These are nervous times in the continuing drama between the United States-led international community and North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions have made it a serious threat to regional stability.
So far, the war of words and military games appear to be no more than sabre rattling on both sides, but how likely is it that we’re headed for direct conflict and war again on the Korean peninsula? And how did we get here in the first place? Cantech Letter asked a couple of experts at McGill University to help fill in the blanks.
Tensions continue to mount with North Korea’s launch earlier this week of an intermediate range ballistic missile over northern Japan, followed by a show of force by the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies, who conducted simulated war games and air drills over the Korean peninsula.
Around the globe, world leaders have roundly condemned North Korea’s actions and are calling on Pyongyang to cease and desist its military exercises and nuclear program. Yet beyond condemnation, consensus from the international community on how best to proceed is lacking.
Economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts have not proved persuasive against President Kim Jong-un, who seems undeterred in his efforts to build up North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. And yet aggressive rhetoric from US President Donald Trump along with an increased military presence in the region don’t appear to be helping, either.
Pyongyang is well aware of the cases of Iraq and Libya where Hussein and Gaddafi went against U.S. foreign policy and ended up removed from power
Where does that leave us? We can begin by asking why North Korea is so dogged in its pursuit of nuclear weaponry in the first place. That goal has less to do with self-aggrandizement on the part of Kim and North Korea’s leaders than some might think, says Jean-François Bélanger, doctoral candidate in political science at McGill University in Montreal and expert in nuclear proliferation.
Bélanger sees North Korea’s moves as a defensive posture and a means of survival in the region.
“Pyongyang is well aware of the cases of Iraq and Libya where Hussein and Gaddafi went against U.S. foreign policy and ended up removed from power,” says Bélanger. “As such, North Korea has developed a nuclear arsenal to be able to deter any aggressive actions against its regime.”
Indeed, the US military presence in the area is significant. Ever since the Second World War, America has kept a huge deployment in Southeast Asia, currently with over 23,000 troops in South Korea and over 39,000 in Japan, by far its largest overseas deployment.
The problem, says Bélanger, is that the other central powers to the present conflict— the US, Japan and South Korea, in particular —are not at all interested in recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power. And unlike the case of Iran, where sanctions and diplomacy seem to have worked in steering the country away from pursuing nuclear weaponry, North Korea’s program is already up and running, and that makes a big difference, says Bélanger.
Like Iran, North Korea has done an incredibly impressive job of advancing its foreign policy goals and becoming a major player on the international scene without sacrificing soldiers
“At this point, estimates of North Korea’s arsenal varies from 20 to 60 nuclear weapons, and they have shown they have intermediate and intercontinental capabilities,” says Bélanger. “Sanctions may slow this down, but we are in front of a fait accompli right now.”
But if neither side can be persuaded to back down —North Korea from its nuclear prowess, the US and others from keeping their military superiority in the region— where does that leave us?
Is there any chance that the conflict will move from mere displays of power to actual war? Unlikely, says Gil Troy, professor with McGill’s Department of History, who argues that while letting the world know about its capabilities does seem to be in North Korea’s best interest, engaging in real combat is not.
“Like Iran, North Korea has done an incredibly impressive job of advancing its foreign policy goals and becoming a major player on the international scene without sacrificing soldiers,” says Troy, “so why would it bother risking the regime’s stability with emotional suffering and mass turmoil when you can simply fire off missiles every now and then in your favourite direction of the day and rattle everyone?”
North Korea’s leaders ultimately recognize that for all their firepower, America remains America
Troy says North Korea is also keenly aware that engagement would be a losing proposition.
“North Korea’s leaders ultimately recognize that for all their firepower, America remains America,” says Troy. “Were there to be a war, North Korea could pay an extremely high price —and for what strategic gain?”
If history is anything of a guide, says Troy, we see that North Korea fits the profile of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan with which US has been willing to engage on a military level. Yet the less-than- perfect outcomes of those recent engagements have been sobering, he says, making a US-led intervention in North Korea unsupported at home.
“The American people have little faith in or appetite for these kinds of pre-emptive police actions,” says Troy.
Thus, there are still a lot of unknowns, including the role to be played by world leaders like Donald Trump, whose volatility is not to be discounted, says Troy. “We use history to understand the world and try to anticipate some reactions. But predictive it wasn’t before Trump and it certainly cannot be during Trump,” he says.