The pressure on North Korea has intensified – but Trump shows no sign of being able to solve anything

The contrast of styles could hardly be greater between the 44th and 45th presidents of the United States. Barack Obama’s graceful, cerebral, almost academic methods of governing have been violently replaced by the bombastic impulsive tweets of Donald Trump. The two men’s mutual antipathy is palpable. Yet, on substance and policy, the continuities are much greater than first they appear, and not simply because Donald Trump seems unable to get much through Congress. Nowhere is this truer than in America’s conundrum over North Korea.

Far from starting a war with Kim, either in the Twittersphere or in a real world stratospheric nuclear conflict, President Trump has continued his predecessor’s policy of international condemnation and ever harsher sanctions.

It is only fair to President Trump to point out that he has – albeit aided by the continuing defiance and successful tests carried out by Kim Jong-un – managed to intensify the pressure on North Korea. Where once Russia and China would cavil and abstain on a sanctions vote at the UN Security Council, keen to win some illusionary geopolitical advantage, they now join in. Where once Beijing preferred quiet diplomacy and stressed the lack of influence it had on Kim and his medallioned military gangsters, they now seem ready to speak out and to choke off his last major sources of foreign exchange – sales of coal northwards, and the “export of labour” (in reality forced labour camps set up in remote corners of China and Russia).

It is perfectly possible that, as with previous international sanctions against everyone from Mussolini to Milosevic to Mugabe, “entrepreneurs” and fellow rogue states will find ways of breaking them.

North Korea state broadcast: US faces ‘thousands-fold’ revenge following new UN sanctions

Iran, from the old “axis of evil”, springs to mind as one likely accomplice of North Korea now that President Trump has chosen, in this case, to reverse President Obama’s deal on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The lesson of international economic sanctions is that they seldom deliver a “knockout blow”, and the effect, if at all, is on the people of a country rather than the ruling elite, even with so-called smart sanctions. They take a long time to work, anyway, while Kim’s nuclear programme is progressing far more rapidly than the West’s spies expected (President Obama had told his successor that he thought Pyongyang could hit the continental…

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