Another nuclear armed nation has been in the news again recently in the form of North Korea. The Hermit kingdom has been behaving strangely as of late, even by its own standards it must be said. Such behaviour has lead to a great deal of speculation in the media about the intentions of Kim Jong-Un and the threat posed by what many view as a rogue nation. In this post I will lay out my reading of the situation and ponder whether the doomsday clock will soon move a minute or two closer to midnight.
Just over a month ago North Korea tested for the third time a nuclear device and by doing so earned the condemnation of the world for its actions. The nuclear device was tested on its own soil so ultimately not violating any treaties being as North Korea have withdrawn from the non-proliferation treaty over previous disagreements about its intentions. This is the context in which the UN security council decided to increase sanctions against Pyongyang which many would argue served as the inevitable precursor to bellicose statements coming from the regime. After the UN security council voted on Thursday to increase dramatically the sanctions already in place against North Korea, the country reacted exactly as many feared and announced that it would tear up the Korean War ceasefire agreement of 1953 and disconnect a crisis hotline between itself and the capital of South Korea. Many have asserted that in light of this behaviour that the north is on a course set for war and consequently the media has done much drum beating for the US state department much as we saw in 2002-2003 in the lead up to the Iraq war.
The media however has failed too present the argument that actually seeing as North Korea only violated international norms not any actual treaties, that what we are seeing in the case of North Korea is a country resorting to sabre rattling and rhetoric against the cruel economic blockade that is being enforced against it. Often when people discuss North Korea they like to highlight the famine that has been caused or at least exacerbated by the regimes actions, yet they do not seem to see the connection between sanctions and famine much as was the case in post Gulf War Iraq or they are wilfully ignorant of it. Either way the likes of CNN and the BBC are currently leading us into a cul-de-sac from which there are only a few exists and each one happens to be a military solution to a problem that words could solve.
Further to the moral crime of acting as promoters for future wars many on the surface appear to have committed the cardinal sin of taking Pyongyang’s rhetoric at face value and are assessing the country to be a dire threat to stability in the region whilst under-assessing the parts played by many other actors in this play. For example, a great deal of attention has been given to the regimes threats to build missiles capable of hitting Washington yet relatively little time was dedicated to assessing the relationship between China and North Korea despite the fact that it is China who holds the country on a very tight leash meaning that war in forms other than that of words is highly unlikely. When I’ve heard this point put forward many are quick to suggest that, while it is true that China controls North Korea’s purse strings, North Korea is too illogical and for want of better words “crazy” to be held back by such facts. Very few seem to take into account the fact that ultimately North Koreans are human too and are probably motivated by the exact same desires to stay alive and so are actually highly unlikely to start nuclear wars for fun either.
The lack of serious analysis of North Korea’s intentions and behaviour only serves to hamper our understanding of the situation in East Asia currently. The assumptions by most are that the regimes threats towards Washington and by extension Seoul and Tokyo are to be taken with the utmost seriousness as threats to initiate a form of war that in all likelihood would see the majority of the country wiped out in retaliation. If you really buy the notion that any country as a whole is so fanatical in its beliefs that it is willing to goose step into oblivion unquestioningly then there really is not a lot I can do for you or am willing to do. Yes the North Korean regime does contain hard-line elements who like to talk the talk but the reality is that when push comes to shove those same hard-line elements are likely to find themselves immolated just like any other citizen of the country. And there is nothing like the threat of immolation to keep people acting logically on a day to day basis. Looking at the situation as it stands I believe what we are actually seeing is a country using strong language to demonstrate that it will not be cowed by the pressure it is facing from the UN. Based purely on the language coming from Pyongyang I think we can concretely see that the sanctions and condemnation of the UN have proven to have failed dramatically in bringing the country back into the international community and that it is time for a new approach. As Tania Branigan at the Guardian points out, analysts believe that alongside the short term aim of demonstrate its utter contempt for the UN, that the dialogue from North Korea is aimed in the longer term at simply exerting influence in the only way that the otherwise nondescript country can, shouting loud enough for editors of tin pot newspapers and state department understudies to hear.
In the reporting of this story an alternate viewpoint that was woefully under reported was that the words coming from North Korea can be seen as a direct response to sanctions that have been imposed by the international community despite much evidence to the contrary that these do not work as intended. The concept behind sanctions is that by imposing various forms of economic blockades against a nation that either the nation will change its behaviour to match that which is desired by those imposing the sanctions or in time the people suffering as a direct result of the sanctions will rise up and overthrow the errant government. The reality of the matter is that sanctions are little more than a cruel exercise in the display of power that only serve to kill large numbers of innocent people and keep them in an abject state of poverty. While the evidence of famine in North Korea is somewhat debatable due to the countries closed borders many in the media and governments feel themselves to be adequately informed to discuss the famine as fact yet have passed no comment on this dramatic increase in sanctions which are a highly probable cause of any famine in the country. The bias of those willing to condemn the regime in charge of the country in such strong terms such as despotic yet are unwilling to condemn any other parties that hold equal responsibility leaves me speechless. Ultimately then the way to view North Korea’s words is not as an attempt to initiate a conflict with the US and its allies, readers are better served by viewing these words through the prism of Newton’s laws with the statements constituting an equal and opposite reaction to the force that is the threat of increased sanctions.
While I do not believe in the case of North Korea that we are seeing a desperate last throw of the dice, that is not to say that the region isn’t at tremendous risk of conflict as things stand. With China and Japan both subtly gunning for each other and the US promising to throw its weight behind Japan if conflict were to break out, a recipe for a conflict that would reach further than the nations of East Asia is certainly present. Whether such a conflict might emerge is obviously open to interpretation but we must ask ourselves if we are morally and politically comfortable with the UN’s policies in the region which are serving to create a rogue nation with absolutely nothing to lose from massively expanding said regional conflict in an attempt to break free from the deadlock it is currently in.
The communist domino theory that was used as the justification for much interference in Asian politics during the first cold war might have been proven to be incorrect but in a new cold war situation between a seemingly exponentially expanding China and the dying American empire a rewriting of that theory is perhaps necessary. In a rewritten version of the domino theory, the theory would suggest that the sudden emergence of a hot war in a polarized cold war type environment will spread from neighbouring country to neighbouring country until the entire region is at war with itself. In the contemporary situation the reality is that even Pyongyang’s main allies in China and Russia are eager to contain the political nightmare that is an outwardly aggressive North Korea armed with weapons of mass destruction but add the uncertainty of China and Russia being tied up in conflict with neighbouring countries over resource-rich land and territorial waters and we have a recipe for disaster. Given a chance I see no plausible reason why in such a conflict North Korea, kept in a state of abject misery by the American dominated UN would not attempt to unify the Korean peninsula in an foolhardy attempt to improve life for Koreans living north of the 38th parallel. Were North Korea to ever attempt such an act after being emboldened by region spanning conflict I have no doubt that it would do so using conventional weaponry and sheer man power not weapons of mass destruction. And of course if the North Koreans were to ever attempt to unify the Korean peninsula this would be highly likely to seriously irk the USA. The USA has in the last 60 years sunk an almost immeasurable amount of money into supporting (read as buying) “democracy” in South Korea, the same USA that is the only historical user of nuclear weapons in a conflict situation. Perhaps in this we can see that there is a strange logic to North Korea’s desire for nuclear armament and that desire is protection from the same superpower which nearly brought a nuclear holocaust down upon the citizens of Korea once already.