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Learning to live with a nuclear North Korea

Image Credit: Jen Morgan (Flickr: Creative Commons)

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently claimed that the US is willing to use force if it must against North Korea if it continues its provocative military activity around the Korean Peninsula. The threat came after North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), one that some experts’ claim could reach as far as Alaska, or even Darwin, although we should remain careful not to exaggerate the threat posed to Australia by North Korea.

Despite the threat to Australia remaining relatively low, North Korea does pose a serious threat to its neighbours, particularly South Korea and Japan. North Korea claims that a nuclear warhead can be mounted on their new ICBM, and have on several occasions threatened war with South Korea and Japan, with their recently launched ICBM landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone triggering a sharp rise in tensions across the region.

North Korea’s provocative behaviour may seem to be that of an irrational actor, however there is a goal that Pyongyang is pursuing. Their goal is to ensure the survival of the regime by means of deterrence. The concept of deterrence was made famous in the Cold War, the fear of mutually assured destruction was a constant reality in the minds of people across the globe, many even go as far as to claim that nuclear weapons have perhaps spared humanity the horror of another catastrophic global war. The Kim Dynasty has ruled over Korea unchallenged since the early days of the Cold War, and it has ensured North Koreans live under the world’s strictest authoritarian government. Kim Jong Un understands that any attack on its neighbours would draw it into conflict with the United States, whose military dominance would signal the end of his regime.

Mao Zedong famously played down nuclear deterrence, although despite his claims he understood that they could ensure the survival of China’s communist revolution, and perhaps the idea has some merit; no state possessing nuclear weapons has been invaded by another state. North Korea believes that nuclear weapons also guarantee the same promise for them.

Despite the recent threats of force from the United States, North Korea believes the gamble on nuclear deterrence will pay off. Few would doubt that the United States could defeat the North Korean regime, especially at a time where China is less likely than ever to put their necks out for Pyongyang, although the US also understands that victory in such a conflict would come at an unimaginable cost. Experts claim that even without nuclear weapons, a full-scale North Korean attack on the South would claim the lives of millions, and would destroy Seoul. These numbers alone make an attack from the United States an unlikely outcome.

It should be remembered that even if we subscribe to the benefits of deterrence for the region, it is undoubtedly a more dangerous place with the Hermit Kingdom becoming a nuclear power. The real threats to the region today are mistakes or miscalculations by either side in the confrontation. One stray missile could see the region fall into calamity. One overly ambitious show of force could lead an enemy to believe they really are under attack and launch an appropriate response.

Diplomacy won’t end North Korea’s nuclear program, and military intervention is an unlikely outcome, therefore, the world may just have to get used to living with a nuclear-capable North Korea, no matter how uncomfortable the thought may be. If deterrence spared the world a nuclear holocaust once, hopefully, it can spare the world another Korean War, although no matter the outcome, the world has certainly become a more dangerous place.

Michael Leyson is undertaking a Bachelor of Social Science (International Relations) at Swinburne University.

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