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Home News Global Security Crisis of North Korea: Global insecurity at its highest point
Crisis of North Korea: Global insecurity at its highest point

By @irmaar, October 2017

The crisis on the Korean peninsula, which involves the potential use of nuclear weapons, is today, without a doubt, the most urgent and dangerous factor against global security. The concern for the escalation towards a war conflict was clearly reflected by the General Secretary of the United Nations, António Guterres, in his opening speech at the General Assembly, on September 19.

In his speech, he argues that the risks arising from North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have brought global anxiety to its highest point since the end of the Cold War. He also highlights the importance of unity within the Security Council to achieve the ultimate goal, which is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, underlining the need to resolve the crisis on the basis of strong political leadership and through diplomatic channels.

On the same day and in the same area, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, spoilt diplomatic protocols and referred to dictator Kim Jong-un as a “little rocket man” on a “suicide mission”. Doubling the bet, he threatened with the complete destruction of North Korea in response to possible aggressions against his country or its allies. Pyongyang’s response soon came through its Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, pointing out that Trump’s claims were equal to a declaration of war and indicating that North Korea could attack the United States and, also, detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific at any moment

From the dangerous rhetoric to a devastating conflict

It is known that aggressive words shape aggressive actions. In this way, the war of verbal outbursts that is being developed can bring unmanageable tensions that accelerate the conflict reaching into a war confrontation, either due to deliberate decisions, errors of calculation or misinterpretation of the steps of the opponent. If that happens, the use of nuclear weapons is a hypothesis that cannot be ruled out.

It is not new that the leadership of North Korea, characterized by a permanent threatening rhetoric, always considered obtaining nuclear weapons for deterrence as the only means to guarantee its survival. It is not new either that Pyongyang perceives the US bases in the region and the regular military exercises of the United States with South Korea and Japan as a constant provocation. What changed then for the dangerousness of the crisis in the Korean peninsula to reach today levels that were never reached before? It happens that Trump’s impulsive style changed the rituals of a decades-old conflict, separating it from all its previous predictability. The imbalance generated is so notorious that traditionally hard powers such as China and Russia today are forced to officiate as mediators to lower the decibels of a potential escalation.

A ruthless dynasty

The Kim dynasty has been in complete control of North Korea for almost 70 years. First it was Kim Il-sung who governed for 46 years until his death in 1994. He was replaced by his son Kim Jong-il until 2011, then followed by the then young grandson Kim Jong-un. These three consecutive leaders have formed a ruthless regime where the North Korean population lives submerged in great deficiencies and with an absolute lack of freedom, while a minority enjoys all kinds of privileges. Violations of human rights are commonplace in this country in total isolation, one of the poorest on the planet, while it spends around 25% of its GDP on military expenditures. In this context, the IMF data show phenomenal disparities in the standard of living among the neighbors of the region. The GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) in North Korea is close to 1,800 dollars per year; while it is 31,740 in South Korea, 41,373 in Japan and 15,400 in China.

Beyond the scarce economic development, the regime keeps its population in an informative isolation by which the successive generations do not know what happens in the outside world, even in terms of technology and modernity. All this is functional to the deification of the consecutive leaders.

The strategy of Pyongyang rulers has always been to carry out a pendulum game between the challenge to the United States and South Korea, with the pretext of preserving their subsistence and victimization before these powers. In marches and counter-marches, dialogues and ruptures over the years and always with the support of China, its almost exclusive political and economic partner, the ruling dynasty managed to create the right framework to receive support and perpetuate itself in power, with the promise of abandoning their non-peaceful nuclear ambitions. On the contrary, in the midst of a vicious circle of threats, rounds of unsuccessful conversations, concessions, transgressions and sanctions by the international community, the nuclear and missile programs flourished steadily and relentlessly, and with them the illusion of unifying some day the two Koreas under the hard hand of the dynasty.

The successes of the nuclear program were revealed to the world with the first trial in October 2006, three years after having withdrawn as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After this, another five of increasing sophistication followed, one in 2009, one in 2013 and two in 2016, until finishing with that of September 3, which had a much higher power in comparison with the previous ones, estimated at 150 kilotons, compatible with the detonation of a thermonuclear bomb. In this context, it is estimated that it has between 30 and 60 bombs so far.

In parallel and only during the administration of Kim Jong-un, more than 75 tests of missiles, including IRBMs, intermediate range ballistic missiles (4,500 km), and ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, were carried out with different results. Two tests of the Hwasong-14 (approximate range of 10,400 km) were carried out this July. The latter, once perfected, could take down the west coast of the United States.

It is not a minor fact that Pyongyang has a military force of one million one hundred thousand troops, a powerful conventional artillery and also abundant stock of chemical and biological weapons.

The threat is consolidated despite the sanctions

A North Korea with nuclear weapons and vectors to transport them represents a threat to the region and a danger to the United States. With few foreign policy options, the world powers have used commercial, economic and financial sanctions to isolate the Pyongyang regime and take it back to denuclearization discussions, which have been paused for years. Governments have also implemented sanctions to punish the regime for cyber attacks (a specialty it shares with the Chinese), money laundering and human rights violations.

The UN Security Council has approved eight rounds of sanctions from 2006 to date, all unanimously, but it never stopped the humanitarian aid. The sanctions themselves have been relatively lax to have the approval of China and Russia, the regime’s biggest protectors among the five members with veto power in the Security Council. There are also sanctions by the European Union, the United States and other countries, which involve trade, financial transactions and assets.

While these measures have had a strong negative impact on North Korea’s economy, they have not been able to stop Pyongyang’s weapons programs, since the regime was able to replace some of the key inputs with local developments, while it has obtained others in the black market or through countries reluctant to apply them.

At present, there is a broad international debate regarding the usefulness of sanctions and their progressive tightening in the event of non-compliance. In this particular case, it is clear that China has made great efforts to sustain the Kim regime by preventing it from collapsing and, therefore, has always been opposed to severe sanctions. There are a lot of reasons for this: preventing a greater presence of the United States in the region with the help of its allies South Korea and Japan, avoiding a massive migration of displaced North Koreans to its territory and limiting the possibility that their small neighbor becomes a permanent enemy.

A war in which everyone loses

The strategists have come to the conclusion that any preventive or punitive military action towards the North Korean regime, whether conventional or nuclear, whether extensive or focused on destroying the government or disabling conventional military, missile or nuclear facilities, would have a very high cost in own and other people’s lives, given the special geopolitical situation of the area. Besides, a first attack on the part of North Korea would culminate with its disappearance.

Recent studies indicate that a conventional war on the peninsula would yield around 20,000 casualties per day, on both sides of the 38 parallel. According to the United States Congressional Research Service (CRS), those casualties would total hundreds of thousands, only in the first days of conflict.

If Pyongyang detonated a thermonuclear bomb similar to that of the last trial, the death toll in South Korea could reach 500,000, in addition to a number of wounded that would exceed one million people. This would include American people, since there are 28,000 troops stationed, and another 120,000 immigrants live and work there. In addition to the catastrophic effects in the place, the global disruption in all orders, including the economic one, would be of a magnitude that is difficult to quantify, especially before a war conflict in which other major powers take sides.

A key fact is that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a paradigm of modernity with 10 million inhabitants, is located 48 km away from the border. Another important fact is that it is awarded only a probability of success of 50%, and not 97% as Trump indicates, to the anti-missile defenses ceded by the United States installed today for its protection and, in particular, the modern system THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense).

A similar number of casualties would occur if North Korea could reach a densely populated city on the west coast of the United States with a nuclear missile, such as San Francisco or Los Angeles. Although this possibility is not immediate, it is assumed that such capacity could be achieved by the North Koreans in less than a year. For a successful attack, it would be required that Pyongyang increases the reliability and range of Hwasong-14, its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the miniaturization of the bomb so that it can be mounted on the warhead of said missile, and finally the presence of a suitable control and guidance system, which allows the missile to be accurately carried to the desired target.

Lines of action for an acceptable solution

It is clear that the only acceptable solution for this conflict is a negotiation at a political level, in which the United States makes solid agreements especially with China and also with Russia regarding steps and limits for a greater negotiation involving all parties. These powers, with greater closeness to the regime, should act as facilitators of the process.

A worrying fact is that until now the proposals of both powers to reduce tensions were systematically discarded by the Trump administration. These proposals were based on the suspension of nuclear and missile tests of intermediate and intercontinental range by the Kim regime, in exchange for the cancellation of military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which can be interpreted as preparations prior to an attack.

In any case, the first step to stabilize the region is to lower the decibels to the rhetoric that has been applied so far. In that sense, there would be no public statements such as the one made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who indicated that “diplomacy will continue until the first bomb falls”. Neither the statement of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made days ago in Seoul stating that diplomacy is more effective when backed by a credible military force and that the United States will never accept a North Korea with a nuclear power status.

As suggested by many experts around the world, the diplomatic intermediation of the UN Secretary General could be essential to convene an emergency meeting behind closed doors with the leaders of the six parties directly involved: China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the US, where the concerns of the international community and the security of North Korea can be discussed, agreeing on a course of action to stabilize the region

On the other hand, and reflecting the deep concern in the United States regarding the procedures of Trump and his administration, there is an internal current that drives the approval in Congress of a bill presented by democrats Ted Lieu (Lower House) and Edward J. Markey (Senate) that annuls the power of the president to initiate a nuclear attack without a previous declaration of war on the part of the Congress.

Although the chances of approval of this law are low, given the Republican majority, it is a measure that would contribute to substantially reduce the risks derived from impulsive decisions. It would also be a positive signal for a substantial global measure for the control of weapons such as a No First Use Treaty between nuclear-armed states.

Given that the window of opportunity is gradually closing, it is essential that the Trump administration takes the necessary steps quickly to redirect the conflict towards a negotiation in the terms proposed. It is about lowering the public profile of the issue and putting the energies into a determined dialogue in multiple ways, in order to reduce the enormous risks. That is what John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and their teams did to neutralize the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and it worked.