On Wednesday the 28th of November, North Korea launched the missile test number 79th under the Kim Jong-Un regime. According to the Pentagon and other defence agencies, the missile travelled 620 miles and reached a height of around 2,800 miles before landing on the Japanese sea. This information suggests that Pyongyang tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the capacity to strike long-distance regions such as US main cities like Washington DC or New York. The US Defence Secretary, James Mattis pointed that this test “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken” and remarked that the exercise is part of the process to build ICBMs capable to “threaten everywhere in the world”. Despite some technical limitations that the North Korean nuclear program could have, such as effective precision or capability to carry nuclear warheads –heavier than conventional payloads-, the fact that Pyongyang has been testing successfully more powerful bombs and missiles is a variable that must be carefully considered in an already tense relation between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
The current nuclear and conventional capabilities of Pyongyang, make the military option highly dangerous and costly for the civilian population in the Peninsula and for the stability of the whole region. Seoul is only around 20 miles away from the border, close enough to be reached by the conventional artillery from the north. Furthermore, in case of a preventive strike from the US and its allies, Kim Jong-Un, aware of North Korean conventional inferiority, would be encouraged to use the nuclear arsenal before its launching sites, its lines of communications or the command and control chain –if any, compromise. In other terms, a new Korean war would be a conflict where nuclear escalation is likely to occur rapidly.
Additionally, even defeating the Kim Jong-Un regime either by a war, a preventive strike or by sabotage, the consequences could be catastrophic and costly for the North Korean population and neighbouring countries. In a research in 2011, Bennett and Lind estimated that a mission to stabilize North Korea, if the regime failed hypothetically after the death of Kim Jong-Il, would require between 263,000 and 405,500 soldiers and several years to accomplish some missions, with huge risks of humanitarian crisis and disappearance of weapons of mass destruction -WMD, as well as the high financial costs associated to the mission. Even in the absence of a war, that would have grave civilian costs for South and North Korea, the humanitarian risk for the North Korean population in the event of a regime collapse is high. It is well known that the population of North Korea is close to face famine and any interruption of the government provision of food would rapidly escalate into a humanitarian crisis that would trigger a migration crisis to China, South Korea, and Japan. Today, six years after Bennett and Lind study, the risk of disappearance of WMD or escalation due to miscalculation is even higher. Governments around the world must consider the probability that, before its defeat, Kim Jong-Un could launch an ICBM with a nuclear warhead to any of the main cities in Japan, Europe of the US mainland.
At the peak of the Cold War, the recognized scholars Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan proposed the ‘nuclear peace’ theory. In 1981, Waltz, referring to Nuclear weapons, stated that “more may be better”. The nuclear peace theory argues that nuclear proliferation would make the costs of war unacceptably high for any side involved. If all the countries in the world would possess nuclear weapons, the risk of war would be too high to even consider it, thus, countries would be encouraged to solve their disputes through diplomacy or to, at least, control their violent clashes to avoid escalation. Two states involved in a nuclear war could end up both destroyed, making the conflict inefficient and irrational; this eventual outcome is also known as ‘mutual assured destruction’.
The current situation between North Korea and the US could be the materialization of the ‘nuclear peace’ theory. The risks associated with a violent clash between Pyongyang and Washington and its allies exceed any possible gain. The North Korean threat is smaller than the consequences that a nuclear war in North East Asia could have. A violent confrontation today would endanger cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Los Angeles or New York to a nuclear attack, as well as the people in North Korea would surely experience big scale famine and humanitarian crisis. It is a difficult idea for everyone in the Western world, but maybe the only possible peace with North Korea is a nuclear peace. In the short term, Nuclear weapons guarantee the survival of the Kim Jong-Un regime, Pyongyang’s main objective; in other words, after completing the goals of the nuclear programme, North Korea wouldn’t have any incentive to start a violent conflict, thus, a period of stability and reduction of the tension can be expected. Washington can still struggle with the idea of a nuclear North Korea, yet, after the last missile test, it is even more aware of the risks of a violent conflict. A fully nuclear-armed North Korea is a reality today that Asian countries and Western power must learn to live with. A nuclear Armageddon must be avoided at all cost; diplomacy and patience are now the only options to produce long-term changes in the Peninsula.
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