How to avoid nuclear catastrophe in North Korea

Donald Trump says 'all options are on the table' as the UN convenes in New York and Theresa May flies to Japan

Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe on Japanese TV
(Image credit: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

The UN Security Council will convene an emergency meeting tonight to discuss North Korea options after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Theresa May, who flies to Japan today, said she was "outraged" by the "reckless provocation", while Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, said he favours "increased pressure on North Korea in cooperation with the international community". Donald Trump said that "all options are on the table".

But what options are left to deal with Kim Jong-un and the rogue state of North Korea?

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Step up economic sanctions

On 5 August, the UN Security Council passed sanctions blocking $1bn (£770m) worth of North Korean exports in industries including seafood, coal and iron ore. China, which accounts for about 90 per cent of North Korea's foreign trade, also buys crude oil, textiles and clothing from Pyongyang, which could be targeted with new sanctions.

"With no data being reported, oil might be a way to either squeeze - or support - the regime without any outsiders being able to scrutinize what they are doing," Kent Boydston, research analyst and Asia expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said in a blog post.


China's foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying today urged the US and allied countries to refrain from provocative action: "Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve the issue,” she said. "The only way out is through dialogue and consultation." This may be what Kim is looking for: the "prestige of negotiating directly with a superpower is something North Koreans really, really want", Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University, told CNBC. But "there's no way the US is going to give that to North Korea without some really significant concession".

Turn the screws

The US and its allies may opt for a limited attack or series of conventional military attacks using aerial and naval assets, possibly including narrowly targeted Special Forces operations, according to The Atlantic.

"These would have to be punishing enough to significantly damage North Korea’s capability—but small enough to avoid being perceived as the beginning of a preventive strike. The goal would be to leave Kim Jong-un in power, but force him to abandon his pursuit of nuclear ICBMs," the magazine says.

Full-scale attack: The 'fire and fury' option

Trump has already threatened Kim with "fire and fury" should North Korea threaten the US or its territory in Guam with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

He then upped the rhetoric, reports CNN, saying the US military was "locked and loaded".

Today, the US President's language was less dramatic, the Washington Post reports. Button-holed by a reporter and asked what he plans to do about North Korea, Trump said: "We'll see, we'll see."

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