With or without Donald Trump’s help, Kim Jong-un could easily plunge the planet into its third world war inside a century. Of course this one would be vastly more destructive than the Great War, where even the use of aircraft was in its infancy – though sadly not chemical weapons – or World War II, which ended with the first and so far only use of nuclear weapons in war.
To date Donald Trump has played a strong hand. He has installed anti-missile defences against the North inside South Korea. He is doing, more or less, what President Kennedy did in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and what President Reagan did in the Cold War in the 1980s: practising brinkmanship, demonstrating strength, displaying resolve. The South Koreans are having elections now, and their new government, after 9 May, may not be as resolute as its predecessor and the Trump administration. Yet while Pyongyang has the capacity to raze Seoul to the ground – even without nuclear weaponry – they may not protest too loudly.
Like Kennedy and Reagan, Trump could prevail. Yet it is not tricky to see how things could spin out of control. Feeling abandoned and exposed, Kim could loose off a few missiles of his own, maybe towards Japan – always a popular target. True to recent form in Afghanistan (the MOAB job) and Syria, President Trump could retaliate with a “surgical” and “proportionate” strike on some North Korean facility. Then what? North Korea sinks a South Korean war ship. There are skirmishes on the ground. Some North Koreans manage to get themselves shot to ribbons. He chucks another missile over the border and it kills American troops. Trump escalates to bombing – conventionally – government buildings and those absurd statues of Kim’s dad and granddad. Kim sees his regime lethally threatened. He now sees no alternative, nothing to lose. A rat cornered, he unleashes his huge conventional forces, supported by Chinese and Russian diplomacy, hoping to get the Americans to back off and leave him in power. Tanks overwhelm the DMZ, American troops are massacred. The US is drawn in. China is faced with gigantic floods of refugees and refuses to permit American troops beyond a certain point near its border. What happens if Japanese, Australian, Nato and other troops fight to defend South Korea? What would Vladimir Putin do?
The Second Korean War will have begun, with the Third World War not far behind; the long-delayed playing out of the last legacies of the Second World War and the Cold War.
There’s no shortage of ammo. In that corner of the world meet the planet’s biggest and most powerful military forces. The US, pre-eminently, but also Russia, so far content to be more of an observer than a player for now, but another nuclear power. It has long since dropped away from being the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s ideological mentor and economic support (dating from when Khrushchev denounced Stalinism, when Mao did not; Pyongyang never looked back). Still, it has a land border with North Korea.
The third nuclear power and the DPRK’s more recent “Communist” friend, China, is more intimately concerned. Taking Donald Trump at his word, it is worried enough to publicly chastise North Korea and push for harsher sanctions. There is South Korea too, rapidly growing is armed forces, and of course North Korea, with a vast army and whatever nuclear and missile technology it has been able to develop. Japan too, though technically limited to “self-defence” has substantial armed forces. It would not take this advanced rich power long to develop nuclear technology if the need arose. In the whole of human history there has never been a bigger powder keg. Nor men so strange playing with a box of matches near to it.
Kim Jong-un is not “crazy”. He, like his dad, is not a nutty despot portrayed so amusingly in Team America or The Interview. He is ruthless though, and paranoid, as we have seen with the elimination of his rivals and critics. If he thinks he has nothing to lose; if America is set on deposing him just the same as Saddam or Gaddafi, and he thinks he will end up being publicly hanged or dismembered anyway, then what is there to stop him taking a few million Koreans and Japanese, plus a few thousand Yankee soldiers, with him?
That is where the danger for President Trump lies. Trump has cleverly made some noises about America not wanting “regime change” in Pyongyang. But what use are words to Kim? The reason Kim wants his nukes and enjoys playing with them so much, like a cunning kid with matches or fireworks, is precisely to freak out the grown-ups all around him, leaders who actually do care about human life and the future of their nations. What Kim sees is a world where America – plus cronies such as South Korea, Japan, the EU and even China or Russia in this case – will get rid of you if you are dumb enough to disarm yourself, or let them interfere with your weapons programmes. So that is why Gaddafi and Saddam are no longer with us; but why Kim and the Iranians are still sitting pretty.
The danger is not so much Trump personally, but what any American president must do if they feel the vital security of the US is at stake, and past policies have failed. And that is to get involved in a gigantic game of “chicken”. I hope that is not trivialising it. Basically, though, what we are talking about here is the sacrifice of South Korea and Japan in order to eliminate some threat of a North Korean missile murdering Americans sometime in the next five years or so. That threat can be assessed as possible, probable or certain, and will shift over time, but seems unlikely to disappear of its own volition, e.g. through massive economic collapse (which is perhaps what the policy of “strategic patience” pursued under Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama was secretly all about). It is not a prospect that any president can feel comfortable with however. No president can allow a hostile state to be in a position to hit San Francisco with a nuclear-tipped ICBM if it can stop it from happening.
If Trump felt he had no alternative but to make a surgical strike, the consequences are incalculable. Like Kim has in the past, Trump could opt for a low level act of aggression – sinking a North Korean warship, say, or dropping a big conventional bomb on some North Korean facility. It is just impossible to know if Kim would react in kind, escalate matters or just shout a lot. If escalation did begin then when would it go critical? How many lives would be destroyed? How much misery? How much contamination? How much damage to the global economy?
For sure, the costs in human life and treasure would be unprecedented.
We know that, don’t we? I wonder. The UN Security Council reminded the world yesterday that the East Asia region now accounts for about two-fifths of the world’s population and GDP – so it is bigger than the United States or the European Union. Depending on how hairy things get, millions will die, more will be injured and entire economies laid waste. If to think that two consecutive quarters of negative growth constitute an economic recession, terrifying governments, and that a slump is something that lasts for years, consider the prospect of whole nation states and their industrial and financial activities being wiped out for ever. Whereas Germany, Russia and Japan rebuilt after the Second World War, and the two Koreas did so after the horrific wars on their territory that (sort of) ended in 1953, there will be no rebuilding on the decimated toxic nuclear winter that may be left behind in Japan and South Korea this time round. It would make the last financial crisis look tame. Such are the economic relationships between China and the US – the global imbalances where the Chinese keep lending the Americans the cash to live beyond their means – it could wreck America too, financially if not physically. Our world, apart from the odd hermit state such as North Korea, is more interdependent than ever before in more ways. That would also make World War III the most global of conflicts.
The major players, even North Korea have much to lose in all this. And yet the situation, with its threats and escalations, its mobilisations and skirmishes, its rhetorical gestures and misunderstandings resembles nothing so much as the Balkans in the volatile months and years leading up to 1914. We’ve we even had the assassination of a near-heir to a throne – albeit this time Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, rather than Archduke Franz Ferdinand. No-one should draw the parallels too closely, but if Donald Trump has been compared to Kaiser Wilhelm II – proud, unpredictable, outspoken and gripped by an inferiority complex – then Kim has no simple parallels in the Edwardian era. That’s not good. Watching the fairly calm currency and stock markets and the orderly proceedings of the United Nations, it is plain that, as in 1914, the world has not woken up to what is happening in a perplexing region where the background noise of perpetual crisis is so loud and has been going on for so long that we’ve simply learned to ignore it. President Trump has shown that he is not ignoring it, but he has no “good choices”. Let us hope he is a skilful brinkman.