The heated exchange of rhetoric between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un has led to widespread fears of an impending war on the Korean Peninsula. In response to North Korea’s unapologetic continuation of its nuclear program, despite international condemnation, Trump has once again taken to Twitter to threaten North Korea with “fire and fury” while North Korea returned Trump’s threats by threatening to launch its missiles at Guam. The threats and counter-threats, together with North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear programs, have led to many observers to fear an outbreak of conflict, whether accidental or deliberate. Despite the heated rhetoric, it is unlikely that military conflict will break out on the Korean Peninsula as a deliberate strategy by either of the two leaders. Accidental escalation remains a risk and requires both sides to alter their behaviour.
The recent heated rhetoric coming out of North Korea and the U.S. have caused fears of the outbreak of war, potentially dragging in all of the major powers in the region. The heated exchange somewhat breaks from previous patterns, since it’s the first time that the United States has responded to North Korea’s over-the-top rhetoric by directly threatening military retaliation issued by an equally unpredictable leader. The seemingly irrational behaviour of both leaders, and with Donald Trump’s willingness to play brinkmanship rather than trying to cobble together international coalitions, is raising alarms among civilians in the U.S. and Japan. This has resulted in a rising demand for bomb shelters and civil authorities in case of a North Korean attack.
Although North Korea has been one of the main forces for creating a nuclear scare that’s lasted for approximately 15 years, the 2017 rhetorical standoff between Kim and Trump does have significant differences from past confrontations, and these differences have significantly raised the stakes for both players involved. For North Korea, it is the surprising speed and progress it has made on its nuclear weapons program and the increased international diplomatic isolation it has also brought. North Korea has managed to miniaturize its nuclear warhead and greatly extend the range of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) faster than many analysts could have predicted. North Korea’s large amount of resources, which was made at a breakneck pace, will mean it is increasingly unlikely for the regime to relinquish its nuclear and missile arsenal.
Another difference between this North Korean nuclear crisis from the others can be attributed to the change of power structure in the White House. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric sends an aggressive signal to other states in the region. While those that are familiar with the U.S. political system might hope that the professional diplomats and military officials in Washington will prevent Trump from acting recklessly, analysts and decision-makers from more authoritarian backgrounds might have less confidence in the U.S. check-and-balance system and take Trump’s rhetoric at face value as the official position of U.S. foreign policy. The risk of misinterpretation of signals by the other side and escalating war preparation is very dangerous. But if North Korea genuinely believes that the U.S. is preparing an attack, it can threaten to start a regional war.
It is becoming evident that North Korea does not appear to really trust anyone, even its “allies,” which includes China and, maybe, Russia. The Juche ideology espoused by the North Korean leadership emphasizes autarky. The ascension of Kim Jong-Un was also famously marked by the execution of the pro-Chinese members of the Korean Workers’ Party and the leadership’s efforts to decrease its reliance on China both economically and diplomatically. North Korea’s relationship with Russia is less well documented, and economically much less significant. However, given that Russia has also joined the UNSC sanctions and publicly called for negotiations on disarmament, it might indicate that North Korea does not view Russia as a reliable guarantor of its national security either. The fear that the “superpowers” will cut a deal with each other over the interests of their interests of their “clients” is a common concern of the less powerful states, and North Korea is no exception to this ruthless rational logic.
The North Korean regime’s belief that only its nukes can guarantee its survival may only be bolstered by recent events involving dictators and authoritarian regimes elsewhere. The United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and it’s subsequent backpedal from dictators that it had previously backed after the Arab Spring broke out would make North Korea wary of any form of security guarantees. Dictators such as Muammar Gadhafi, who abandoned their WMD programs in exchange for foreign aid and security guarantees from the West, have found the United States actively backing rebels wanting their overthrow when the opportunity arose to humble their former adversaries. These decisions do not serve to foster North Korean trust in intangible security guarantees. But if Pyongyang views its nuclear arsenal and its capability of a nuclear Armageddon as the only effective deterrence against the U.S. and guarantee of its survival, no amount of pressure from “allies” and adversaries will persuade North Korea to surrender its arsenal peacefully.
Furthermore, even though most of North Korea’s neighbours are all opposed to a nuclear North Korea, these countries also share little in common and have widely different views on how to proceed. This fracture can significantly weaken any coordinated international efforts on containment. The United States desires some form of regime change in North Korea, preferably Korean reunification if possible, and to set the North Korean program back to square one and make it difficult for the country to restart the program. This goal is likely opposed by both the Chinese and the Russians, who are concerned with American military presence right on their national borders. Russia’s support of Iran shows, for now, that it’s not opposed to having another country possessing nuclear capability as long as it is an “ally.” And if Russia Today is to be believed, the Russian government views the tensions on the Korean peninsula as caused by the United States and South Korea from their excessive military exercises, rather than blaming North Korean paranoia.
Paradoxically, North Korea’s growing missile capability may be seen as beneficial by some political factions in South Korea and Japan, because it gives more pretext for these countries to seek nuclear armaments of their own, thus making them less dependent on the United States. Finally, extra-regional events also cast their shadow on the various players have regarding the events on the Korean Peninsula. Concerns over Russian expansion in Eastern Europe and Chinese activities in the South China Sea mean that a “united front” on dealing with North Korea is unlikely to form.
Despite these pessimistic developments and mutual suspicion, an outright war over North Korea’s missile program is still unlikely, at least as part of some deliberate national strategy. Despite the heated rhetoric, the U.S. military establishment has so far resisted raising alarm levels for the Korean Peninsula and readying its troops and those of its allies for a war in the region. The world is still nominally united in containing nuclear proliferation. All states involved recognize that war, even a non-nuclear one, will cause severe disruptions to their economy and will be difficult to contain. And despite its seemingly over-the-top provocations, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un’s policies are a form of ruthless pragmatism. Actual provocations by North Korea that can lead to its allies deserting to justifiable American retaliation and therefore full-blown war, which has been non-existent since the end of the Cold War. The Kim regime is so far nothing but self-preserving.
There have also been precedents where non-P5 members have been accepted into the nuclear club. India, Pakistan, and, most likely Israel, are not recognized international “great powers” but over the years their possession of nuclear weapons have become accepted by the international community. The Iranian and Japanese approach to nuclear energy and weaponry can be another method of reaching a compromise, where the international community recognizes the country has a “breakout capacity,” meaning that it can create nuclear weapons in a short time but otherwise does not possess a permanent nuclear force. However, all of these methods hinge on the willingness of the United States and North Korea to make concessions to each other, a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely given their respective heads of state.
While current developments on the Korean Peninsula rightfully deserve alarm, but actual war is still unlikely short of something extraordinary. The change in leadership in the United States and the continued isolation of North Korea has injected a large amount of uncertainty into the relationship. Also, the Kim regime may have come to view nuclear weapons as the best and the only guarantee of its survival, as well as helping to increase North Korea’s international prestige. The rivalry ridden international community is also unlikely to act decisively, something which North Korea will continue to exploit and play for some time until it has a credible nuclear deterrence force.
It is unlikely that nuclear proliferation will ever be effectively controlled. The North Korean experience has shown that even compared to conventional weapons, nuclear deterrence is relatively cheap and an effective for even impoverished countries. The attention and resources of the international community should be to prevent causes of war, where the use of nuclear weapons will prove to be tempting, as well as to learn to live in a world where, despite missile shield technology, nuclear arsenals will become more prominent.
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