North Korea’s attempt to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland has made the tension at the Korean peninsula a bigger threat to world peace than the civil wars in Syria and Iraq; or the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. This secretive state already has missiles capable of reaching Japan and the Philippines.
The fear of another Korean war has been increased by the volatile personalities of the two warring leaders – Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States. Both are unpredictable and inexperienced leaders whose personal egos seem to be influential factors in their policy decisions.
Former American Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson visited North Korea eight times and was able to negotiate prisoner release talks. He recently said: “ You don’t know what he [ Kim Jong-un] wants. He doesn’t talk to anybody, he just conducts a lot of missile tests, nuclear weapons tests...So it’s very uncertain, a very unstable situation in the Korean peninsula that should be a concern for the entire international community.”
On the other hand, it would seem that Donald Trump has “boxed himself into a corner” by threatening North Korea with military reprisals if it continues with nuclear tests. He also boasted of sending an “armada” of powerful ships and submarines to the Korean waters. Also, Trump said that if China does not deal with North Korea, he would “properly deal with North Korea.” There are speculations that Trump may have been carried away by his increase in popularity after attacking Syria with missiles and using the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan.
All these threats, like in the past, will not deter Kim Jong-un from attempting more tests. The big difference is that the terrorists and rogue states in Syria and Afghanistan do not possess missile capability while North Korea is a nuclear power with the capability to retaliate. South Korea has a population of around 50 million. Half live in the Greater Seoul metropolitan region which lies only 35 miles south of the DMZ, the boundary between the two Koreas. Along the DMZ, North Korea has an estimated ten thousand artillery pieces that are dug in fortified bunkers and caves.
There is no doubt that, in the event of an attack, US and South Korean air forces could destroy most of these artillery within one or two days; but, experts have estimated that North Korean forces could fire up to 500,000 rounds towards Greater Seoul in the first hour of conflict. This would literally destroy the metropolis before any viable retaliation can render the North Korean artillery ineffective. This would cause a humanitarian catastrophe worst than Syria with a population of around 20 million; or Iraq, with a population of around 30 million.
China and North Korea
China remains the only country with economic leverage over the Kim Jong-un regime. Xi Jingping has publicly agreed to support American moves to place economic sanctions on North Korea. However, China has also warned the United States not to further escalate tensions in the peninsula.
Beijing may not be happy about Kim Jong-un’s missile tests; but, its long term strategic interests will probably lead to opposing any regime change in North Korea. A conflict in the Korean peninsula could lead to millions of refugees flooding into China where already two million Koreans.
More important, a collapse of the Kim Jong- un government could lead to a reunification of the two Koreas which would likely be led by South Koreans. In that event, China would have a next door neighbour that is a strong American ally with nationalist sentiments. In a Financial Times article, South Korea was ranked as the most anti-Chinese country in the world. Almost two-thirds of survey respondent held a negative view of China. There have been repeated confrontations between South Korean coast guards and Chinese fishermen. South Koreans have arrested more than 800 fishermen and seized more than 2,600 Chinese fishing vessels since 2006.
A United Korea, with close to 75 million people, would be an economic superpower with low labor costs. It would also be a global military power with the nuclear capability of North Korea added to the rocket and space capabilities of South Korea. China also does not want American and Korean troops on its borders. That is the reason why China invaded Korea and propped up the North Korean regime that was about to fall to the United Nations armed forces in the 1950s.
Quo vadis, Korea?
According to historian Don Oberdorfer, the 38th parallel as the dividing line between the two Koreas was a historical accident. At the end of World War II, the Russians were occupying the north of the peninsula. The White House convened an all night emergency meeting. Two junior officers, armed only with a National Geographic map, chose the 38th parallel as a place to suggest to the Soviets they halt, on the grounds that it was halfway down the country. In 1948, the Soviets left leaving behind a North Korean communist government.
In other countries with artificial boundaries – Vietnam, Germany, Yemen – the forces of unity have ultimately prevailed. Hopefully, someday the Kim family dynasty will end and there will be a United Korea that could provide some stability in this part of the world.
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