Thursday,24 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Thursday,24 May, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Second Korean war?

The first Korean War never ended. But any new round, by nature, would be unpredictable and would fast become global, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

اقرأ باللغة العربية

They say that World War II was the natural outcome of World War I. Today, as we observe the mounting tensions and acrimony in Korea (both north and south), it looks like we’re in for another round of war. I say “round” because the first Korean War (1950-1953) has not really ended, at least not officially. All there is, according to UN documents, is a “truce”. This has given rise to the situation we see on the ground today: a demilitarised zone across which both sides are still training their weapons against each other. Each side also has their own big power allies. The US sides with South Korea. China (so far) looks like an ally of the north, but not in the same way it was during the first Korean War. Today, China simply does not want a unified Korea next door because of the repercussions this would have on international balances of power. In fact, the situation is similar to all the cases of partition that occurred after World War II. In Korea, as in Vietnam, Palestine and India, partition caused eruptions of fighting and warfare. In the case of Germany, partition with the series of crises that followed, formed one of the most important chapters in the Cold War.

The crux of the problem with regard to Korea is that no one can be certain of the “endgame”. It is impossible to say what Kim Jong-un, the leader, president — or should we say monarch? — really wants by possessing nuclear arms to begin with, and by possessing missiles that can reach not only South Korea but also all other neighbouring countries and, most recently, even the US as represented by the relatively nearby island of Guam. One explanation is that Pyongyang wants to up its international profile by joining the nuclear club and winning the respect due to its members. Another holds that it’s all about blackmail. North Korea is creating a dangerous nuclear programme so that it can barter freezing it in exchange for meeting major economic demands for that country that is gripped by communist poverty and even famine from time to time. According to a third interpretation, Kim is afraid of facing the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when Washington was on its regime change campaigns.

Unfortunately, it is not just Pyongyang that is shrouded in mystery. Washington, too, is an enigma. President Donald Trump began his campaign against North Korea during his electoral campaign which was when he first vowed that he wouldn’t be as weak towards the communist state as Barack Obama. By the time he entered the White House he was vowing the North Koreans a fight they would never forget and a wrath that would force them to bend.

Suddenly both men, neither of whom had the faintest idea of their “endgame”, were ready to face-off in verbal battles and varying forms of military build-up. North Korea performed a series of ballistic missile tests and the US reinforced its naval and aerial presence in South Korea. As the situation escalated from “tension” to “crisis”, other international parties were dumbfounded and also very nervous as they stared at a situation that could slip out of control and into war.

South Korea is probably the most worried of all concerned. South Korea has achieved a level of economic progress and prosperity it had never dreamed of. Today, it is ranked among the countries of the developed world and it is a major competitor in the world economy. To a wealthy nation that can boast a well-to-do people, war with its promise to do away with all that is not a welcome prospect.

China is also perplexed. It knows that it will be able to top the US economy and become a superpower by the middle of this century. It does not want some foreign ruler or war to obstruct its path to this great goal. On the other hand, it cannot accept a unified Korea under the southern flag and, hence, a US proxy.

To make matters worse, nobody in China, South Korea or elsewhere in the world has an inkling of what is going on in the head of the young North Korean leader who appears to suffer from some mental disorder. How else could it be that his actions seem governed not by rational political considerations but by primordial instincts of the sort that are given the fullest rein in totalitarian regimes where there is little difference between president and god? At a time when US military and other officials are trying to rein in Trump, insisting that all diplomatic means be exhausted first and urging China to pressure the North Korean leader into being reasonable, there appears no one capable of reining in Kim’s strategic actions.

Against the foregoing backdrop, analysts have begun to think in terms of looming war and they are currently speculating how it will erupt. Will reciprocal escalation spiral out of control and lead to a breakout of hostilities as occurred in World War I? None of the parties wanted that war to happen, but it did anyway. Or will a pre-emptive strike by one of the parties trigger war? Washington might consider that option in order to paralyse North Korea’s missiles. But South Korea might also be tempted to strike first, perhaps in order to take South Korea and 200,000 Americans (28,000 soldiers and the rest American civilians working in South Korean companies) hostage to use as pressure cards or bargaining chips.

In an article that appeared in The New Yorker of 6 September, Robin White asks “What Would War with North Korea Look Like?” Ultimately, she sees a war that would play out in phases. The first would probably be a conventional war launched by a pre-emptive strike by the US and its allies in order to paralyse North Korea’s nuclear and missile capacities and to topple the North Korean regime. But even if successful, it would not mean the end of the war. Rather it would usher in the second phase, a lethal unconventional guerrilla war between opponents and supporters of the communist Kim regime.

The scenario clearly follows the model of the US war in Iraq after 2003. However, as history has taught us, no two wars are alike. Also, wars come packed with surprises and unintended consequences, such as the inextricable intricacies that make it possible for open wars to drag on without end. The US is still in Afghanistan 16 years down the line. On the other hand, there is the “German scenario”: the movement of peoples from the east to the west culminating in the reunification of Germany. In the Korean case, the phenomenon would probably work from the north to the south. In both cases, the movement is from poor to rich.

The North Korean regime is a total anomaly in today’s world. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the development of capitalist economies in China and Vietnam, the North Korean model may soon become a relic for a history museum. Maybe.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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