Foreboding tremors have rippled through the international community as tensions grow between Pyongyang and Washington. Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, aircraft carrier manoeuvres, back-and-forth threats, blustering bravado and UN Security Council sanctions have now been overshadowed by North Korea’s pledge to launch missiles near the US military bases on the island of Guam.
Rhetoric between the two countries has certainly intensified in the past few months. However, there are some guiding factors that allow us to speculate as to where the situation might lead. The US is still the global hegemon, yet finds itself increasingly challenged in the first few months of a new and erratic presidential administration. Its foreign policy is inconsistent and largely determined by a strong executive with incoherent convictions as to what it wants to achieve.
Where do we stand with North Korea?
This makes assessing the actual level of threat a difficult task. President Donald Trump is often possessed by fitful desires to fill the role of the ‘world’s policeman’, as evidenced by his recent declaration that military action in Venezuela is still a possibility – albeit an unlikely one in the eyes of many onlookers. Intervention in Venezuela would be extraordinary, however, given the escalation of events in North Korea – Trump’s undoubted priority for his security agenda.
From candidacy to presidency, Trump’s position has gone from diplomatic and “open to negotiations” to hardline, bellicose posturing. This discoursive dualism regarding Pyongyang is nothing new to the Trumpean universe. A recently resurfaced 1999 NBC interview was startlingly prophetic. It showed him discussing his view of US-North Korea relations, veering from advocating a policy of “negotiating like crazy” to suggesting preemptive strikes.
As Trump’s public statements are more and more inclined towards military action, two striking contradictions loom ominously. On the one hand, the US does not seem willing to recognise what it describes as an expansive and aggressive state as a fellow nuclear power. On the other, a “military solution” is not without its troublesome implications. A conventional pre-emptive military strike might not totally eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Even if it does, there is still the matter of Pyongyang’s considerable conventional arsenal pointed directly at South Korea’s capital city of Seoul.
Destroying both North Korea’s nuclear and conventional capabilities in a comprehensive all-out surprise attack would certainly be a manoeuvre for the annals of military history. However, if anything were to go wrong (as they almost always do in complex and ambitious military operations), the consequences would be staggering.
In addition, we must also consider North Korea’s borders both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Not only are these two of the world’s three largest military powers, but China is Pyongyang’s formal ally. With regard to what Russia might do in response to the outbreak of a military conflict on its South Eastern border, it is hard to say. If we take into account the complicated relation it has developed with the US since the outbreak of the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, it is improbable that it would remain completely passive in the event of war in the Korean peninsula.
What are North Korea’s alternatives?
As far as the North Korean government is concerned, its options are no less complex. Since the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang has drawn one central lesson: in the age of US military supremacy, conventional military forces do not guarantee the safety of a country Washington decides to intervene in. Iraq, Libya and Syria serve as recent examples. The conclusion North Korea seems to have drawn from this is that its nuclear program is neither a tactical advantage nor a bargaining chip, it’s a necessary prerequisite to guarantee its survival.
Nevertheless, this has lead Pyongyang to develop a strangely dialectic relationship with its nuclear program: in order for a nuclear deterrent to work, it has to be credible in the eyes of other powers. However, the more believable it becomes, the more other countries feel threatened by it and are inclined to embark on an aggressive course of action to stop it. Caught up in this dynamic, North Korea now finds itself on the brink of war as a direct consequences of the policies designed to ensure its long term survival.
The reason for this is that many do not consider Pyongyang a rational actor. Rather they believe it to be an irrational, unstable and dangerous regime for whom the option of a preemptive nuclear strike against its enemies is a reasonable option within the framework of its peculiar brand of “anti-imperialism”.
Consequently, we see a country that is unable to obtain the recognition it seeks as a nuclear power in a potentially apocalyptic game of chicken with a superpower that can’t obtain the disarmament it demands. Ultimately, for the time being, there is not much we can do except wait for next week’s episode.