In the past week tensions have ramped up between the USA and North Korea. Donald Trump is promising ‘fire and fury’ and boasting about his nuclear arsenal and North Korea is making explicit threats against the American dependency of Guam. Things have never been good between the two nations, in fact they have never been good between North Korea and anyone apart from China, but in the past fortnight things seem to have descended further toward war than at any point in the past decade. What is driving this and how worried should we be about the threat posed by Kim Jong Un and the consequences of any military intervention?
To consider this we actually need to go back to the basis of this conflict, that is to say the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. Previous to this Korea had been liberated from the control of Imperial Japan and split along the 38th Parallel by the US and the Soviet Union. This Cold War relic has been playing out politically ever since. Three generations of the family of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, have now ruled in lieu of a democratic process that takes precedence in South Korea. This dynastic necrocracy has ruled over a nation cut off from the rest of the world who, based on our best reports, are entirely oblivious to the poverty they are suffering and instead believe North Korea to be a bastion of culture, economic prosperity and technology. What we don’t know is how far this delusion has seeped into the consciousness of its leadership.
North Korea have never made any secret of their nuclear ambitions, instead they have actively promoted and over-hyped their capabilities, despite repeated attempts by the international community, via the United Nations, to cease their weapon research. When you analyse the reason for this it actually makes perfect political sense, even if this is an uncomfortable realisation. Look at the nations who have been subjected to the yoke of western intervention; Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, the list goes on and on. Would any of these nations have been subjected to military intervention if they possessed a viable nuclear weapons system? Of course not. The issue with this is that unfortunately, the only way proven 100% effective in guaranteeing your nation’s sovereignty and freedom to exist unheeded is through possession of nuclear arms.
So, that leads us on to another question; how close are North Korea to being able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking Europe or the United States? I will say that I only use these two examples as we are looking at how worried should we here be about North Korea, I do believe that there is already a credible threat to other nations in the region, notably South Korea, but that is not the purpose of this article.
In spite of United Nations Security Council sanctions North Korea has continued its nuclear weapons testing, most recently in 2017 testing its first ICBM with several experts now believing that they have developed nuclear arms small enough to fit into the head of such a warhead. The range of these missiles is disputed and reports that the North Koreans are able to launch against mainland America or Central Europe seem to be overstatements, however, this is not truly the danger we are in. This is in essence a smokescreen.
The world in 2017 is remarkably similar to the world in 1913, not in terms of power, not in terms of technology, not even in terms of key players but in terms of balance. At the outbreak of World War One Europe was divided into a series of defensive pacts and alliances designed to keep peace, the logic being that nobody would attack another nation if they knew that doing so would bring in several other nations, this policy was continued into the Cold War with so called ‘mutually assured destruction’ (its acronym being surprisingly apt) and even into today’s arguments in Britain for the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. However, as we know, World War One happened, the alliances designed to keep peace in fact caused the disintegration of an entire continent into a state of total war on a scale never before seen, it is this situation that we must at all costs avoid when it comes to North Korea.
The allies of North Korea are not numerous, but they are powerful. China is the chief ally of the regime and are signatories to the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty which includes in Article 2 a defensive pact against foreign aggression and until recently vetoed United Nations resolutions calling for sanctions (in much the same way that the United States does with Israel). This could potentially mean that a United States military intervention into North Korea could trigger a war with China. Upon China being involved their allies would soon be drawn into their own campaigns, Pakistan could become involved leading to conflict with India and by extension Russia, Iran could become involved militarily in the Middle East potentially causing Israel to become involved. With the US being involved in such a conflict and if it were to be attacked by another party (one assumes other than North Korea) it would invoke NATO’s defensive pact; that’s France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece and most of Eastern Europe. Of course, Britain would inevitably be involved with the US with our usual lap dog enthusiasm. Before too long what was an isolated conflict involves every major nuclear power and several of the worlds’ largest military forces. Then what? Ultimately that’s it, game over.
The true danger of the North Korean situation is not their capability of launching strikes against the West, it is the subsequent need for nations to honour their defensive pacts which would see the world descend into a war to end all wars.
How likely is all of this though? Really? This is all hypothetical, a worst case scenario, there have been moves by China in particular to mitigate this possibility. They have broadly abided by the United Nations Sanctions and voted in favour of further sanctions when it became apparent that the North Korean government was not going to cease their activities. This show of solidarity with the international community is commendable; even if recent studies have found that materials for the North Korean bombs had been produced in China. In the case of Russian involvement against NATO, the closest we have come in this regard was during the Syrian conflict when Turkish pilots shot down a Russian plan en route to Syria, at this juncture a peace was brokered and no conflict occurred. In theory this domino effect is a real danger to us all, but in practice I suspect that the danger would be mitigated by no nation’s desire to be obliterated or embroiled in such a conflict; the real danger here is Donald Trump and the United States.
Bizarrely, Trump appears to believe that a nuclear conflict is not only winnable but a viable option open to him, this could be brinksmanship of course but having seen and heard his rhetoric I do doubt that his statements ultimately hold peaceful intentions. Trump is a man who believes that actions speak louder than words, though apparently believing tweets speak louder than actions, and that is a concern. We are living in an age of megaphone diplomacy, the age of controlled brinkmanship is squarely in our rear view mirror and unless we find a way to reign in this rhetoric and put a stop to this international chest beating we may find ourselves on the brink of annihilation before climate change can do it for us.
So overall, we should all be deeply concerned with the rising tensions with North Korea. As stated the real threat to the West is not from North Korea itself but instead comes from the complex series of international diplomatic relations that have built up around it. When one domino falls it could be impossible to stop the rest following suit. This is not to say that we should do nothing. The human rights abuses suffered by the people of North Korea are an aberration and the dictatorship’s open hostility toward the rest of the world is a disgrace. Anything we do, whether it be further sanctions, suspension of diplomatic relations or even war will only hit the poor, the government will remain intact and unaffected on a personal level. It is a real catch-22; to do nothing would be unacceptable and a tacit approval of the harm done to innocent people, to do anything further harms innocent people and could draw the world into the largest conflict we have ever witnessed. What do we do? Ultimately there is no solution, the only way in which we can bring about change is if we are able to bring about a people’s revolution within North Korea itself but even this is unlikely due to the vicious policing and ultimate isolationism practiced therein. This is a problem to which I can see no good solution so I will leave it up to you to decide whether we have already found it or whether we must keep looking.