In search of a role: the UK in the North Korea crisis

UK politicians are scrambling to understand Trump’s North Korea strategy, if one exists, and the implications it poses for UK foreign policy in the region.

‘What if’ questions from MPs on the crisis with North Korea and the role the UK could play heavily dominated a meeting of the House of Commons Defence Committee on 10 October.

Dana Allin, senior fellow, IISS, and Nicholas Kitchen, associate professorial research fellow, LSE, attempted to make sense of the rather vague, theoretical questioning, with Dr Kitchen at one stage commenting of ‘a lot of undefined variables in this hypothetical’.

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A top concern for MPs appeared to be that should the US pursue military action against North Korea it would have a clear expectation that the UK would provide tangible military assistance to the effort.

The response from Dr Kitchen: ‘I’m not sure what the specific military contribution would be… the US has allies in the region and its own Pacific fleet in the region… there’s not much point in making a symbolic gesture.’

As the UK possesses no permanent military presence in the Asia Pacific region, and has not since the 1970s, it is unclear what exactly the tangible UK military capabilities the MPs had in mind to offer.

A further concern on the minds of some committee members was that if the UK commits to conflicting approach to the crisis than the US, i.e. support for diplomacy over military action, would this lead to a schism in the ‘special relationship’.

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This appeared to be far less of a concern for Kitchen, who stated: ‘The UK was happy to stay out of the Vietnam War, a closer analogy to what might take place on the Korean peninsula.’

While, Allin conceded that in the event of US military action there may be an expectation for the UK to provide support, he doubted the failure to do so would cause long term damage to the partnership.

‘There would be a national tendency in America to expect, or at least hope, the UK would participate. But we had a similar situation in regard to the Iraq war with other allies and those relationships were patched up rather quickly afterwards,’ he said.

As tensions mount and the unpredictable protagonists continue their war of words, UK politicians are searching for their role in the crisis, despite the reality that UK influence on the US’ North Korea policy appears to be marginal at best.

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