Mainstream western media has been having a field day following North Korean missile tests earlier this year and the subsequent responses from US President Donald Trump. The intercontinental ballistic missiles tested by the North Korean regime place both Australia and Alaska within potential firing range. Both Trump and Kim Jong-Un have been portrayed as unstable political leaders poised to place the world into a nuclear winter at the push of a button. However, these political figures are more rational than what the media often makes out, explaining how nuclear Armageddon has not yet happened.
Donald Trump – ‘Modern Day Presidential’ (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Although North Korea has nuclear capabilities that are now clearly operational, it is highly unlikely that they will be deployed against another state anytime soon. It is no coincidence that two of the Hwasong-12 missile launches flew over Japan. North Korea and Japan have never been good friends – the history of brutal Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula during the first half of the 20th century still plays an important role in North Korean propaganda and hostile rhetoric. If Jong-Un is such a crazy, irrational despot then he has little incentive to withhold an attack against Japan which has no nuclear weapons of its own. Nonetheless, these missiles didn’t miss Japan due to bad aim. North Korea has everything to lose should it start taking accurate shots at its neighbour.
Geographically, South Korea is North Korea’s closest target. The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is only 35 miles from the northern border with around 25 million inhabitants. Therefore, Pyongyang essentially holds Seoul hostage, ensuring that even if the US were to attack, Seoul would be the first to feel the fire. Despite this defence mechanism, North Korea is not at liberty to start war by either a missile attack at Japan or marching into the South. Doing so would give the US the perfect excuse to invade North Korea with internationally recognised legitimacy. Victor Cha, former foreign policy advisor to the Bush administration, highlights this strategic stalemate: “Pyongyang also understands that if it were to attack again [after the Korean War], the likely US-ROK response would not merely be to defend and block a southward advance but to roll back the regime for good.”
Why does North Korea continue to produce and test nuclear weapons even if it is prevented from using them? One answer lies with the timing of past launches. Missile tests have aligned with the beginning of new leadership in the White House both in 2009 and 2017. Pyongyang may well be observing what response it provokes from the new administration while simultaneously taking advantage of the instability that comes with newly-appointed leadership and see how far they can rock the boat.
Another explanation for the existence of nuclear weapons in North Korea, yet the lack of direct attacks, is the stockpiling of nuclear arsenal as deterrence. The potential for attack against the US or any of its military bases in the Asia-Pacific is powerful enough to keep the US at bay. North Korea’s refusal to adhere to any nuclear non-proliferation programme is an equally calculated move. Should North Korea give up its nuclear missiles, it loses the only bargaining power it possesses.
At the other end of the stick, while Trump is certainly an individual with a certain flair to his character, his political dealings are not entirely devoid of rationale. When discussing possible withdrawal from the US-Korean trade deal, Trump urged his staff to portray him as a “crazy guy” in order to force concessions from Pyongyang. Trump’s brash rhetoric fits in with this mentality – if he were to show any sign of weakness, Pyongyang would make the best of it and try to draw out concession from the US.
In brief, both Trump and Jong-Un find themselves trapped in political gridlock. Neither can attack the other without putting their own survival in grave peril. The only way the balance of power would change without war would be if the North Korean regime collapsed from the inside, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen soon. In the meantime, the world can sleep soundly at night.