Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Korean nuclear standoff

Seething tensions in the Korean Peninsula could spark a conflict that would make World War II seem tame by comparison, writes Hany Ghoraba

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

— J Robert Oppenheimer (1902-1964)


The American creator of the atomic bomb who quoted a verse from the sacred Hindu book of Bhagavad Gita, couldn’t have been more accurate about the nature of his lethal invention that changed warfare and the whole world completely.

Since the 1950 Korean War, the Korean Peninsula became the hotbed of military tensions in the Far East — one that remains set to erupt at any moment. Tensions escalated through the years as the rift between the two countries of North Korea and South Korea grew ever wider since the ceasefire and armistice signed in July 1953 ended a bloody war that caused over 2.5 million casualties for all belligerents. The reunification of the two Koreas continued to be a hot political topic for the past seven decades. However, it couldn’t be further from actual realisation than at the current moment.

North Korea remains the last Soviet-styled dictatorship in the world with all related paraphernalia, including the deity-like supreme leader represented by President Kim Jim-un, a totalitarian single party system, a strong army, a militant society and a struggling communist economy. On the other hand, South Korea is the one of Asian economic tigers and a great success story that rivals Japan in terms of technological, economic and social advancements.


The North Korean escalation: The North Korean regime has never spared any effort since the end of the Korean War in issuing verbal threats and engaging in military bullying against neighbouring countries. The situation was aggravated even further with North Korea developing nuclear weapons capability. Recently the North Korean leader has been provoking his South Korean counterparts and making threats of total annihilation, of them, their American allies and Japan.

The alarming nuclear and ballistic missiles tests conducted by North Korea recently have put Washington on alert that it is time to settle the North Korean threats once and for all. For instance, North Korean radio broadcasts threats against neighbours such as Japan as follows: “In case of a nuclear war on the peninsula, Japan, that houses logistic bases, launching bases and sortie bases of the US forces, will be put under radioactive clouds before any country.”

The latest round of nuclear threats is not falling on deaf ears, as US President Donald Trump has already ordered the deployment of a US naval strike force led by USS Carl Vinson. Moreover, military manoeuvres with the South Korean army in preparation for a possible military confrontation have been ongoing, with the US deploying its cutting-edge missile shield THAAD as a precautionary measure to defend both South Korea and Japan.

At the moment, the true capability of North Korean missiles remains an enigma with most of the announced types of missiles — such as Rodong, Taepodong 1, Musadan and Taepodong 2 — never verified as capable of reaching American shores or representing a clear and present threat to the United States. However, the Rodong missiles, which have a presumed range of 1,000-1,500 kilometres, are enough to cover all of South Korean soil. It is believed that North Korea possesses at least 300 such missiles. Moreover, even shorter range missiles, such as the SCUD based Hwasong, can reach the South Korean capital, Seoul, from various areas as the capital is only 56 kilometres from North Korean borders and 60 kilometres from the nearest North Korean city of Kaesong. Accordingly, the South Korean capital, with a population of over 10 million people, is under direct threat, even with the deployment of the THAAD missile shield system, as no defence system has been proven to be fool proof.


RESOLVING THE ESCALATING CRISIS: The scenarios for resolving the current crisis are limited, but China remains the key to solving this nuclear standoff in the Far East. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese government offered a lifeline for the North Korean nation for decades. Now, their role is more important than at any time in past decades to keep North Korean ambitions grounded.

Chinese power and global influence in 2017 is completely different from what it was during the Korean War (1950-1953). China as a global, military and economic power will not yield to threats from the United States, but is quite aware of the consequences of siding with North Korea against the US, Japan and South Korea, not least from an economic perspective. However, the promising news is that the current Chinese government is not a group of communist radicals who still live in the 1950s but a much more pragmatic and globally responsible regime that can help to defuse the situation given the right incentives that secure their interests.

The problem remains that in such conditions all belligerents in extreme agitation could launch retaliatory strikes against false positives that could be anything from a low-flying drone to a missile that is off course. This fact is the most alarming since all sides have pushed the situation to an almost irrevocable point.

The young North Korean president’s ambitions and threats cannot be taken for granted. No nuclear threat should be taken lightly, especially when it is unclear if only the North Korean president is the decision maker or whether actually the military runs the show behind the scenes. In the latter case, the situation may be more resolvable, since an indirect channel could be established with military commanders.

Most importantly, the North Korean army and leader must realise the consequences of any aggression from their side on the future of North Korea and the world. A military assault, especially a nuclear one, would cause unspeakable damage to the Americans, South Koreans and the Japanese. But it would equally cause the total destruction of North Korea in the process, as a result of US retaliation. Accordingly, should a war ignite, there will be no victors but casualties in the dozens of millions on conservative estimates.


LESSONS FROM THE PAST: The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 between the United States and Soviet Union, over Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba, almost threw the world into a catastrophic third world war. However, prudent and level-headed diplomacy prevailed in resolving the 13-day crisis. This should serve a guideline on how to resolve the current crises with permanent, sustainable and tangible solutions that guarantee a similar standoff won’t reoccur in the future. Nevertheless, none can predict if the heads of states of the current standoff will display the same prudence and wisdom displayed once by presidents Kennedy or Khrushchev back in 1962.

Undoubtedly, none of the belligerents in this conflict wish to come out empty handed but all seek to gain maximum benefit, economically and militarily, which is complicating matters more. The North Koreans seek to break the siege imposed on them by the Americans and Western nations. Thus, they attempt to menace, to attain some concessions from their enemies. Nevertheless, this tactic is unlikely to work, especially in light of the blatant threats they directed to all involved nations.

The North Koreans are even escalating the situation by accusing the CIA, 6 May, of plotting an assassination attempt against Kim Jong-un using biochemical agents.

Seven decades have passed since the Korean War and the impoverished yet military capable north side of the peninsula is still threatening the prosperous, industrious and also military capable south. At any given moment, the Korean showdown could turn into the worst conflict in human history. It could render the horrific World War II the equivalent of a bar fight in comparison. The world holds its breath and hoping that the longest ceasefire in modern history remains in effect with a final resolution to the Korean conflict seeing the light of day.

The writer is a political analyst, writer and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and Winding Road for Democracy.

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