North Korea – some game of poker
What – if anything – goes through your mind today as North Korea test launches a ballistic missile which explodes almost immediately? I don’t say “if anything” to imply that you’re apathetic about the latest twist in the military dance between the United States, China and Kim Jong Un’s regime. But do you breathe a sigh of relief, or do you just get back to enjoying your Sunday with the thought that “it ain’t going to happen anyway”?
I can only speak for myself.
As two US aircraft carrier battle groups steam towards the Korean peninsula, it’s hard to find stories of frightened South Koreans and Japanese citizens panic-buying food and heading for their cellars. Is their relative calm the result of decades of wolf-crying? Are they immune to the hysterical rhetoric coming from the North? Or are they fatalistic enough to believe that the apocalypse will come whatever they say or do?
If those closest to the potential conflict zone are maintaining a stiff upper lip, then the reaction of us Westerners seems almost comatose in comparison, despite efforts on the part of newspaper leader writers to persuade us otherwise.
Compare the situation to 2003, before the US and its allies, including my country, invaded Iraq. Mass demonstrations, demands to stop the war, dire warnings of casualties. Agonising over the existence or otherwise of a legal casus belli. And on the Iraqi side, as in 1991, blood-curdling, ornate rhetoric in classical Arabic.
Don’t we care about the million people who – according to China – might die in a conflict, nuclear or otherwise, between the US and North Korea? Or are we all lined up behind the mantra of national security, fearful that a deranged regime is developing weapons capable of destroying Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and satisfied that the US has every right to pre-empt that threat, as it did in Cuba in 1962?
We’ve been here before, and more recently than 1962. Perhaps the difference between today and the run-up to the Iraq war is that in 2003 there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had nukes that could strike London, Paris or Frankfurt. Only the possibility that he had hidden his WMDs, and that at some stage he would retrieve them from his bunkers to threaten his neighbours again.
Back then, there was an argument that old age, or his own internal enemies, would eventually do for Saddam. And indeed John Nixon, the CIA operative who led the debriefing of Saddam after his capture, contends that Saddam was by that time semi-detached, more concerned with writing novels, and leaving the details of government to his henchmen.
Had not the Arab Spring intervened, it’s likely that the West would have left Muammar Gaddafi to moulder, especially as he had forsworn his WMDs.
In both cases, we took an active role in regime change, with tragic results that led many who survived the subsequent chaos in Iraq and Libya to look on the eras of Saddam and Gaddafi as golden ages.
Which brings us back to the equally (at least in our perception) loathsome dictator who is quite happy to build his missiles while a significant number of his people remain undernourished and frequently starving.
Aside from the potential toll in lives – and that’s a big aside, especially if the conflict turns nuclear – we have to consider the economic consequences of a second Korean war. We may think that the deaths of a million nameless Asians is sad, even horrific, but of little consequence to those of us who have never visited Korea or Japan.
But the potential economic shock should get our attention. South Korea’s economy is the thirteenth largest in the world. Japan’s is the third. Think of the disruption to supply chains that a conventional war – let alone a nuclear conflict – might cause. We have come to rely on our Samsung phones, our Toyota cars and all the components manufactured in both countries that are essential to the technology that keeps us ticking just about everywhere in the world.
Think also of the insecurity that would follow a nuclear detonation in anger. A taboo, once broken, is no longer a taboo. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. Soon enough those who have never sought nukes might think again.
This would not be a local war. In its consequences, it would be a global war, and perhaps a foretaste of worse to come. So you could argue that we should be more concerned than we appear to be.
Back to the subject of the failed missile test. What is its significance?
People who love theorising about dark dealings will no doubt come up with plenty of explanations. Speculation may well be focused on five possibilities:
- That is was a cock-up. The launch failed because launches sometimes do. That’s the purpose of a test – to see if something works.
- That the US or one of its proxies have hacked the missile program and caused the launch to abort.
- That the Chinese, fearful of the consequences of war on their doorstep, did the hacking, perhaps in concert with the US.
- That this was a face-saving exercise. Kim Jong Un knew that launch would fail, but managed to save face by going ahead with it, but calculating that there would be minimal US response.
- And lastly, that elements within the North Korean military, unbeknown to Kim, sabotaged the launch as an act of resistance to the regime, or in the certain knowledge that they would bear the brunt of any retaliatory strike.
Whatever lies behind the failed launch, the US flotilla draws ever closer to the Korean peninsula. Mike Pence is due in Seoul to consult with the South Korean government. Is a decision about to be made? Not surprisingly, we don’t have a clue. Whether Trump has a coherent plan is also questionable.
I don’t believe that even he, with his grown-up generals at his side, will start launching nukes at the drop of a hat unless Kim does so first. Instead, will the battle groups sit close to the mainland like dark avengers, armed and ready to pull the trigger in order to pile the psychological pressure on Kim, and perhaps to encourage his military to save their skins by acting against him? Or has Trump already decided to take the shot? Would such an act of war be legal, and would Trump care?
All I know – at least from my layman’s perspective – is that if, as many military analysts claim, North Korea is years away from being able to launch its missiles against America, there’s plenty of time and scope to use other means of bringing him down, be it by economic pressure, covert subversion, cyber-warfare or a combination of all three. Even if thus far diplomacy has proved to be futile, have we really exhausted all other options beyond blasting North Korea to smithereens and shattering the economies of the entire region?
Whatever transpires over the next few days, this is some game of poker.