In June 1950, North Koreans led by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, the “immortal leader” Kim Il-sung, invaded South Korea with backing from the Soviet Union and communist China.
The first major war between the communist and capitalist worlds lasted three years and resulted in millions of casualties, massive destruction, a continuously divided nation on the Korean peninsula and – above all – the explosive heightening of the Cold War. The world was already nuclear when the Korean War started and nuclear weapons could have been used (in fact, the use of nuclear weapons by the US was closely avoided). Even the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 seem not to have deterred the North Koreans.
67 years later we face a very different international situation. The world is not (yet) so polarized, but presents remarkably similar challenges, this time involving a nuclear (or almost nuclear) and internally rather well preserved Stalinist regime in North Korea. Kim Jong-un seems determined to continue his country’s nuclear armament and ballistic missile programmes, whatever it takes. The US president seems equally determined to stop him, but he has no clear, safe or favourable options. Further, Trump’s rhetoric is so belligerent that it nourishes Kim’s appetite for nuclear weapons and “revenge”, and offers North Korea the “justification” to start preparing for a real war.
Conventional wisdom suggests that, in the unlikely case that he is not totally out of control and irrational, Kim enjoys the backing of Moscow, Beijing or both. In spite of official Russian and Chinese condemnation, this would explain – at least partly – his extreme bravado, as he behaves like a classical agent provocateur. China seems to be more genuinely worried about the course of events, while Russia tends to fall into the category of the “usual suspects”. Behind the Kremlin’s smokescreen, the alignment of Russia’s and North Korea’s confrontational, vengeful and escalatory approach vis-à-vis the US is easily detectable. It is to the benefit of both Moscow and Pyongyang that the prestige and credibility of the US, not just president Trump, should be tested and shaken. The Kremlin has apparently lost hope in president Trump’s ability to behave in Russia’s favour and has begun to act accordingly.
Russia has just tested its armed and security forces in the Zapad 2017 exercise. An “unprovoked” US strike against North Korea would create a huge political and informational distraction that could offer Russia the opportunity – while the US is politically and militarily engaged – to put into practice what its forces have rehearsed, most likely against Ukraine.
North Korea could, for example, shoot “warning” missiles at US military aircraft or warships, “missing” them, but necessitating a swift and deadly US response. This would in turn provide a sufficient pretext for Kim to launch massive “retaliation” operations against South Korea. In a split reminiscent of the 2003 crisis over Iraq, the West is already politically divided across the Atlantic, concerning North Korea. American military action against North Korea, however just, would lack support from the Europeans and would bring millions of anti-war protesters to the streets, throughout the West and the rest of the world.
The situation in and around the Korean peninsula has become extremely explosive and continues to escalate. North Korea has reportedly mobilised ground and air forces on its eastern seashore. The threat of accidental, or even purposeful, war remains high. It is unavoidable if Kim has already made a decision to that end. The US and its regional allies should, at least, refrain from offering him possible pretexts. Instead, efforts should be made to elucidate what kind of support North Korea enjoys from its two powerful neighbours. There is no military solution. Only increased economic pressure on North Korea will bring Kim to the negotiation table, but that would happen only if both China and Russia respect their commitments regarding the UN-imposed sanctions.