Many hundreds of hours ago now, our foreign affairs community and parts of our media were consumed by the North Korean ICBM emergency. Hard to believe in these modern times, but true!
Time for a special Club Troppo look back to a different era.
So little remembered is the emergency now that it feels like it happened almost in another month. But back in early July of 2017, foreign policy experts and media analysts alike called it “an unambiguous game-changer“. Barnaby Joyce, as acting prime minister, declared the situation “untenable”. The Australian devoted several newspaper pages to it, deploying all its major weaponry short of Paul Kelly. US senator Lindsey Graham – a Republican only occasionally described as “insane” – suggested a first strike against North Korea. President Donald Trump leapt into action, deploying not just tweets but tweets with exclamation marks: “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Slowly, over the course of almost countless minutes, these events faded from the national memory. We learned to accept the nuclear weapons capacity of a small state in great tension with its neighbours, something that had occurred virtually never before in history.
Why did the situation not escalate as so many thought it could? That will forever remain a mystery. The theory now most widely believed is that President Trump’s canny policy of constructive non-engagement moved the world away from a nuclear confrontation.
A few eccentric observers constructed an unlikely theory that the US and its allies simply had no ability to make a credible threat against the DPRK regime, given South Koreans’ squeamish determination not to start a nuclear war with their relatives. But of course, if this theory were true, the bulk of observers on the ground would have made more of it at the time.
The past is truly another country. Andorra, perhaps, or San Marino.