North Korea: Pandora’s Box Unleashed

Shakespeare’s famous quote in Julius Caesar: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”, comes to mind as I begin this article. This year has seen both missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, dangerously escalated by a vitriolic war of words between the North Korean dictator and the unloved president of the United States. As this exchange continues, much of the world stays divided on whether any of the key actors merits a tag of righteousness, and if so, who. From my perspective, it’s not about who’s right, partly right, somewhat wrong, or wrong, but the fact that the world is literally screwed. 

When I began this blog in 2014, the tagline, “The world as I see it”, borrowed from Albert Einstein’s book, was intended to announce my intention to talk about world issues. However, looking back at the 200+ articles since then, it is clear that “Nigeria as I see it” may have been more appropriate since I tend to write more about Nigeria. This is because I feel I understand Nigerian issues better and so can comment more appropriately. Nonetheless, there are key global issues that I find hard to avoid touching; the Korean flashpoint being assuredly an issue that potentially affects everyone on earth. In this article, I may take a position unacceptable to some persons. I simply ask that the thinking behind this position is considered.

For some persons the focus by North Korea’s rulership (not leadership!) on developing miniaturised nuclear weapons alongside appropriate missile delivery systems is understandable. These ones point to American bullying since after World War 2, and its involvement in removing some countries’ administrators as a germane reason for the North Korean drive. While this view may have some credence, it ignores the fact that a country so aligned to China is unlikely to be directly attacked by America. America may be a bully, but it’s not stupid to risk potential confrontation with both China and Russia. A look at Syria’s complex conflict buttresses my point about North Korea’s nuclearism being unnecessary.

Let me digress at this point and talk about the folly of focusing on nuclear armament at the detriment of the North Korean people. Many persons are unaware that while Kim and his clique dream of nuclear utopia, their citizens groan under economic hardship and receive aid “for food and agriculture, health and nutrition, and water and sanitation programs” from UN-affiliated countries, the US Kim so despises, and even South Korea, with whom NK is still technically at war. In fact, a 2015 report by the UN indicated over two-thirds of North Koreans risk starvation, and thirty percent of children below five have stunted growth. Ominous signs even signal the possibility of yet another famine that could worsen food availability in a country where food is rationed. This is why I referred to Kim and his clique as a rulership, not a leadership. What kind of administrators would choose regime perpetuation over improving the fortunes of their people? Can the NK government outline how having nuclear weapons would benefit ordinary citizens, apart from a deluded wish that it would help ensure Kim’s future son takes over from his dad?

Still on the issue of caring for the North Korean people, the NK handlers seem unbothered by the potential death of North Koreans in any nuclear war. Maybe this indicates how much they think their people are worth. In a war, the rulership and their elite families would scamper into bunkers and leave poor citizens to reap the poison of war. In a practical sense, even if NK were to get 80 missile-ready nuclear warheads (equivalent to a low estimate of Israeli capability), how does that compare to the 6000 plus in America’s arsenal? The US is about 80 times larger than NK and even if non-populated areas are discounted, it still has a massive spread compared to NK. In theory, 80 missiles from NK could be shot down over the Pacific by the US or they could even have fighter jets go kamikaze to save the US mainland. Now imagine the US sending even 500 nuclear missiles in NK’s direction. That’s not a thought one would like to imagine.

Of course, all talk about attacking the US is just a smokescreen by NK. Their real bargaining chip is to have South Korean and Japanese lives placed at risk. The reasoning here is that as US allies, the US would not attack NK if such an attack would risk its own allies suffering unconscionable losses. However, this is where Pandora’s box really gets unleashed. A nuclear-armed NK would likely trigger Japan to abandon its peacenik constitution and seek its own nuclear deterrence. A similar policy shift may occur in South Korea. The result would be China having at least three nuclear armed states so close to it. This is surely an unacceptable scenario for a Chinese government that was pissed by the US installing the THAAD missile defence system in SK. To avoid this, China has to proactively rein in the bulldogs south of its border.

While some pundits argue that the belligerent North Korean clique is being propped by China and Russia as a proxy against the US, some others argue that China has seen its influence reduced since the third Kim assumed office and it’s merely supporting the regime to avoid a potential influx of refugees across its borders. There is also the possibility that Kim’s boldness is bolstered by a calculation that the Chinese would not accept US military intervention next to its southern border. Whichever is the case here, the time for Chinese action was yesterday. A nuclear arms race in Asia would not help any country.

During discourses about nuclear armament, some persons point to the hypocrisy of countries like the US having nuclear weapons yet electing to prevent others from developing similar capacity. This is very true. However, I think it is better for countries where the citizens have a somewhat effective hold on their governments to have nuclear weapons compared to countries with uncontrollable dictators. With the exemption of Russia and China with blurry democracies, other nuclear-armed countries have governments that could theoretically be removed by their citizens. The concept of mutually assured destruction has also kept the armed countries from making stupid moves. This is where I have concerns about countries like North Korea and Iran having access to usable nuclear weapons. Kim would launch a nuclear strike if he felt a first strike move would increase his chances of retaining power, while Iran with an avowed hatred of Israel and an ongoing conflict with its Sunni counterparts may not have the restraint that has so far kept the world in uneasy peace.

The clear solution to the present war rhetoric is for the North Korean nuclear programme to end. However, I am not impractical to think this would be an easy achievement. For one, while America and its allies may not like the stubborn ruler north of the 38th parallel, regime security is a priority of the North Korean rulership. If all the key players were to come together, they could find a political means to manage their diverging wants in the interest of relative peace. The alternative is at worst, immediate decimation of North Korea by the US accompanied by deaths in South Korea and Japan, topped up by World War 3, or at best a nuclear arms race in that region that would simply postpone the apocalypse. Furthermore, should North Korea achieve its objective, it would signal to other countries, especially in the turbulent Middle East, that international sanctions are toothless deterrents. Should this happen, Pandora’s box would truly have been unleashed and Everyone Dies™.

Image Credit: metro.co.uk

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