A few years ago, the possibility of a new war erupting on the Korean Peninsula would have been thought of as a distant and unrealistic scenario. This was primarily due to the Obama administration’s preference of utilizing diplomacy and sanctions as punitive measures, rather than repeating the mistakes of the Iraq War.
The a new administration in the White House under President Trump brought with it a whole new set of rhetoric and willingness to adopt new approaches to long-standing issues facing the United States.
North Korea has been a thorn it the side of the United States and its regional allies since the end of the Korean War in 1953. This is in no small part due to the fiery rhetoric and threatening stance that its past two leaders Kim-Jong-Il, and his son and the current leader, Kim-Jong-Un, have taken.
While it may seem that Pyongyang has taken an ‘all bark and no bite’ approach, it is important to understand that under President Trump, Washington has taken an equally unpredictable and fiery approach to its foreign policy.
In the short span of 8 months, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Paris climate change agreement, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, and has announced his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration.
The latest foreign policy shake up in the United States has come in the form of a war of words, for now, between Kim-Jong-Un and President Trump, which comes amidst a fresh wave of threats and missile tests by North Korea and an increasingly impatient U.S administration. In the latest escalation, following North Korea’s threat to launch missiles in the waters surrounding the U.S military base on Guam in the Pacific, President Trump responded with an equally ominous warning to unleash a “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
What most in the American public fail to properly understand beyond the evening news is that there is grave cost and consequence to another Iraq War playing out, this time in the backyard of two allied superpowers, Russia and China. While indeed the possibility of a full-out war remains slim, the odds are slowly inching towards it becoming a reality the consequences of which are not being fully considered.
There are two key factors that have the potential of making another war in Korea more destructive and dangerous than its predecessor. Firstly, the technological advancements made in the arsenals of both sides facing off have come a long way since 1953. Whilst the U.S and its regional allies have surrounded the rogue state with advanced anti-missile defences, North Korea has become equally adaptive with its missile systems in part due to the modernization of its manufacturing facilities. An example of this is the testing of its first submarine-launched ballistic missile last August.
Secondly, there must be serious consideration that a snake is most dangerous when cornered. Similarly, the Kim regime is fully aware that they cannot afford to appear weak in the face of conflict, and as such all options are on the table for them. Equally dangerous is the fact that the North may be stockpiling chemical or biological weapons, which it is capable of delivering via drones or its extensive tunnel network into the South.
Euan Graham, a security analyst at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, argues that should the Kim regime feel that an imminent strike against them is incoming, they will not hesitate to strike first with a nuclear option on the table.
A new Korean War is not similar to Vietnam where much of the population was rural. Rather, there are large urban population centres in South Korea and Japan who are genuinely at risk. The last Korean war saw the deaths of over 2.5 million civilians on both sides, and that was without the aforementioned desperation of a fanatic regime, exchange of heated threats, and increased willingness to allegedly use nuclear armaments.
We can only hope that the situation does not escalate in the coming weeks and that there is a genuine effort, largely on part of the Chinese, to de-escalate the tensions away from the fast approaching boiling point.
It is also key to make the public aware of the potentially destructive nature of a major war breaking out in Korea. This is particularly true among Americans, many of whom are willing to support a new Korean war, despite living far from the fear of the North threat as opposed to many of their Japanese and South Korean counterparts.