Angus Shaw talks us through the current goings on in North Korea, and if we should expect war to break out.
We haven’t witnessed anything quite like the rogue nation of North Korea since Hitler’s Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Russia. It’s a shock to think that echoes of similar horrors found in the authoritarian powers of last century are still being reported to occur in such a globalised and interwoven world today. A world in which international bodies such as the UN, NATO and EU exist, specifically designed as repercussions to nationalistic atrocities committed both domestically and globally after the Second World War. However in a small, divided region of south-east asia, allegations of mass starvations caused to propagate the military, executions of citizens who didn’t clap hard enough during dictatorial parades and the brutalization of foreign prisoners began to emerge. Most recently when North Korea’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un, came to power in 2011. Couple this with a near religious-like desire to destroy the West, a boast of nuclear weapons and obsessive ballistic missile tests with the potential to cross continents to Alaska, and it crucially demands answers to the question of how has this been allowed to happen? More importantly, what will happen next? How can such a temperamental power be stopped? The situation requires potentially life-saving answers and has had politicians all across the globe in stammers of uncertainty on what to do for decades.
How Serious Is The Threat?
Although intelligence on the subject is limited, it is chilling to hear that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. However, the most important ingredient to the nuclear cocktail that needs confirmation is whether they actually possess the right nuclear warheads. Without a small enough warhead to stick onto the end of a North Korean missile, there is no real way for the country to deliver these horrific weapons to its long-range targets. What we do know is that back in late July North Korea successfully launched their first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), most recently sending another into Japanese waters. Although not yet carrying the devastating contamination effects of nuclear fallout, ICBMs fulfill the crucial range factor, potentially able to reach from Korea to Alaska and everything in between. As their technology advances into this kind of arsenal, it makes the possibility of fitting miniaturised devices such as nukes or chemical weapons on them even higher, giving Kim Jong’s threats more and more unnerving credibility on the world stage. This includes the recent threat to strike the U.S. island of Guam in the Philippine Sea, becoming met with President Trump’s now famous promise of “fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen.”
Many politicians have already dismissed the option for a peaceful resolution, citing North Korea’s potentially incalculable breaches of human rights, hotheaded threats against the West and steep increase of weapons testing despite warning. Sanctions on trade are almost air tight too, yet North Korea is still able to develop their programmes, most probably via China’s continued support. Assaults of words taking place nearly every week between Trump and Kim Jong make it seem even more unlikely that the situation will simply die down, and so in the spirit of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ warning of a “massive military response”, it is possible that war will break out between the U.S. and North Korea.
What Would War With North Korea Look Like?
How an incursion would take place is another matter. The United States can absolutely not wage a traditional ground war taking place over weeks, months and possibly years. Doing this would risk time in which Kim Jong could push the big red button at any moment he desires, and looking at his record of firing missiles wherever he wants whenever he likes, the chances are he would take the declaration as a go ahead to cause as much damage as possible in a fight he knows he couldn’t win, no matter how suicidal. Therefore the only option for the U.S. would be through the sheer element of surprise – the real conflict needs to be over in a split second, before North Korea even grasps the opportunity to fire back. Chances are you could wake up in your bed one day, and overnight a second Korean War would have begun and ended while you slept, based on the speed that a solution would need to have taken place. What that solution would be is difficult to speculate. Although North Korea conscripts much of their population into overwhelming numbers of soldiers and its mountainous terrain is intensely difficult to push through, the U.S. absolutely outclasses in air and naval supremacy, both by numbers and technology. A solution could therefore range from wiping out DPRK high command and Kim Jong himself in one swoop, so that no weapons could even be authorised to launch, to rapid destruction of the country’s missile silos and launch sites, disabling their capabilities before a conflict formally starts. Or perhaps, more controversially, scorched earth bombardments would take place against the major military settlements of North Korea, horrifically taking countless of innocent lives along the way in a tactic only desperation would call for. Either way, it is clear a military strategy would be incredibly risky and difficult to pull off fast with the threat of an all out nuclear reaction being so great. This is not to mention such a combination potentially giving the U.S. encouragement to utilise weapons far more devastating than anything we’ve seen so far. Therefore one option sticks out as the preferred climax to these tense past few decades more than anything else, which involves China finally coming to terms with the United States.
“Kim Jong could push the big red button at any moment he desires”
Where does China fit into all of this?
It is important to understand that North Korea is really just a love child resulting from the Cold War, an almost literally spine chilling period of espionage and paranoia occurring between the U.S., Soviet Union and China during the second half of the last century. It served as an ideological playground between the three, and was nothing short of a green light for these massive nations to embark on quests to embed either capitalism or communism as the dominant force in an uncertain new world order following World War 2. The era earned its ‘cold’ title from the fortunate fact that it was a war that never got hot, instead involving massive nationalist power projections between the biggest superpowers on Earth without technically firing a bullet either way. This ranged from a rush for scientific superiority in spectacles like the space race, to expressions of might and terror in standoffs likes the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the end, capitalism won. My goodness did it win, ‘bigly’. If you became stranded in some of the most desolate places on earth today, such as the Sahara Desert, I bet it would be 15 minutes maximum until you stumbled upon some enterprising individual trying to sell you their mixtape that you just don’t need, free from the iron grip of the state.
The Korean War in the 1950s marked the first strike of the match which some say really ignited, or rather just opened the freezer up, to the Cold War for the first time. It involved the authoritarian North Korea throwing a sudden invasion against the democratic South, causing the UN to respond with a military coalition composed of 88% U.S. troops. The defence of South Korea was seen by the UN as a deterrent for returning to the aggressive expansionism of World War 2, a near past which still haunted the world, and called for the vision of a united capitalist Korea. This was perhaps to be like the one we see today in the South, personified by the likes of Gangnam Style. It seemed like the U.S., South Korea and their UN allies would achieve certain victory on this dream when they pushed North Korea’s borders to nearly nothing, just 3km away from the Yalu river in China. However, at the very last minute, the communist giant China suddenly launched themselves into the fray, battling the United States and its coalition all the way back to square one halfway across the region, and prolonging the war for another 3 years. It was here that the two sides settled on a truce, laying down a thick line on the map via demilitarised zones between the North and South in an even greater division than before.
Ever since, North Korea’s saviour China has been one of the only nations on Earth to supply and support the dictatorship. But why? China’s motivation for risking everything in the 50s by going against not only the most powerful nation in the world, but one of two nations to possess nuclear weapons at the time, the United States, is clear: Not only was it an attempt to preserve and enforce communist regimes across the globe, a movement which included the infamous Vietnam war and even had the phrase ‘domino theory’ coined to it by President Eisenhower, but it was also a defensive action to keep America off China’s back. For if the U.S. were to succeed in having South Korea claim the North, China would have to come to terms with a massive American presence right at its doorstep, with strategic potential to strike with great ease and devastating impact should it desire. North Korea was therefore nothing more than a buffer zone for China’s paranoia, to stop the U.S. from peering through its fence and kicking its ball over by having some half-a-state wedged between them.
Flash forward 64 years, and the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has dissipated to give way for a capitalist Russian Federation, and China hasn’t had a war in 46 years. However, North Korea is stuck in a massively warped time capsule. Monuments and relics of the Korean War populate its cities far and wide in celebration of their ‘victory’ against portrayed evil hordes of the United States like it’s a religious doctrine. The very culture of North Korea feeds upon fabricated stories of a demonic-like US succumbing to the ‘holy and brave’ supreme leaders of the DPRK. A Captured US ship is carved into a museum, and its population is raised with propagandic images of colossal battles between good and evil taking place between them and the western world. Of course, such a world doesn’t exist, and no one actually won the war. The invasion of South Korea was merely prevented, as was the UN’s foremost goal, but no large concessions of territory on either side ever occurred. Nevertheless, the fuel behind North Korea’s adamant hatred of the West, monthly dose of nuclear threats and obsessive weapons testing can be easily understood when looking at the narrative constructed by its leaders, stemming from a seeped frustration of being denied expansion into its arch nemesis South Korea.
China is still reported to be the only nation on Earth which has a real grasp on North Korea’s economy, and therefore military. As the Cold War is long buried, and the capitalist threat is no longer real on the interwoven global stage, China is far more likely to pursue a Korea devoid of the diplomatically embarrassing and geographically dangerous DPRK at their borders. Either financially, politically or militarily, China getting involved would undoubtedly force North Korea to give up their game. The incentive to get them onboard? Perhaps having North Korea made into a part of their borders, or replacing the DPRK and North Korea with a brand new state puppeted by China. But who knows, with simply a new buffer state, who is to say that echoes of the Korean problem of the 2010s won’t repeat themselves in the future, just as the ones of the 1950s are now.
Will War Actually Happen?
I’ve personally tossed and turned my opinion on the odds of war between the U.S. and North Korea actually breaking out, and although I’ve riled you up with this summary of a bleak and apocalyptic future, I do not think that any official ‘war’ will be declared between the two. For good or for worse, this is because Kim Jong Un simply loves himself far too much. The entire North Korean regime centers around keeping himself in power, even going as far as reportedly obliterating his own general with an artillery cannon in a slightly over the top fashion out of suspicion that he was plotting against him. This is not to mention the picture he paints of himself as omnipotent, godly and unquestionable to the rest of the North Korean population, screaming that he truly craves security in his position. If Kim Jong can maintain the status quo in which he has the freedom to breach international laws without deposition, you can bet he’d keep it that way.
On the other side, the U.S. could, in fact, destroy North Korea relatively easily, as Trump boasted in his address to the United Nations last month. However although he and his team act with firmness by scrambling the U.S. fleet near Korean waters and speak with fire and fury in their retorts to Kim Jong, the calculable risk of taking it further will always prove too great with the potential for mushroom clouds on the horizon. Much like how the state of North Korea was a shield against American influence geographically touching China, nuclear weapons are a shield for North Korea preventing American actions being taken against them, through the art of mutually assured destruction. If not destruction of the U.S., then of more achievable neighboring allied countries, like Japan or South Korea. You could argue that something should have happened long before North Korea even got their hands on such devastating weapons to hold the situation hostage, however China’s protective role in the Korean War stopped the UN from doing just that in the 1950s. Just like the security Kim Jong demands, his possession of weapons of mass destruction will ultimately fend off the West from taking the risk to trigger them, unless an incredibly intricate strategy is formed. It will force the world to abandon military possibilities and look at North Korea through a different lens, namely on crashing the country’s economy. Already, Trump is employing new tactics of strangling North Korea by cutting off private companies which partake in business with it, however nothing will quite beat having Chinese President Xi Ping’s hat in the ring to take on such a plan.
Yet I cannot be completely certain that Kim Jong’s paranoia will precisely mean a risky war is off the cards. For if he is confident enough to have his missiles come into countless international warnings and become condemned by nearly every nation in the world, war is only one step further than that. Not only this but if North Korean technology evolves to a point where a devastating strike could take place against their biggest threats without many repercussions, you can also bet they’d take the chance. Perhaps most worryingly, although Kim Jong has so far been aiming his weapons for the empty seas in a demonstration of power, if a missile happened to fail mid-flight and soar down onto a foreign city by mistake, then a response must be met by the U.S., regardless of how much the communist dictator truly wants it.
“I’ve personally tossed and turned my opinion on the odds of war between the U.S. and North Korea actually breaking out”
So don’t worry too much, for now. But by all means, keep an ear out on the news for the fatal words of an orange tanned President and a shoe-brush haired dictator about the end of, at least, the modern state of the world.