The threat is real

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Here’s my prediction: Rockets will fly and people will die.

Western leaders are trying their best to downplay North Korea’s rhetoric. “Oh, they always talk crazy, this is just more of the same,” they’ll say. Except it isn’t just more of the same – http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/04/03/north-korea-refuses-to-let-south-korean-enter-joint-factory-in-latest-provocation/ - and more of the same can still be pretty bad.

More of the same could look like the shelling of a South Korean island that killed four, or the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 (North Korea, China and Russia dispute laying the blame on Pyongyang), or the killing of two American officers guilty of cutting down a tree in the DMZ, or North Korea’s nuke tests, or missile tests, or alleged stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons. More of the same is bad.

But this this doesn’t look like more of the same to me. I think it’s unlikely Kim Jong Un wants a large-scale war – dictators tend to want to retain power and he must know the odds are against him – but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. My guess is this classic game of brinksmanship might escalate into the real thing.

Who is going to blink? There’s a good chance that isn’t even an option for Un. Being the leader of a military dictatorship doesn’t mean he’s free to do whatever he wants. On the contrary, this young man is probably very constrained in the number of options he can openly consider. It’s possible peace isn’t even possible in his circle of advisers – that any attempt to back down would threaten his future.

Will South Korea or the U.S. blink? Maybe, but that depends on how badly they’re provoked. Seoul is just across the border from North Korea. Basically any incursion into South Korea immediately threatens South Korea’s capital and puts that nation in a state of total war. And statements by the north that it intends to nuke America play into the hands of any American leader who wants to rally public support for a large-scale engagement.

Make no mistake, Un has one thing right: there is no good option for his enemies. If America and the local community don’t sanction the country, he gets to continue working on nuclear proliferation while maintaining his slave state. If America does try to sanction North Korea, they respond by flying off the handle and threatening war.

This is not a war the West or South Korea wants. But I’ll go out on a limb and say we’ll be lucky to keep this growing feud to just an incident like the ones in the past. I’ll be surprised if no one’s killed, and I think a limited war is a very real possibility. The rhetoric is more bellicose this time around, which lends credibility to the idea Un thinks he has to prove something. My guess is he’ll push the U.S. and South Korea to the absolute edge. Should he misjudge where that edge is, this could very rapidly degenerate into a full-blown, multi-nation war.

The glimmer of good news in this bad situation is that the chances of a repeat of the Korean War, where China openly supported North Korea, is unlikely. China may take advantage of a conflict to harm the West – financially, possibly militarily by covertly helping Pyongyang – but open engagement won’t happen. The West and China are already too connected to make it in the interests of either camp to declare war on each other.

Bottom line, though, there is no good scenario here. Let a violent narcissist backed by a military oligarchy continue to develop weapons and threaten everyone, or tackle him and suffer catastrophic human and financial losses. Don’t take much comfort in the “business as usual” propaganda you’re hearing on the news. This could get very ugly very quickly.

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