North Korea: how will it end?

Jonny Latimer argues that whilst "fire and fury" might make for a good soundbite, there's nothing attractive about a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea

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Photo: Flickr

Trump’s recent boyish rhetoric about North Korea has probably drawn your attention to the generation-spanning ‘long emergency’ occurring on the Korean Peninsula. The President has assured the Kim regime that “fire and fury like the world has never seen” will be shown should it continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions. Do we want this to happen?

I think most of us are right to be worried by such noises. But what other options do we have? North Korea, a cult of personality threatening the annihilation of the West, has become a nuclear power. Our gut reaction is that it is either us or them. Maybe Trump’s suggestion, though we might not want to admit it, is the only way to assure the continued existence of South Korea, Japan and California.

Indeed, it’s true that the United States possesses sufficient ‘fire and fury’ to knock out North Korea with a few swift blows. They could steamroll the North Korean nuclear facilities before they get a chance to respond. So why, so far, has restraint been exercised?

The Korean Demilitarized Zone is the most militarised border on Earth. Tanks, artillery and soldiers stand perpetually on guard, ready for attack. Seoul, the Southern capital, is within 40km of the DMZ, within range of North Korean ordnance. What happens near the DMZ and Seoul when America unleashes its fire and fury on the North’s nuclear grid?

A response in kind. Every inch of Seoul faces a potential barrage of conventional, chemical and biological shells. Mark Bowden, the author of ‘How to Deal with North Korea’, states a few hundred thousand as the minimum amount of people that can be summarily killed in Seoul by Northern artillery. With around 25 million people living in a city three times more densely packed than London, if only a few hundred thousand Seoul residents were sacrificed in this gambit, that would be a strategic miracle, if an actual nightmare. Though lacking a modern nuclear arsenal, the Kim regime still possesses the largest conventional force in the world. A pre-emptive evacuation of the city would be a telegraph to the Kim regime that things were about to happen, and could tip the delicate balance that maintains the tense stability.

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Can’t the fire and fury extend to the conventional forces threatening Seoul too? Assuming that it is possible to prevent the gigantic North Korean military (which has 6 million people and is funded by a quarter of the country’s GDP) from flattening Seoul immediately and knocking out its nuclear capabilities, where would that leave us?

Let’s examine the best outcome. Effective strikes and blitz-campaigns paralyse all of North Korea’s military, Seoul is safe and Pyongyang no longer threatens nuclear annihilation. Firstly, millions of North Koreans are dead and displaced. The North Korean state, though misguided, is still composed of people, and their lives must be considered. Are ten million dead North Koreans sufficient for pause? Then comes the occupation. To stabilise the situation, America would have to occupy the ruins of the mountainous North and rule the people they have just obliterated. It would make Iraq seem like nothing.

If ‘fire and fury’ isn’t the right method, what else can be done? One faraway solution is the successful application of economic pressure. Perhaps America could pepper the Kim regime with cyberattacks and a blockade, denying uranium and coal. But this is a huge risk. To North Koreans, this may be indistinguishable from a genuine prelude to the pre-discussed fire and fury. Even with reassurance that the blockades would be just that, why would North Korea accept this as truth from an enemy?

Any economic solution must involve China – a country North Korea desperately depends upon for economic support. China has a monopoly on North Korean trade, and can withdraw exports to cripple Pyongyang. This is preferable to American warships getting involved. However, what will it take to get China on board, and what if North Korea prides it’s nuclear ambition over Chinese support? The answer to the first question is the abandonment of South Korea to Chinese influence, and the evacuation of American military bases in Korea – a constant worry to China. If the Kim regime decides to affirm the latter question, then it’s likely back to fire and fury.

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