Over the past few weeks, a growing number of people – both experts and laypeople – have been talking about the possibility of military conflict on the Korean peninsula. The most common refrain one hears among experts is that there is a growing sense of fear that North Korea and its neighbors and the United States might blunder themselves into war – whether by accident, miscalculation, or misperception of the other side’s intentions.
After all, both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are unpredictable and have the capacity to kill millions of people. With both leaders trading personal insults and making threats that will eventually have to be backed up with action lest they be seen as impotent, there is more reason than usual for people to be cautious.
Another common tune we hear is that, for one reason or another, neither Trump nor Kim can afford to back down. Trump needs to look strong because foreign policy is the only realm where he can find any political victories. Kim needs to look strong or be replaced in a coup by hardliners. Trump is committed to America First. Kim is committed to Byungjin. They need to save face. The arguments go on and on.
Luckily there are many practical reasons why a sudden breakout of war is unlikely.
The most obvious reason – at least from Seoul’s point of view – was articulated, most curiously, by the now-ousted White House Chief of Strategy Steve Bannon, when he said that there is no military solution that doesn’t lead to the deaths of millions of South Koreans in the first thirty minutes of war breaking out.
He was quickly repudiated by everyone. Even U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis, who has thus far been the most supportive of diplomatic efforts, felt compelled to hint – without going into any detail – that there are American military options that would shield Seoul from a brutal North Korean counterattack.
Bannon’s candid remarks were unhelpful. North Korea must be assured that all options are always being considered to disarm it of nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t mean he was wrong.
“IT WON’T HAPPEN”
There are other reasons that make war unpalatable. The United States would most likely not get the support it would need from its allies – particularly South Korea, which would face the brunt of any North Korean attack – to launch a war against it.
Also, many American voters are currently not in the mood for yet another round of military adventurism in a far-off country that they cannot even locate on a map. Furthermore, while China may not come to North Korea’s aid if the latter is seen as the aggressor, this doesn’t mean that it won’t get involved should a war break out. That alone should keep any military strategist awake at night.
North Korea would be decimated should a war break out. Kim Jong Un knows this
On the other side of the DMZ, Kim Jong Un has his own reasons for wanting to avoid war, at least for the foreseeable future. First and foremost, his most basic concern is regime survival. Without it, he cannot pursue any other goal he may have.
He may need to appear resolute in the face of American threats, but that is domestic politics. Regardless of his need to appear strong, it does not change the fact that his goal of keeping his regime intact would be torn asunder if he instigates a war. Donald Trump might have a rather peculiar relationship with the truth, but he was not lying about “fire and fury.”
That is precisely why North Korea backed down from its threats of war in 2015 when South Korea turned on its loudspeakers at the DMZ and refused to back down, even as North Korea lobbed artillery shells at the loudspeakers, after two South Korean soldiers were grievously injured when North Korean soldiers deliberately planted landmines at the DMZ. The North Korean regime is stone cold rational.
Whether or not North Korea has ICBMs with re-entry capabilities that can reach New York City or it has successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, the United States is the world’s sole superpower and although South Korea (and possibly Japan) will suffer unspeakable casualties, North Korea would be decimated should a war break out. Kim Jong Un knows this and has acted, and will continue to act, accordingly.
The possibility of war may be low, but it would be foolish for Seoul to be complacent. North Korea’s goal is not to go to war against the United States – a conflict that it would most assuredly lose, and thus result in its total annihilation – but rather to split the ROK-U.S. alliance. And that is what ought to terrify South Korea.
The word “crisis” is often used to describe the North Korean dilemma. But that word is inappropriate. “Crisis” usually means an unstable or crucial time that has reached a critical phase. In short, the word implies that it is momentary. However, the North Korean dilemma has been going on for a long time.
North Korea’s goal is not to go to war against the United States… but rather to split the ROK-U.S. alliance
AMERICAN FIRST, KOREA LAST
All of North Korea’s neighbors have been living with, adjusted under, and prospered in spite of North Korean threats and provocations. South Koreans, in particular, have largely become indifferent to North Korean threats. What has changed now is that for the first time, North Korea’s weapons can reach the United States. In short, the thing that has changed in this stable, albeit highly unpleasant, state of affairs is that the new wildcard is the average American voter.
It may not happen immediately, but assuming that North Korea successfully develops and tests ICBMs that can reach the United States’ East Coast and miniaturizes nuclear warheads, more and more Americans will inevitably begin to ask themselves whether it is wise or desirable to sacrifice their own lives to protect South Koreans. It would not be difficult to empathize with those voices. America First has already captured the hearts of many American voters – even prominent senators have begun to flippantly talk about thousands of people dying “over there.”
Coupled with the fact that so many average American voters appear to think that Kim Jong Un is irrational, there now exists the perfect combination, which if allowed to stew, could someday end the ROK-US alliance as we know it.
North Korea has never thought of South Korea as its equal. It is why North Korea insists on direct negotiations with Washington, but rarely with Seoul. It is why North Korea demands a peace treaty with Washington, but not with Seoul. It is why North Korea consistently refers to South Korea as a puppet regime. And it is why during the “Sunshine” years, North Korea treated South Korea as its own personal piggy bank but refused to respect it.
Armed with nuclear weapons, North Korea could face-off against a nation of fifty million people who, it sees, as soft and afraid to go to war. Admittedly, there would be many reasons for North Korea to find that reunifying the Korean peninsula under its terms would be anything but easy.
However, considering the long, sordid, and shameful events that we have seen in the not-too-distant past by those who have been “sympathetic” toward North Korea, it would not be beyond North Korea’s imagination to see South Korea surrender its wealth, freedom, and sovereignty piecemeal.
South Korea must wage an all-out assault on all fronts: procuring arms, managing existing alliances and trade partnerships, forming new alliances and trade partnerships (even with old enemies), continuing to persuade more countries to sever their ties with Pyongyang, punishing and hurting North Korea’s leadership and elites at every possible opportunity, and yes, preparing for war, for that is the only way to guarantee peace. Its survival depends on it.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
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