One month on: How close were we to nuclear war?



The political scuffle that characterised late July to early August has precipitated a new chapter in the US-North Korea relationship. The episode of brinkmanship headed by the two nations’ leaders ignited fears of World War III, and has established a context in which the potential for misperception, miscalculation and overreaction is rife. In particular, the latest episode highlights each state’s assessment of what constitutes an imminent hostile threat.

North Korea’s launch of an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan on Tuesday definitively ended the rickety semblance of calm that had settled on the Korean peninsula. As anxieties resurface and the Japanese government continues missile evacuation drills, this article reviews whether we were on the precipice of nuclear war.

Despite claims of an international crisis unseen since Cuba in 1962, North Korea did not stray far from its past rhetoric or actions. In fact, the source of the ‘crisis’ originated from the US administration. What distinguished this tense period was the rapid escalation of threats made by both leaders, and their substantial and specific nature. For example, Kim Jong-un’s deadline threat to launch a missile at Guam, an American territory home to two large US military bases in the Pacific. North Korea’s earlier launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of targeting major cities in the US mainland, demonstrated its technical capacity to carry out this threat.

Provocative actions by North Korea are not unusual, but have rather become routine in parallel to key historical dates and events, such as the annual US-South Korean joint military exercises which have taken place since 1997. Despite testing more advanced missile technology with greater frequency, North Korea’s behaviour has not fundamentally altered from the past. Ultimately, the state remains in a defensive position. In the media frenzy of a ‘nuclear war,’ we typically forgo the first part of North Korea’s threats: if the US attacks us first, we will fight back. Like most other states, if its existence is threatened, the North Korean regime is prepared to retaliate. Irrespective of its offensive demeanour, the Guam threat lay within this line of thinking.

To overhype the North Korean threat is a standard and recurring feature of international media. But considering Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities, this is grounded in some very real concerns. However, the state’s actions in July and more recently this week do not mark any significant departure from its posture in past periods of hostility.

Further, beneath its bravado, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy reflects the core sentiments of previous administrations: if the United States is attacked first, we will fight back as well. On both sides, the message remains one of deterrence, not first strike. And the deterrence factor works, as long as states believe the other will honour it, meaning war remains unlikely.

However, the internal turmoil in the current US administration, demonstrated by the apparent lack of restraint in Trump’s formulation of a cohesive response to Kim Jong-un, introduces new challenges to the mix. Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat, designed to push North Korea into acquiescence out of fear, was met with greater hostility and assertiveness than has been seen in the past.

Going back to the issues of misperception, miscalculation and overreaction, these forge a clear path to hasty decision-making and remain potent factors in the current context. While we were not and are not on the brink of nuclear war, the demonstrated escalation of threats to implementation has laid a foundation for future scuffles. Taking the example of Guam, instead of viewing North Korea’s threat as an opening for diplomatic efforts in order to de-escalate, Trump intensified the situation by firing back with greater threats. In future, this choice could be the difference between reducing regional tensions and trying to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Indubitably, Kim Jong-un will continue pursuing his current provocative tactics. Kim desires American recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. And in many ways, Trump enables this calculus. The nuclear and missile program legitimises Kim’s rule domestically, and American responses to the program reinforce the US as the ‘aggressor’. Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ depicted an existential threat to the North Korean regime and its people, further justifying the regime’s diversion of its sparse resources to military developments.

The Trump factor in conjunction with Kim’s unchecked authority over nuclear weapons makes the situation fundamentally dangerous. However, the Kim regime is not suicidal, and considering Trump’s domestic-focused campaign, he may be reluctant to lead the US into yet another costly war. Despite this, the prevalence of misperception, miscalculation and overreaction preserves this improbable prospect.

Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Kennedy actively sought to avoid boxing in Khrushchev, Trump and Kim both relish a leadership style riddled with unpredictability. Amid future explosive sabre-rattling, the heightened chances for misperception, miscalculation and overreaction may just corner North Korea, pushing it to make a decision of catastrophic consequences.

Georgia Grice is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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