Could the world soon witness another devastating war on the Korean peninsula? That question looms large in many conversations these days.
Of course, concerns about the North Korean regime’s nuclear-weapons program are nothing new. The United States first tried to resolve the issue back in 1994, with the US–North Korean Agreed Framework; but that effort gradually collapsed, owing to actions taken—and not taken—on both sides. Then, in 2006, Kim Jong-il’s regime detonated North Korea’s first nuclear device, and put the issue squarely back on the United Nations Security Council’s agenda.
In the ensuing decade, North Korea has conducted five more nuclear tests—most recently in September—and demonstrated the technological mastery needed to develop advanced thermonuclear weapons. And, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the situation escalated further when the regime began making significant progress towards developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland. And this development coincided with the arrival of US President Donald Trump, who has promised a new approach to global affairs.
North Korea has made clear its commitment to developing a long-range nuclear-strike capacity. In the regime’s view, nuclear weapons are its only insurance against attack. Without them, Kim believes, he would share the fate of others who abandoned their pursuit of nuclear arms, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya.
In this context, the US objective of a denuclearised North Korea disarmed of ICBMs is unachievable by diplomatic means. And, at any rate, Trump has declared diplomacy a ‘waste of time’, and ominously warned that ‘only one thing will work’, though he hasn’t explained what that means.
Given that neither the US nor North Korea has shown any enthusiasm for talks, one could conclude that war is inevitable. Yet, for all its bellicosity, the North Korean regime is unlikely to start a full-scale military conflict, because that would surely spell its demise. At the same time, the US has no good first-strike options. Surgical strikes may sound promising, but they are hardly foolproof. As US military commanders well know, strikes that failed to eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons at once could trigger a regional—or even a nuclear—war costing millions of lives.
In the US, those who argue for military action often claim that deterrence will not work against an ‘irrational’ regime. But there is no reason to assume that Kim is bent on mass suicide. After all, when Mao’s China made a dash for nuclear weapons in the 1960s, its rationale was little different from that of North Korea today, but no one doubted that deterrence would work.
Still, even assuming that deterrence—embodied in Trump’s threat that the US will ‘totally destroy’ North Korea—does work, it will not prevent a nuclear- and ICBM-armed North Korea from fundamentally altering the strategic calculus in northeast Asia. The US nuclear deterrent protects the US first and foremost. It remains to be seen if US ‘extended deterrence’ will continue to protect American allies such as South Korea and Japan. If the US mainland becomes a potential target for a North Korean nuclear strike, then the credibility of deterrence could depend on whether the US is willing to sacrifice San Francisco to save Seoul or Tokyo.
Doubt about the US nuclear umbrella in the region could lead South Korea and Japan to decide to develop their own nuclear options. In fact, South Korea had a nuclear-weapons program long before North Korea. That program was abandoned when South Korea signed on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1975, but restarting it has become a subject of debate in Seoul. Needless to say, further nuclear escalation on the Korean peninsula would be very dangerous, not least because the Kim regime would feel even more threatened than it already does.
So far, the US approach to North Korea has been to tighten sanctions and outsource the problem to China. But while China does have strong economic ties to North Korea, it is unclear whether China has the clout to change the Kim regime’s behaviour, even if it wanted to. Success would probably require something close to regime change.
It is thus unwise to rely wholly on China. Clearly, a broader diplomatic approach is needed, and it should start by addressing a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem: namely, that no peace treaty has ever been signed to end the 1950–1953 Korean War.
A dialogue to replace the 64-year-old armistice with a formal peace agreement could pave the way for broader discussions about nuclear escalation and other threats to regional stability. And, at a minimum, it could break today’s diplomatic stalemate and give the parties involved more reason to refrain from further provocations.
More broadly, a new round of diplomacy would have to address North Korea’s security concerns, and provide space for the North to evolve politically and economically, as China has done over the past few decades. This may seem like a distant prospect; but if the security situation on the peninsula is resolved, it would not be out of the question.
The alternative is to continue on the current path and risk a military conflict or a full-scale war. Even if those worst-case scenarios were averted, the region would have nothing to look forward to but instability for years to come.