• Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.

Sometime this week the naval strike force President Trump ordered to be deployed should finally reach the Korean peninsula. This follows his warnings that "all options are on the table" and he will, "solve" the problem of a country that appears to be hell-bent on increasing the number, size and efficiency of its nuclear arsenal.

Its actions are in clear violation of the United Nations Security Council which has prohibited missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea since 2006. Although Kim Jong-un's most recent action, to test launch another medium-range missile as opposed to a full blown nuclear test or a long-range missile, was measured defiance, there is considerable scope yet for things to go very wrong, very quickly.

Mr Trump has three options.


The first is to tighten the sanctions in the hope they will bring North Korea to the negotiating table as they did with Iran.

The list of UN approved sanctions has expanded since the first nuclear test. What started out covering military supplies and luxury goods, have expanded to shutting them out of the global financial system, through to banning their export of precious metals, coal and iron, with only a few small exemptions.

Mr Trump is said to be considering to put oil on the sanctions list, making the ban on coal total, banning their national airline, stopping their commodity exports and moving towards a total economic quarantine of the country. Chinese economic interests in the area would also be targeted as they account for about 85 per cent of North Korea's trade.

The problem with this approach is not that the sanctions cannot be made to cause extreme pain, but that Kim Jong-un does not care. This is the country that the 2014 Commission empowered by the UN Human Rights Council accused of crimes of extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, persecution on political, racial and gender grounds, the enforced disappearance of persons and prolonged starvation.

Unlike in Iran where the pain of the sanctions upon their citizens made those in power listen and then negotiate, in North Korea, the hereditary tyrants build on Stalinist communism are deaf and do not feel the impact that sanctions cause.

The second option is that Mr Trump could pick up the phone and talk to Kim Jong-un. The talk could be about concluding a peace treaty to the last Korean war which ended with a truce in 1953 after five million people had been killed in three years of bloodshed.

The one thing Kim Jong-un really wants is not the survival of his country but his own privileged position. Promises of non-intervention into North Korea would carry weight. Once stability is brought back to the region, nuclear weapons might eventually disappear from that area, but this is unlikely in the foreseeable future as they prevent Kim Jong-un from suffering the same fate as the other dictators in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

A short term goal could be no more testing and no further expansion of what North Korea already possesses, and disarmament later. Former President Obama dismissed such options, demanding an all or nothing approach. Mr Trump may think differently.

Confidence building measures could be undertaken such as the scaling back of military exercises, the missile shield removed and steps towards ending North Korea's isolation.

The third option is a military strike. The risk is that an attack on the leadership and nuclear facilities only, would still leave intact a North Korean army of a million soldiers, hundreds of jets, thousands of tanks, and tens of thousands of artillery pieces.

By the most conservative estimates, 30,000 people would die in Seoul as these conventional forces replied in the first two hours of such a conventional attack.

If the much touted anti-missile defence, the THAAD, fails to stop all possible nuclear tipped missiles, or if such missiles are launched from behind the shield by any of the dozens of submarines that North Korea possesses, we could be about to see some of the largest funeral pyres in human history.

It also hoped that China, despite its military alliance with North Korea, decides to sit on its hands and watch.

The first and second option must be exhausted before there is any consideration of war. It is time for cool heads, alliances involving the Security Council and China to be made water-tight, and North Korea should be talked to directly. As Winston Churchill said, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.