North Korea – How close are we to a Nuclear War?

As most Australian’s continued to grapple with the issue of Same Sex Marriage and whether to partake or not in the Postal Plebiscite that will now take place in North Korea things have deteriorated as both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have ratcheted up the rhetoric on potential military action. This increased tension has come about after another sanction being passed by the UN after North Korea carried out their latest Nuclear test (1). People have talked about these sanctions being the toughest sanctions to be implemented ever on a country and that Russia and China have supported this resolution however that should be taken with the grain of salt that the last resolution passed by the UN was also the toughest resolution and it has clearly had limited impact on North Korea’s Nuclear Program. This is because while Russia and China broadly support the resolutions in practice they have still maintained a large portion of their economic ties. As a result of the sanctions North Korea threatened to make an attack on America, specifically on Guam which is an important military base for the US. This threat has caused Donald Trump to make several threats in return threatening to bring fire and fury to North Korea if any action was taken on Guam and then when the international community wanted Trump to backdown his comments he doubled down and said that the US were locked and loaded and ready to bring fury like never seen before on North Korea in response to any attacks on Guam. This increased rhetoric along with North Koreas nuclear programming progressing at a faster rate than many predicted has left the world feeling more nervous than in a while at the prospect of Nuclear War. As a result of various UN arrangements and also the ANZUS alliance Australia have stepped in behind America in opposing North Korea’s latest actions and any action by North Korea against the US would lead to a conflict with Australia.

As with a lot of issues it’s important to get some historical perspective before discussing the current situation. (2) gives a pretty good summary of the history between North Korea and South Korea that I will summarise myself here. So at the end of WW2 as with a lot of conquered land there were disputes between Russia and the Western Alliance of the US, UK and France over how to divide the land that both Allies had claimed and so as with Germany there was a split in half with the US claiming the South of Korea and Russia the North of Korea. In the following years as the Communist regimes of Russia and China started to lay claim on being a World Force this led to a natural conflict with the Western Societies like America and Britain who wanted to maintain their world dominance. This culminated in the North Koreans and South Koreans both wanted to have their own nation and that split led to North Korea invading South Korea which started the Korean War. Now as the war went on China decided to enter the War to protect their interests in North Korea and as result of advanced War technology that the Brits had given them to help fight Japan in WW2 and sheer numbers their entrance into the conflict led to the Korean War ending in an armistice with no clear winner from the war.

From that point to the early nineties there was 40 years in which the Kim dynasty was pledged to be passed down to it’s second iteration Kim Jong-il and for most part their relative peace with both nations joining the UN in 1991. In 1993 and 1994 North Korea fire it’s first ballistic missile and the UN accused North Korea of breaking the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement. This agreement (3) essentially seeks to stop the spread of Nations acquiring or creating Nuclear Weapons and seeking to reduce the amount of Nuclear Weapons available. This push by North Korea is ended temporarily in 1994 by agreeing to stop further action on it’s nuclear programme in exchange for economic assistance in the form of oil. The mid to late nineties saw the new regime under Kim Jong-il flex it’s muscles and end the armistice agreement by sending troops into the demilitarised zone that was meant to act as a border between the North and South, it also showed some capability in advancement of it’s weaponry by firing a multistage rocket over to the Japanese sea. In 2002 and 2003 more evidence is shown that the North Koreans are starting their Nuclear Weapon program again and indeed the North Koreans pull out of both Nuclear Non Proliferation agreement and the armistice they signed with South Korea in relation to having no Nuclear Weapons within Korea. This leads to China, the Koreans, US, Russia and Japan starting talks that seek to come up with a solution to the nuclear issue, talks that until this day are continuing off and  on with some subset of these nations. The rest of the 2000’s continued this pattern of some progress on the issue being wiped out by North Korea then restarting some form of their nuclear program again. This then leads to this decade where in 2011 Kim Jong-Un took over from his father the rule of North Korea. Because of some tensions within his family and the military this succession has seen a ramping up of Nuclear Proliferation because his link to power is not as secure as his dad or grandfather. Indeed his brother was poisoned and his uncle assassinated in signs of this unrest. The first half of this decade has seen various threats made by the new leader at the US while also seeing more shows of increasing power by carrying out various weapons testing. This culminated in 2015 with the nuclear plant in Yongbyon reopening and that has led to a rapid improvement in the ability to create a larger scale nuclear weapon device. It is in the last few years that the rapid advancement has added concrete evidence to the years of rhetoric that has led to more concern with the current outbreak.

So a lot of intrigue with North Korea is based on their ability to use an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Their ability to now fit miniaturised nuclear warheads into longer range weapons is a significant development from previous action (4). Having anywhere up to 60 missiles that can reach America or areas like Guam and even Australia means that when North Korea make threats now they actually have to be taken more seriously than previously. Also of issue is that if North Korea were to carry out an attack on Guam, America could and would strike back with an arsenal that is far greater than North Korea, however that would lead to North Korea then launching retaliatory action on South Korea. (5) Shows that while South Korea and USA can limit the damage that a retaliatory strike could do, any attack would still look at up to tens of thousands of deaths and potentially millions of injuries. I think that’s why Donald Trump is not the ideal leader for this situation. Again I think a lot of the rhetoric and military plans that Donald Trump and his team have suggested are not bad ideas, the problem is that he is going public with these issues and exaggerating what America plans to do in response to North Korea with language that inflames a North Korea leader that is not know for rational decision making. America probably would win any conflict that were to start between North Korea and itself and other allies however the cost in life and loss of territory to attacks would be significant and as a result some form of negotiation should still be the first choice of action.

The one caveat to my last comment is what do China do in any conflict. Yesterday a China  friendly newspaper came out and said that China would stay neutral in any dispute that was started by North Korea however they would intervene and assist North Korea if America initiated an attack on North Korea. This would suggest that other than agreeing to economic sanctions any thoughts of China helping the West in a military dispute is questionable. I think there are a few good reasons for that, firstly if North Korea were to be heavily attacked by America there would be a large amount of displaced citizens that would seek refuge in China. Now China are a rising economic power however it is still a great divide between the do’s and the do nots and they can’t afford to have to take in displaced citizens. Secondly in North Korea China have a good buffer in terms of a country that has similar worldwide views Economically and socially to itself in comparison to the more Western based countries in South Korea and Japan. Lastly China and North Korea have strong economic ties, China use a lot of North Koreans for cheap Labour as well as trade exports and imports with each other, I also think China have some empathy for the plight of an impoverished nation and see itself as someone who wants to help the people as elaborated in (6). All this being said I think China do realise that to rise up as an international force they can’t completely flout international resolutions and so that’s why you seem them tow the line on UN resolutions to some degree.

There are a few more things I’ve been seeing in the media and the public that are worth commenting on. Firstly I have seen a lot of comments saying why is the public getting a say on the Same Sex Marriage Postal Plebiscite and not on whether we go to war, which of course has come back up as we talk about potential action against North Korea. I repeat what I said in response to one such raising of the issue: No offence but to compare voting on SSM with oh wait Hitlers invading Poland, just give us three months to work out the publics mind on this one… in three months Hitler had conquered Poland and with Russia had made advances on several Balkan countries. Similarly if North Korea have taken action against Guam, the escalation may then involve Nuclear Weapons and so having a three month conversation on the merits of dealing with a Nuclear War is hardly appropriate. Now the debate on whether Parliament is informed is a more interesting one but I think the sudden nature of War may mean it’s more appropriate just to have sign off from the major party leaders. There’s also been the attacks on Donald Trump for somehow being at fault for the latest flare up between the North and South. I again think this is more of a cheap shot at Donald and while as I said above I don’t think he’s helping the situation I also think that it is North Koreas actions that are making this situation where it is now.

In terms of what I think will happen now I do again feel sorry for the North Korean People. While North Korea continue to build on their arsenal of weapons Nuclear or otherwise the people are forced to live in poverty and despite all this have been essentially brainwashed by leadership into believing that the only way they will become a worldwide force again is to build up military force to then be able to gain more territory to be able to gain economic credibility. I think I agree with Kim Beazley’s general takeaway that while we may not be about to go to War, we are in a very vulnerable situation and one where a small miscalculation from either side might lead to one side overreacting and carrying one action that would then lead to chain of events with an ending that could wipe out a good percentage of the earth via some nuclear bombs.

 

References

(1): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/08/07/what-the-new-u-n-sanctions-on-north-korea-mean/?utm_term=.a2c3bcf0962a

(2): http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-15278612

(3): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_on_the_Non-Proliferation_of_Nuclear_Weapons

(4): http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/11/542837087/as-rhetoric-escalates-what-do-we-know-about-north-korea-s-nuclear-arsenal

(5): https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/how-north-korea-would-retaliate

(6): https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship

 

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