Global Watch

How real is doomsday danger in the Korean peninsula?

Korean nuclear test
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The latest, and fifth, nuclear test by North Korea has fuelled mounting tension in the Korean peninsula, but how big is the possibility of war really?

The world responded with alarm and indignation after North Korea carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date, earlier this month. The nuclear weapons debate has always been highly controversial and understandably so.

The devastating effect of two US nuclear bombs, dropped in 1945 on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki to expedite the end of World War II demonstrated the advantage of such weapons to those capable of developing them. The subsequent race among nations to become nuclear powers became a main feature of the Cold War.

Discrimination

The first five countries developing nuclear arsenals, the US, Soviet Union, China, France and Britain – coincidentally also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – soon formed, across irreconcilable ideological differences, an arguably exclusive and discriminatory nuclear club, barring anyone else from joining. The Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) was designed, which in essence prohibited any other country from developing a nuclear arsenal.

Those developing nuclear deterrence to protect their sovereignty against real or perceived aggression, had to develop their capacity in great secrecy – as India, Pakistan, Israel and apartheid South Africa can attest.           

Against this background the reaction, of especially South Korea, to the latest North Korean test, came as no surprise. The concern is that it is escalating tension in the Korean peninsula to breaking point.

Reaction of South Korea

Typifying the anxiety in South Korea, a group of lawmakers demanded that the country have a nuclear force either of its own or by asking the US to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons, withdrawn under a 1991 pact for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Using the same bloodcurdling rhetoric, frequently used by North Korea against it, a South Korean military source warned that North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, would be annihilated, “reduced to ashes and removed from the map”, if it showed any signs of mounting a nuclear attack.

US intervention

The US ordered two B-1 bombers to fly over South Korea in a show of force and to display solidarity with its ally, and President Obama reassured South Korea and Japan of “the unbreakable US commitment to the security of our allies in Asia and around the world”.

He added that the test was “a grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability” and warned, “the United States does not and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state”.

The US further indicated that, in addition to imposing more unilateral sanctions against North Korea, the UN would also be asked to add more sanctions to those imposed by the UN since the first North Korean nuclear test in 2006 and already making North Korea the most sanctioned state in the world.

It could be argued, as some critics do, that the US is not helping, but is in fact inciting North Korea’s belligerence. 

The US, which has been at war, directly and indirectly, almost uninterruptedly, since the end of World War II (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) shows unbounded arrogance by telling others to behave and shelve their nuclear ambitions.

China’s criticism    

China, North Korea’s closest ally, its biggest trading partner and the country with the most influence and bargaining power in Pyongyang, and Russia, in spite of condemning North Korea’s latest test, are reluctant to impose further punitive measures against it, expressing concern that such action would only reinforce North Korea’s intransigence. 

China and Russia support dialogue and consultation as the best way to deal with the issue. China is also critical of being saddled with the responsibility of handling Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition.

According to a senior foreign affairs spokesperson China is of the view that, “The cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue rest with the US rather than China. The core of the issue is the conflict between North Korea and the US. It is the US who should reflect upon how the situation has become what it is today, and search for an effective solution. The US should shoulder its due responsibilities”.

North Korea concurs, its state-run news agency reporting that the US was the “very one” compelling the country to develop a nuclear capability and lamented that the US’s constant “nuclear threat and blackmail was an engine which pushed North Korea to reach this point”.

It also responded that public anger was “exploding like a volcano” over Washington’s dispatch of bombers to South Korea and warned that “any sanction, provocation and pressure cannot ruin our status as a nuclear state and evil political and military provocations will only result in a flood of reckless nuclear attacks that will bring a final destruction”.

North Korea’s unease

North Korea is completely out of step with the rest of the world and remains an anomaly in the twenty-first century. It is a secretive, almost hermit-like, communist nation run by an unpredictable and eccentric 32-year-old ‘supreme leader’ – Kim Jong-un who succeeded his equally eccentric father – Kim Jong-il in 2011.

Notwithstanding its belligerence towards South Korea, with which it technically remains at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty, North Korea is in a permanent panic of its southern neighbour and its powerful US ally.

North Korea’s anxiety is perpetuated by what it perceives as provocation, such as regular joint military exercises by South Korea and the US. The decision in July 2016 to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea to counter perceived missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.

In response North Korea is seeking the protection which nuclear weapons offer – deterrence.

Value of nuclear weapons

The value of a nuclear arsenal or the assumption that a country is capable of building nuclear weapons is that it acts as a deterrent against a potential enemy who will be less inclined to act aggressively.

Notwithstanding the constant fear of nuclear war, the massive US and the Soviet Union nuclear arsenals guaranteed peace during the Cold War era because both superpowers acknowledged that the use of nuclear weapons by one of them would lead to a nuclear retaliation by the other, and potential mutual destruction – aptly described as MAD by military experts.

North Korea will be cognisant of the fact that the use of nuclear weapons defeats the purpose because once the order is given the deterrence value is lost and the response would be devastating. It would be MAD.

The South African experience

Apartheid South Africa developed a nuclear arsenal for the same reason. It was to be used as a deterrent against any would-be enemy, particularly as international pressure mounted in response to the discriminatory apartheid policy.

It was never the intent of the apartheid government to use nuclear weapons because the government and the country would never survive the consequences and there was no desire or plan to execute a Massada-type option.

The South African government, prior to the transition to democracy, did what no other country possessing nuclear weapons has ever done – it voluntarily dismantled its nuclear arsenal. With no real enemies and under pressure from the US, apprehensive that a Black government with communists in its ranks could inherit a nuclear arsenal, a costly undertaking was terminated.

It is unlikely that North Korea will follow the South African example any time soon, but it could go a long way towards stabilising tension in the Korean peninsula if all involved place less emphasis on the military to preserve peace.     

by Garth Cilliers

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