Weekend Roundup: North Korea Nears The Brink


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Not even two months into office and with only a skeleton national security team in place, U.S. President Donald Trump is facing what could be the most perilous nuclear-related military confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis over half a century ago.

Fearing an outbreak of “actual war” as North Korea has threatened, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this week urgently called on its ally to end all missile tests and for the U.S. and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises. He warned that the U.S. and North Korea are “like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way.”

The potential calamity that could result from a clash between the two most unpredictable leaders in the world makes the search for a breakthrough more urgent than in previous crises. In their response to the latest tests, China has sought to pressure Pyongyang by halting coal imports, a key source of income for the Hermit Kingdom. But compounding the conundrum of how to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to heel, China is at the same time furious over the installation of a U.S.-South Korea missile shield aimed at the North but whose prying radar “can ‘reach’ into Chinese territory.” Completing the perfect storm, South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Friday upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, thus removing her from office. After many years of slow burn, the North Korean menace has reached an inflection point where the whole region is at risk of conflagration.

Clearly it is time to try a new strategy beyond sanctioning and isolating North Korea to stop its nuclear threat. Madame Fu Ying, one of China’s top diplomats who has been dealing with Pyongyang since 2003, made the case to me recently in Beijing that this long-standing approach is not working, but only making the beleaguered regime more belligerent. Pulling out a chart tracing the decades-long path to nuclear armament and ballistic missile development, Madame Fu said the pattern is clear: when there are talks, the buildup stalls; when there are sanctions, the North doubles down on amassing an ever-more powerful arsenal.

“The U.S. keeps pressuring China to stop Kim, and we have gone along with that,” she said. “But it is America that, in the end, holds the key to resolving the crisis. That key is direct negotiations with North Korea as a step towards a peace treaty and a guarantee against regime change.” Absent that, her argument went, the only path to security from the North’s perspective is its weapons.

Despite other tensions, the highest priority now is for China and the new Trump administration to join as indispensable partners in pursuing a path along the lines Fu Ying has suggested. In such a scenario, North Korea would still likely retain a nuclear capacity ― unlike Iran, it already crossed this threshold long ago. But, in return for recognition and security, the Kim regime would be obliged to halt new testing and dismantle all intermediate and long-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to other countries, especially Japan.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who participated in U.S. talks with North Korea’s leaders back in 1999, takes this diplomatic option seriously: “I believe that North Korea might well agree to give up testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and agree not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology in return for economic concessions from South Korea and security assurances from the U.S.”

To be sure, such a deal would be hard for any U.S. administration to swallow. It rankles deeply to act as if rewarding aggressive behavior. But in this case the only other course to the U.S. negotiating directly with North Korea is the continuing buildup of an even greater destructive capacity that could be unleashed in an inevitable future war. As Perry writes, “I do not suggest this approach with any enthusiasm. But our only realistic alternative is military force.” 

If this far from perfect arrangement could be made, it would not only serve to reduce the immediate danger, but also serve as a new foundation for security and cooperation ― instead of confrontation ― between the U.S. and China on other issues at conflict in East Asia. 

One such area where Beijing and Washington are bound to clash, but will need to cooperate, is trade. As the West turns against globalization, Ivan Tselichtchev writes from Hong Kong that Asia is becoming the champion of free trade, building new links with each other that don’t depend on the American market. 

Key leaders are also clashing elsewhere outside Asia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week “accused the other of acting in bad faith” in a controversy over whether Erdoğan’s allies can campaign in Germany among the many Turks who live there ahead of an April referendum that would consolidate the Turkish president’s autocratic powers. Writing from Berlin, Fabrizio Tassinari sees this fraught moment ― the culmination of tensions all along the road of Turkey’s failed effort over decades to join the European Union ― “as the end of Turkey’s European history.” In an interview, French writer Jean d’Ormesson worries that the “real victim” of populism, both in the U.S. and Europe, is democracy. “All of France is moving to the right,” he laments. Nick Robins-Early reports on how “far-right bots” are behind the social media surge of French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen.

The issue of Islam and refugees continues to roil American politics as the Trump administration announced a revised travel ban this week. Taking the long view, Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed advises Trump to learn from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who, at the height of the Crusades, was able to work with his Muslim counterparts in Jerusalem to establish tolerance and the sharing of religious sites. Anastasya Manuilova reports from Moscow that there has been a noticeable decline in “Trumpophilia” as the “bromance” between the American president and Russian President Vladimir Putin dwindles amidst the Trump-Russia controversy in the U.S.. For most Russians, she says, “Putin’s bromance with Trump is already on its deathbed, and with it, any chance for a genuine reset.”

Following up on our interview last week with Indian author Pankaj MishraGregory Rodriguez writes that, “[Mishra] sees the destruction of local, intimate, long-rooted systems of meaning as opening a spiritual Pandora’s box within which lies infinite doubt and disillusion.” To wrestle with the “nothingness” left behind, Rodriguez argues that “Western liberals need to admit that we have finally reached the limits of the Enlightenment’s cult of secular individualism.” 

Even as tensions increase over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Ariel Conn raises the specter of a new threat on the horizon ― an “AI arms race” as the technology spreads to develop lethal autonomous weaponry.

Finally, our Singularity series this week examines a plan in New Zealand to rid the country of predatory plants and animals by 2050 through the use of “genetic engineering techniques to render invasive species infertile, exterminating them from within their own DNA.” 



EDITORS: Nathan Gardels, Co-Founder and Executive Advisor to the Berggruen Institute, is the Editor-in-Chief of The WorldPost. Kathleen Miles is the Executive Editor of The WorldPost. Farah Mohamed is the Managing Editor of The WorldPost. Alex Gardels and Peter Mellgard are the Associate Editors of The WorldPost. Suzanne Gaber is the Editorial Assistant of The WorldPost. Katie Nelson is News Director at The Huffington Post, overseeing The WorldPost and HuffPost’s news coverage. Nick Robins-Early and Jesselyn Cook are World Reporters. Rowaida Abdelaziz is World Social Media Editor.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Arianna Huffington, Eric Schmidt (Google Inc.), Pierre Omidyar (First Look Media), Juan Luis Cebrian (El Pais/PRISA), Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute/TIME-CNN), John Elkann (Corriere della Sera, La Stampa), Wadah Khanfar (Al Jazeera) and Yoichi Funabashi (Asahi Shimbun).


CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Moises Naim (former editor of Foreign Policy), Nayan Chanda (Yale/Global; Far Eastern Economic Review) and Katherine Keating (One-On-One). Sergio Munoz Bata and Parag Khanna are Contributing Editors-At-Large.

The Asia Society and its ChinaFile, edited by Orville Schell, is our primary partner on Asia coverage. Eric X. Li and the Chunqiu Institute/Fudan University in Shanghai and Guancha.cn also provide first person voices from China. We also draw on the content of China Digital Times. Seung-yoon Lee is The WorldPost link in South Korea.

Jared Cohen of Google Ideas provides regular commentary from young thinkers, leaders and activists around the globe. Bruce Mau provides regular columns from MassiveChangeNetwork.com on the “whole mind” way of thinking. Patrick Soon-Shiong is Contributing Editor for Health and Medicine.

ADVISORY COUNCIL: Members of the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council and Council for the Future of Europe serve as theAdvisory Council — as well as regular contributors — to the site. These include, Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Juan Luis Cebrian, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei KudrinPascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon MuskPierre Omidyar, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel RoubiniNicolas SarkozyEric Schmidt, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter SchwartzAmartya SenJeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry SummersWu Jianmin, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Ahmed Zewail and Zheng Bijian.

From the Europe group, these include: Marek Belka, Tony BlairJacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar IssingMario MontiRobert Mundell, Peter Sutherland and Guy Verhofstadt.


The WorldPost is a global media bridge that seeks to connect the world and connect the dots. Gathering together top editors and first person contributors from all corners of the planet, we aspire to be the one publication where the whole world meets.

We not only deliver breaking news from the best sources with original reportage on the ground and user-generated content; we bring the best minds and most authoritative as well as fresh and new voices together to make sense of events from a global perspective looking around, not a national perspective looking out.