The 2020 Commission Report is – thank God – fiction. But it is an alarmingly plausible account of a North Korean nuclear strike on America, presented as the findings of a US government investigation. Its author, an arms control expert, makes the catalyst a rogue tweet from Donald Trump. Even in a novel, the North is not suicidal enough to choose an attack; the danger comes from mistakes and miscalculations.
The story’s broader truth is twofold: that the risk of something going wrong grows as weapons proliferate, and that, despite the show business of his summits, the threat from Pyongyang has grown thanks to President Trump. At the weekend, North Korea presented its largest ever display of new weaponry at a military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ party. It included an intercontinental ballistic missile described by one expert as a monster – possibly the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM, albeit one that is yet to be tested – and additional missile transporters.
This was “demonstrative, not provocative”: Kim Jong-un accompanied the hardware with a softer speech, without the threatening rhetoric of his new year address. Anti-US slogans seen in previous years appeared to have been removed. But the message was clearly aimed at Washington.
The North Korean leader offered an unusual – and tearful – apology for failing to live up to “the trust of all the people”, in passages reflecting his country’s dire economic straits. The impact of sanctions and widespread flooding, in a country where around two in five inhabitants are malnourished, has been punitive. But the final straw has been the halting of relief shipments and trade by a border closure imposed to prevent Covid-19 hitting a barely functioning health system. In the longer term, Pyongyang will need help.
Whether November brings us President Biden, as polls suggest, or President Trump again, it is unlikely to change North Korea’s calculus. It uses its weaponry to push itself up the agenda of incoming administrations: expect more testing next year. Mr Trump’s team has proved itself incapable of effective, constructive diplomacy. But Mr Biden will have an overflowing domestic inbox and Iran is more likely to be a foreign policy priority. Successive presidents have struggled to deal with Pyongyang, and it will be hard to launch another engagement bid immediately after the debacle of Mr Trump’s vanity diplomacy.
The broader pattern on proliferation is clear. Mr Trump has quit three arms control agreements. The US is spending $1.2tn to modernise its nuclear arsenal. A report published in September by two American thinktanks warns that the decline of US influence and its withdrawal from the international order, as well as the rise of authoritarian leaders, are fuelling proliferation. World nuclear arms spending last year rose to $73bn. A group of arms control experts has warned that the US is “blundering toward nuclear chaos with potentially disastrous consequences”.
Mr Trump is not the only one to blame, of course, and a Biden presidency would not be able to transform matters overnight. But Mr Biden has at least said he would extend the New Start treaty with Russia, which expires early next year, while the Trump administration, which has failed to sign a single non-proliferation deal so far, suddenly scrambles to agree something before the election. President Biden would also be anxious to restore the image of the US as a reliable partner. But even if the Democrat wins, undoing the damage of the last four years will be a long and difficult task.