Junk Explained: What The Hell Is Happening With North Korea?

Things are... not good.

North Korea

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North Korea is on TV again but the whimsical charms of Captain Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt have been replaced with hydrogen bombs and the threat of nuclear war.

Instead of M*A*S*H reruns we’re being forced to watch world leaders threaten each other with annihilation in an increasingly stressful geopolitical nightmare. The North Korean government has begun a fresh round of nuclear tests, including the detonation of a bomb six times more powerful than anything they’ve tested before. The Trump administration has been threatening a “massive military response”. And other regional players, including South Korea, look like they’ve given up on diplomacy and are launching their own missile tests.

It’s all kicking off on the Korean Peninsula and no one seems quite sure what to do about it. So how did we get to this point and should we start taking the threat of nuclear war seriously? 

Is This Trump’s Fault?

A lot of the recent commentary on the escalation in tension has focused on Donald Trump’s relatively oblique approach to international diplomacy. Basically, the guy uses Twitter to fire off threats and dictate his foreign policy agenda, which might not be a great thing when you’re up against a despotic regime that seems quite happy to launch ballistic missiles and test nuclear bombs on the reg.

The recent flare-up in hostilities has much deeper roots than the Trump administration. Dr Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Junkee that, “This crisis goes way back, well before Trump emerged onto the political scene”.

“The North Koreans have been pursuing nuclear weapons and missile capabilities since the early 1990s, with the nuclear program being discovered during the Clinton Administration. They withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, and tested their first nuclear weapons in 2006. Little progress was made during the two terms of the Obama Administration to resolve it. The latest round of this crisis (begun under Kim Jong-un) began to gather pace last year.”

But even if North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons started before Trump, isn’t there a chance his rhetoric has ramped things up? Not according to Davis.

I think that Trump’s rhetoric has had fairly minimal effect on the outcome of this crisis. Trump could have been very conciliatory and non-confrontational, similar to Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ policy towards North Korea, and Kim Jong-un would still have proceeded rapidly towards testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and now the hydrogen bomb.

“Trump’s rhetoric of ‘fire, fury and power’ picked up a lot of airplay in the West, but had minimal effect on North Korean decision-making. They were committed to their chosen path of becoming a nuclear weapons state.”

Professor John Blaxland is the Head of  Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. While he agreed that Kim Jong-un’s ratcheting up of the nuclear weapons program predates Trump, he told Junkee that the recent acceleration, “appears to me to be really driven by a concern to give the North Koreans some certainty in the face of the risk of retaliation from the US.”

So What Are The Options?

There’s two main options available to countries trying to contain North Korea: a military response and a diplomatic response. We’ll cover the military option a bit later, so let’s focus on diplomacy for now.

The Obama government adopted a relatively chill attitude to North Korea. They didn’t threaten them as bluntly as Trump is currently doing. But it’s possible their chill-ness is part of what’s gotten us into the current mess.

“De-escalation has been tried for a while and hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” Blaxland told Junkee. “In fact, if anything, it’s just facilitated the ease of development of their technology. There’s a sense that de-escalation doesn’t work. You’ve got to ratchet up the pressure.”

What kind of pressure? UN Security Council resolutions and economic sanctions, according to Blaxland. But there’s a problem: China. China is North Korea’s main trading partner and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, meaning it can veto resolutions.

“The Chinese will only go so far in supporting the US diplomatically because they do not want to see a North Korean regime change scenario,” Davis said. “North Korea is a useful buffer between China and South Korea. They do not want to see a unified Korea that is both prosperous and democratic, because this would incentivise Chinese across the border to recognise that they do not have to surrender aspirations towards democracy in order to have prosperity.”

Blaxland has a similar perspective. “If China pushes Kim Jong-un too far and the state implodes, that’s the worst possible outcome for the Chinese. They need to reign him in without forcing him to fall over.”

So the problem for the US and its allies — including Japan and South Korea — is that China is trying to walk a fine line between ensuring Kim Jong-un doesn’t blow the place up, while protecting his government. It’s tricky.

Is War A Realistic Scenario?

This week the US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, warned of a “massive military response” to any future North Korean military threat. If the US did decide to intervene militarily it would likely invoke the ANZUS treaty which would draw in Australia. According to Davis, that would probably result in Australia committing military forces to the campaign, probably focused on hunting North Korean submarines.

But is it really likely to get to that point? If the US attacked North Korea, it’s highly likely Kim Jong-un would retaliate by attacking South Korea. Even if they didn’t use nuclear weapons, a conventional bombing campaign would be devastating.

The US knows that, which is why the military option is extremely unlikely. But Kim Jong-un knows the US knows that, and he’s basically calling their bluff. “This is the gamble Kim seems to be making,” Blaxland said. “That he can afford to just ignore it.”

That’s the problem the US is in. It can threaten North Korea as much as it likes, but as long as the North Korean government sees those threats as empty posturing they’re going to keep up their nuclear and missile tests.

What’s The Endgame?

A lot of the discussion around North Korea focuses on the international politics of the issue. But there are 25 million North Koreans living under the regime, with no access to the outside world and a government that doesn’t care about their wellbeing. What responsibility does the international community owe to those people?

“The only way to help the North Korean people is to remove the regime,” Davis said. “We can’t do that without risking war. Brutal truth.”

The experts seem to think war is an unlikely outcome, but essentially that means Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government are going to continue on their trajectory of nuclear weapons development and testing. Which means that if we do, someday, end up in a military conflict it’s probably going to be even worse.

… Sorry

Just as an addendum, this was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted explainer on a complex issue. It’s not fun. I’m sorry. I know that. I was trying to wrap my head around the recent escalation and thought I could explain it using GIFs from The Interview and M*A*S*H. That’s usually how we do shit at Junkee.

But this shit is not fun. I had to leave out a whole detailed section of how we would potentially evacuate Australians in South Korea and Japan, and prepare for nuclear bombs raining down our northern coast. There wasn’t a fun way to do this. So I’m sorry if it’s boring. But hopefully you learnt something.

I learnt too much and now I wish I had access to some sort of Eternal Sunshine device to erase my mind. I was pretty calm before realising how close we are to things getting real. And now it’s in the hands of a bunch of people who haven’t ever really demonstrated much respect for either the rule of law or innocent lives. That applies to all the main actors — China, North Korea and the US.

Stay safe, readers. Hug your family and friends. Look out for each other. Life is short.

Osman Faruqi is Junkee’s News and Politics Editor. He tweets @oz_f.