How worried should we be by North Korea’s nuclear standoff? The totalitarian state recently conducted its sixth (and largest) nuclear test, with Pyongyang now claiming it has the H-bomb. Coming hot on the heels of a ballistic missile launched across Japanese territory, it’s fair to say that Kim Jong-un has the world’s attention.
Yet most analysts believe the real danger is not that New York, Paris or London disappear in a mushroom cloud. North Korea’s nuclear threat is significant, but it’s important not to overstate their capabilities. Even a strike against the US territory of Guam is likely beyond their current level of technology. Instead, the risk is that escalating rhetoric causes the situation to spiral out of control, leading to a conventional war that could kill millions.
So, should our strategy really be based on the notion that North Korea somehow represents an existential threat to the US and its allies? Is it possible that our fear of North Korea might drive us to rash decisions? And if a country like South Korea (which faces appalling loss of life in the event of war) tries to dial down the tensions, is it helpful to portray that as “appeasement”?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Rosy, who is concerned that President Trump’s aggressive rhetoric (what she calls “sabre-rattling”) might really lead to war with North Korea. Is she right? Or is this just old-fashioned brinkmanship?
To get a reaction, we spoke to David A. Andelman, a columnist for USA Today and commentator for CNN Opinion (note that we spoke to David Andelman before North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan, and before the most recent nuclear test). What would he say to Rosy?
I think the principal concern with respect to President Trump and Kim Jong-un, is the fact that we have two individuals, both extremely thin-skinned and extremely volatile, each potentially reacting and playing off the other. I think there’s a danger of miscalculation. I think if we were able to remove the personalities from the equation, we’d be much better off and much closer to stability. Right now, there’s no sense of that.
The North Koreans, not to mention the Chinese, pay close attention to every Tweet that the president makes, and Kim is at least as sensitive as President Trump. He craves the kind of respect that President Trump craves, and he’s not getting that kind of respect or attention. We have to indicate to him in some fashion that we take him seriously. I think it’s very likely we will not see an end to the Korean nuclear arsenal anytime in our lifetime, or at least as long as this regime continues in power. I think we have to find a means of living with that, and the kind of tweets that President Trump is sending are not helping in that respect.
For another perspective, we also put Rosy’s comment to Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty Organization (CTBTO). What would he say to Rosy?
We also had a comment from Bruno, who believes we are entering a period of global history just as dangerous as the Cold War, and in some ways more volatile and unpredictable. Is he right? What would David Andelman say?
I would agree, with some caveats. I think the difference between the Cold War and the situation today is that the Cold War was very much a binary event. It was basically the Soviet Union and the United States. Obviously this was played out in various theatres all over the world, but it was basically a binary event.
Today, we have just a multiplicity of players – all of whom have strengths comparable in many respects to those of the two superpowers during the Cold War, and each with different methods of pursuing that conflict. It can be economic, it can be political, above all it can be military—but, again, military in multiple senses. So, Mutually Assured Destruction, which was the principle guarantor of peace during the Cold War and which was a binary event, is now basically in most cases null and void.
I have an article in CNN Opinion saying that basically we have to hope that what will hold the peace with regard to North Korea is some concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, and this can hopefully be seen played out in multiple theatres. But, basically, the principle difference is this question of binary versus multiplicity, and I think that’s the principle concern right now.
What about Dr. Lassina Zerbo from the CTBTO? How would he respond to Bruno’s comment?
Finally, we had a comment from Maia, who believes that “All countries need to dismantle their nuclear weapons, but that will happen only when there is a sufficient level of trust between them”. So, how can countries restore trust and tackle nuclear proliferation? Here’s what Dr. Zerbo had to say:
If you’re interested in the issues raised by this debate, you can also take part in Debating Security Plus, a global online brainstorm organised by our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe. Debating Security Plus will bring together senior international participants from the military, government and multilateral institutions along with voices from NGOs and civil society, business and industry, the media, think tanks and academia. Register here to take part!
Should we fear North Korea? Are Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un merely engaged in some time-honoured brinkmanship? Or is there a real risk that all this posturing and rhetoric could lead to catastrophe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!