a full long-range nuclear ability and then announced that he would be reuniting the North with the South by force, completing the objective of the communist forces in the first Korean War? The US would obviously threaten to intervene, but in return Kim Jong Un could threaten a nuclear strike against Los Angeles or San Francisco. This is the leverage that miniaturised warheads provides. How could an American President legitimately take the risk of millions of US lives on the American mainland to save South Korea?
The answer is he could not, and ensuring that Kim Jong Un does not have this leverage must be the priority of both Trump and the American defence officials. The clock is ticking before North Korea achieve miniaturisation and the ability to strike against the US mainland. Some experts say it is only a matter of months before North Korea can put nuclear warheads in long-range missiles, by which time it would be too late for America to take action.
On the other hand, not taking action is not an option either. What would happen to the confidence of American allies around the world, if the US allowed South Korea to be invaded by a Communist regime, scared away by a nuclear threat. What would countries like Iran then decide to do with their nuclear programmes, emboldened by North Korea? The geopolitical implications would be unthinkable and the US could not risk this situation arising.
Therefore, if diplomatic efforts and sanctions fail - and the effect of these appears to have been negligible so far - then military confrontation is the only solution. It won't necessarily be nuclear confrontation, but it would have to be potent, large-scale and swift to achieve its aims. And of course, millions of lives hang in the balance should North Korea’s arsenal not be completely wiped out.
When Trump says 'We'll take care of it' we should pay more attention and stop our obsession with the Brexit news bubble.