Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Open Space: Dimensions of North Korean threat grossly misinterpreted

September 20, 2017 by Aaron Stefik, contributing writer

Much has been written and said about the international crisis which at current looms large over the Korean peninsula, greater Southeast Asia, and, indeed, the world, and much more will have been said before this editorial even reaches print. Most of it will be inaccurate, or at the very least, reinterpreted beyond all real meaning.

In the minds of a not insignificant proportion of the North American people, the North Korean threat has emerged as a potential slugging match between a pair of demagogues—one familiar by his actions, the other only by reputation—which threatens to wreak the havoc of a nuclear third World War upon us. The reality is, as is often the case, far more intricate and less open to Western-centric interpretations.

This story originally appeared in our September 20, 2017 issue.

In point of fact, the current military situation between the Western powers, their allies, and North Korea are markedly removed from those of the Cold War-era conflict on the peninsula. Most significantly, North Korea no longer plays the role of a direct proxy state to other communist powers, and while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s relationship with China is a complex one, it is far from that of allies. Rather than the inconclusive ceasefire of 1953, resultant largely of China’s involvement in the conflict, a modern iteration of the Korean War would be a short and fairly one-sided engagement. Simply put, the Hermit Kingdom lacks allies, a fact of which Kim Jong-un is acutely aware.

Further, Pyongyang’s relationship with its northern neighbour is one of dependency. The coal-export economy on which North Korea relies in such large part is maintained by China, not out of any great need for Korean resources, but in the interest of providing a continued buffer zone between itself and US-backed South Korea. The strategy is an old one, employed almost identically by the Russian Empire in 1904, when it proposed a division of Japan’s colonially-ruled Korea along the 38th parallel, where the demilitarized zone is today located.

Propaganda aside, the DPRK is aware of its military shortcomings and of the inevitable outcome of any future clash with NATO and company. Aside from the country’s poor capacity for large-scale uranium and plutonium production and dubious reliability of its few extant intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), North Korean military leaders understand what much of the Western public does not: the mere achievement of a missile, or indeed a handful of nuclear-armed ICBMs, capable of reaching North America would still place the country many orders of magnitude below the ability to stand toe to toe against nations possessing massive nuclear stockpiles and sophisticated, if imperfect, ballistic missile defences, such as America’s ground-based midcourse defence system. In such a scenario, the mutually assured destruction doctrine of the Cold War is irrelevant, as any engagement on North Korea’s part would result in, at best, a handful of high-value targets eliminated at the price of its own total annihilation.

In this particular game of Risk, we in North America have little to fear from any immediate threats made by the DPRK.

Conversely, the danger of the deployment of the large stockpiles of chemical weaponry in South Korea and Japan is very real, to say nothing of South Korea’s heavy artillery, well within range of Seoul without crossing the border. It is for our friends and allies that we should fear, not ourselves. At least for the moment.

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