Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching with increasing dismay the events on the Korean peninsula. I’d imagine that many of you have been doing the same. Every day seems to bring another development and another ratchetting-up of the rhetoric by one side or the other. You can’t turn on the news now without being confronted by a panel of experts describing in which varied ways the world is now going to end. If you don’t pay much attention you could be forgiven for thinking we’re back in the Cold War again and we all need to start constructing fallout shelters and practising ‘duck and cover’.
Except we’re not. And we need to stop thinking we are.
I’m lucky enough to only really have any memory of the last few years of the stand-off between East and West that dominated much of the second half of the twentieth century. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, the re-unification of Germany and someone in what-was-rapidly-becoming Russia standing on a tank and shouting. That’s about it. I struggle sometimes to understand how people kept their minds about them when faced with some of the brinkmanship that occurred in the 1950s and 60s between the two developing superpowers. There were times at the height of the Cuban missile crisis when even those at the top of government were convinced that they may be witnessing the last few days of a pre-apocalypse world.
But the crisis we face now isn’t that. There isn’t a threat of instant global annihilation and we aren’t all seconds away from being cave-dwellers again. Don’t get me wrong – this is a serious situation with potentially very serious consequences – but it’s not the 1960s all over again.
I’m firmly of the belief that the only way that the stand-off with the DPRK will be resolved is through the use of diplomacy. It may seem that this option becomes less-likely every day but there is one area of common-ground that every side in this confrontation shares: Nobody wants an open conflict. This area of agreement is small, and perhaps difficult to see at times, but it is a starting point and one that we maybe should be exploiting more than we are.
So why do I think this is the case? Let’s consider each protagonist in turn:
North Korea: There is no-doubt that the DPRK is engaged in a significant amount of sabre-rattling at the moment and seems hell-bent on continuing with its nuclear programme. But why are they doing this? Not as the prelude to an invasion of the south, surely, or an attack on the United States, but more as a way of gaining attention and influence in the world. I firmly believe that the thing that Kim Jong Un is more determined to do than anything else is preserve his family name and associated dynasty. He knows that by providing his country with a credible nuclear deterrent he can ensure that, like the other nuclear-armed states around the world, the territorial integrity of the DPRK can be guaranteed for generations to come. With a nuclear deterrent, his family dynasty will far outlive him. It is a dangerous game he’s playing but both he and his administration must know at an open conflict with the United States would be, in a word, catastrophic. There is no doubt, no doubt, that the United States would win such a confrontation and it would do so by the complete destruction of the North Korean military, infrastructure and government. It would be the end of Kim Jong Un and the end of the ‘paradise’ his family have created. He wants recognition and a guarantee of independence, yes, but I don’t think anything beyond that.
South Korea: The general belief seems to be that South Korea, supported by the West, would emerge victorious from any direct conflict but only after paying a significant cost in civilian and military lives. Even if the DPKR did not use any nuclear arms in the conflict it has enough conventional weapons to flatten much of Seoul within a few hours of a battle starting. The opinion of those in the know seems to be that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would die in the first few weeks of any conflagration and that the infrastructure and industrial damage would take decades to recover from. For these reasons alone the South Korean government, much like the North, want to avoid a conflict at any cost.
The USA: The United States cannot afford to be embroiled in another foreign adventure now, from either a political or economic point of view. As stated above, the USA would ultimately win any confrontation but the cost in men and materials would be extreme. It would require a deployment of forces unlike anything we’ve seen this century and, with the current extreme political divisions at home, the impact of a long, costly and drawn-out conflict could be difficult to predict. In short: The USA has more than enough on its plate domestically at the moment without having to worry about another foreign adventure.
China: China seems to be a country that is now more focussed on its economic and industrial development than anything else. Any outcome of a conflict between the United States and DPRK would be bad for China and their reluctance to do anything that might result in a further ratchetting of tensions has been clear for all to see over the past couple of years. China have generally opposed significantly tougher sanctions on the North Korean regime due to the concern that they could force the country into a position where it sees itself with no choice but to pursue a military option or undergo a complete economic collapse.
Japan: In a similar boat to South Korea, Japan would be on the winning side of any conflict but would likely suffer considerably in the weeks, months and years that the conflict dragged on for. They are very much between a rock and a hard place: but even the supposedly untenable long-term position of a nuclear-armed North Korea has to be of preference to a conflict now that could result in Japan itself coming under attack.
The UK: Come on, really? The UK is not a major player in this crisis. We’re under no direct threat and are far, far too wrapped up in our self-created internal problems to be remotely interested in getting involved in what’s going on in East Asia.
With all the major players wishing to do everything they can to avoid a confrontation we must now all be able to sleep easy in our beds at night. Right?
Maybe – but there’re three wildcards that I haven’t covered:
The Delusion of Greatness: There is a risk that the North Korean leadership starts to believe its own propaganda, or this may already be the case. It is possible that the people at the top truly believe that they are the most powerful and prosperous country in the world and can take on all comers. It wouldn’t be the first time that an administration has existed completely detached from reality (think the Nazi inner circle in the final months of the Second World War) and, if that is the case, everything I’ve said above about North Korea above is effectively nullified.
Trump: This man is not fit to lead a country. The more I see of him the more it becomes apparent that he is a man who is entirely obsessed by himself and his ‘brand’ and someone who is completely out-of-his depth in his new role. There are numerous commentators in the US now who are openly talking about the 25th Amendment and if the evoking of it is something lawmakers should be considering (declaring the president not of sound mind). While it is nigh-on-impossible to see a situation where the US Government as a whole would start a conflict with North Korea, with Trump you just don’t know. What if at 3am in the morning, after one of his five-hour stints of watching cable news, he rings up his generals and tells them to do what the man on the television just said and launch a first strike? They’d have no choice but to comply – otherwise they’d technically be carrying out a military coup…
Russia: I think Russia is the only county that can gain from a conflict on the Korean peninsula and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were already up-to-their necks trying to manipulate and provoke the situation. Any conflict which destabilises and fractures the West plays into helping their policies in Eastern Europe.
So what do I think will happen next?
There’ll be more missile launches, more nuclear tests and more condemnation from the international community. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a situation soon where the US adopts a policy of ‘military containment’ and attempts to down any missile launched in the direction of Japan or Guam. But I think ultimately everyone will have to get round the same table and start conversations with that common point: “none of us want a war”, and see what develops.
If history has shown us nothing else it’s that reconciliation between once blood-sworn enemies is possible, if we only give it the time, commitment and patience.