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How the world will change when North Korea becomes a nuclear power

Andrei Lankov, a historian, a Korean scholar, a teacher at the University of Kukmin (Seoul), discusses on the portal how the Korean knot is being tightened

The new phase of the crisis around North Korea is probably not as dramatic as many media insist, and does not pose an immediate threat to Koreans and their neighbors. However, in the long term, the North Korean problem has become even more complex and potentially even more explosive.

How the world will change when North Korea becomes a nuclear power
Photo: Jack Hoyes /
On July 4, 2017, that is, on US Independence Day, North Korean rocket engineers "presented a gift to the Americans" —that was, a "gift" called what happened to none other than the DPRK Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong-un. On this day, a successful test launch of the Hwaseong-14 rocket was carried out in the DPRK, which, according to the North Korean media, is an intercontinental rocket capable of hitting the United States, the first such rocket developed in the DPRK.

An analysis of the radar data showed that the 4 missile tested by July missile had a potential range of about six to seven thousand kilometers, that is, it is able to hit Alaska and some overseas territories of the United States. After the first test, however, doubts arose over whether the ICBM was actually tested this time.

To dispel doubts, the North Koreans 28 July repeated the test. It is significant that the second launch was conducted at night and in not the most favorable weather conditions. Most likely, this was done specifically to demonstrate: North Korean missiles are suitable not only for testing, but also for launches in conditions as close to combat as possible. In addition, during the second launch it became clear that the range of the Hwaseon-14 missile (as, for example, some experts had predicted for a long time) was actually much larger than it seemed from the results of the 4 tests of July. It seems that the new North Korean missile has a range of about 10 thousand kilometers and is capable of hitting New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Nothing unexpected happened: the North Korean authorities in the most official way reported that the intercontinental missile will be tested by them in the very near future. This message was contained in New Year's speech by Kim Jong-un. Donald Trump, who had not yet taken office, reacted immediately - literally the next day he wrote a tweet, in which he assured that, although the North Koreans reported launching the missile, "it will not happen".

This categorical remark caused a lot of controversy. Many perceived the tweet as a warning that all attempts at launching would be thwarted by military means. Others assumed that the president had at his disposal secret intelligence data that showed that North Korea was bluffing. But in practice it turned out that Donald Trump just said what he wanted to say at that moment, but the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un said just what is really happening.

After the July tests, there is still no certainty that the North Korean engineers have successfully solved the difficult question of protecting the warhead at the final stage of the flight, when entering the dense layers of the atmosphere. But in any case, this issue is technically resolved, and we have to admit that North Korea has either already become, or is about to become the third country in the world capable of delivering a nuclear strike against any object in the territory of the United States of America.

For many years now, in official and unofficial conversations, many American experts and officials have stated that America "will never tolerate" the creation by North Korea of ​​an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a blow to the continental US. The author of these lines, like many of my colleagues, often had to see the unexpectedly stern faces of American analysts who explained that, say, the United States would not allow such a turn of events and a stunning and disarming strike would be the answer to such a North Korean insolence. Especially often such conversations were heard at the beginning of this year, when the Trump administration was just starting to assume its responsibilities.

Most likely, people close to Trump were not evil then - they sincerely believed that it was not too late to solve the North Korean nuclear problem in one powerful blow. However, by March-April the situation had changed. In public speeches, the US military very often began to talk about the possibility of a military solution, but behind closed and half-closed doors completely different intonations sounded.

With some delay, people in Trump's circle discovered what the experts had always known: an attempt to inflict a military attack on North Korean political and military targets is likely to provoke a retaliatory strike against the Seoul metropolis, which is located on the border itself and is wholly shot through by North Korean heavy artillery. Such a blow, in turn, will provoke a South Korean counterattack, followed by a second Korean war, from which the US can not stay away.

At the same time, the conflict on the Korean peninsula will not be similar to the usual conflict in the Middle East, where everything is decided by a small aviation grouping and, if need be, several special forces units. To such lightning and almost bloodless wars, America, and in part Russia has become accustomed. But in the case of Korea, the conflict is likely to turn into a full-scale ground war, much like the war in Vietnam, which is still a nightmare for the US military and political leadership.

In addition, theoretically, China, which remains an ally of North Korea, should take part in such a war on the DPRK side. Recently, the Chinese government expressed its position, which boils down to the fact that China will not support the DPRK, if Pyongyang itself starts hostilities, but will support the DPRK if it becomes a victim of a first strike by the United States.

All this makes the military decision extremely unattractive, and, apparently, somewhere in the beginning of spring, President Trump and his closest advisers have clarified this fact. In the last week, Trump made a whole series of unprecedented formidable statements, promising the North Korean leadership that “flame and rage” would be the answer to possible provocations - until now North Korea’s propaganda has always used such a vigorous language. He also promised that the DPRK is waiting for "a lot of trouble," if it continues to behave incorrectly.

As you might expect, the Supreme Leader and his diplomats did not get a word for it: personally, Kim Jong Un promised that after the Independence Day gift, which was timed to coincide with the test of the first North Korean intercontinental missile, a number of new gifts are waiting for the Americans.

Should the outside world begin to worry about a possible war in Korea? If you take into account the personal characteristics of the current inhabitant of the White House, then there are some grounds for concern, but, frankly, not too big.

I already spoke about the unacceptability of the military solution, but the fact is that at the disposal of the United States and its allies there are no tools at all, the application of which could seriously affect the situation. It is not ruled out that this fact will gloat in many people in Russia. But there is nothing to be happy about, because the new situation will be very unfavorable, including in Russia.

It is clear that, in addition to the exchange of threats and the adoption of militant postures, the US will have to take some measures, and the first contours of these measures are already evident. It's about sanctions and attempts to pressure China to make it finally end the North Korean issue.

North Korean propaganda has always told of the economic blockade in which North Korea is said to be, but in fact the first international sanctions against North Korea were introduced only in 2006 - before that, only trade with the United States was restricted, which North Korea and without any restrictions were not engaged in For economic and geographical reasons.

In a curious manner, the imposition of sanctions, which followed the first nuclear tests, coincided with the beginning of the North Korean economy's exit from the most severe crisis of 1995-2000. Approximately at this time, in 2002-2003 years, the famine that raged in the 1990-ies was overcome, and economic growth resumed. It is significant that the sanctions did not have any influence on this growth.

Even more paradoxical is the fact that economic growth in North Korea began to accelerate significantly in 2012-2013 years, that is, precisely when sanctions were actually tightened up. This is primarily due to the fact that the new leader of the country, Kim Jong-un, actively, although cautiously, carry out market reforms in the Chinese model in the country, thus ending the dismantling of the little that by that time remained in North Korea from the Soviet socialist model. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the beginning of that economic mini-boom, which is now experiencing North Korea, coincided with a sharp tightening of sanctions against this country.

The main focus of their efforts in the US is now on China, which is understandable: China controls about 90% of all foreign trade of North Korea. It is clear that China is in principle in a position to provoke a severe economic crisis in the DPRK. To do this, it is sufficient to completely stop trading or at least suspend the supply of oil and liquid fuel to North Korea at reduced prices. This is what the Trump administration is seeking from China. However, all these efforts are doomed to failure, as many experts, including American ones, warned about.

On the one hand, China is extremely unhappy with the North Korean nuclear program, which threatens the privileged status of the PRC itself, one of the "officially recognized" nuclear powers. In addition, North Korean nuclear ambitions provide the basis for maintaining or even increasing the US military presence near Chinese borders.

On the other hand, China absolutely does not want to face the most severe North Korean economic crisis and its political consequences. It is clear that if sanctions can lead to success, then only through the complete collapse of the North Korean economy and possible outbreaks of popular unrest in the DPRK. Such a scenario does not make China smile at all.

China is now confronted with a typical choice for such situations between two evils. On the one hand, the evil for China is North Korea, developing a nuclear program, and on the other - North Korea, in a state of chaos. Of these two evils, China reasonably chooses the smaller - and it's not hard to guess, it's nuclear North Korea.

Thus, it is useless to calculate that China will be able to make a full-fledged participant in the sanctions regime. Equally vain are the hopes that direct sanctions will have a serious impact on the behavior of the leadership of North Korea itself. Even if an economic crisis begins in the country as a result of the sanctions (such a turn of events now seems unlikely), the problems of the common people will not force the North Korean elite to abandon nuclear weapons, which they consider a weapon for preserving their own power and their own lives.

All these circumstances are well understood by specialists in the United States, including those who are in the civil service. However, it is obvious that the sanctions will be adopted, and the pressure on China is continued. The reason is simple: faced with an obvious and real threat from the outside, and the American political leadership, and Congress in particular, must take some measures that will convince American voters that the powers that be are not asleep and do everything that is possible.

Sanctions, despite their inefficiency, look like a tough measure that can be understood by the masses, including a Minnesota saleswoman and a truck driver from Nebraska. Thus, active support for sanctions can help some senator from Nebraska to win the next election.

In general, the situation is hopeless. Under no circumstances will North Korea give up nuclear weapons. Pyongyang remembers well what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The latter example is especially important for the DPRK, because the Libyan leader was the only leader who voluntarily abandoned the nuclear weapons program, believing in the economic aid promised in exchange. As you know, this gullibility cost Gaddafi life, and it is clear that this lesson in Pyongyang was learned in the best way.

However, even without a sad example of Gaddafi and Saddam in Pyongyang, they are well aware that: no one should trust Washington, as well as other leading powers (including China and Russia). It is no accident that in private conversations the North Koreans not only mention the sad fate of Colonel Gaddafi, but also the story with the Budapest Protocol of the 1994 year, which guaranteed the preservation of the then borders of Ukraine in exchange for the agreement to surrender the nuclear weapons remaining from the Soviet Union.

So, what has changed in the world since the launch of the ICBM? On the one hand, there is a certain, albeit not very high probability, that the US will all go to some military operations and try to paralyze the North Korean nuclear program in a preventive way, striking at the most important industrial and military facilities on the territory of the DPRK.

The likelihood of such a turn of events, which seemed quite possible in the spring, fell sharply, but still is not zero, largely due to the personal characteristics of President Donald Trump, who is known to be emotional and sometimes not very versed in the intricacies of world politics. However, most likely, we are waiting for the preservation of the status quo.

The long-term perspective is another matter. Here, North Korea's nuclear program will force the world to face a number of rather unpleasant problems.

The first is the emerging problem of nuclear proliferation in East Asia. After North Korea had tested an ICBM capable of striking the United States, many politicians and experts in South Korea had doubts whether South Korea could continue to rely on the American "nuclear umbrella" in this situation.

South Korea, despite its neighborhood with North Korea, has been fairly calm about its security issues for decades, implying that in the extreme case the United States will always come to the rescue. But in a new situation, the question arises whether the US will be ready to intervene in the inter-Korean conflict if the possible price for such intervention is, say, the transformation of the beautiful city of San Francisco into radioactive ruins.

In South Korea, many people fear that Kim Jong-un, having created a sufficiently large nuclear potential, may try to complete the work that his grandfather Kim Il Sung failed in 1950, that is, to unite the country with military force. The presence of nuclear potential gives him hope that the Americans will not interfere in such a conflict. Although the likelihood of such a turn of events is small, tangible nervousness has arisen in South Korean political circles, and lately in Seoul they have started talking seriously about creating their own nuclear weapons.

Whether this initiative will succeed is a moot point. Unlike North Korea, South Korea is a democracy whose population is very sensitive to possible economic problems. An attempt to create its own nuclear weapons in South Korea will inevitably lead to economic sanctions from the international community.

Even if these sanctions are substantially weaker than those that North Korea has to deal with, for South Korea, which is highly dependent on international trade, they will be very painful. It can be assumed that in this case, the South Korean voters will decide to get rid of the government, whose policy has brought them everyday difficulties, even if this policy is justified from the point of view of national security interests.

Nevertheless, the likelihood of the transformation of South Korea into a nuclear power can no longer be dismissed. This turn of events will almost certainly trigger the development of nuclear weapons in a number of states in the region, including Japan, Taiwan, and possibly some countries in Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, which is suspicious of its giant neighbor and would be pleased to acquire Means of adequate protection in case of possible problems with China.

The North Korean nuclear program is fraught with other problems. An increase in the number of nuclear charges and their carriers significantly increases the probability of incidents. Do not overlook the fact that North Korea is an absolute monarchy, where the power of the highest leader is indisputable. So far, Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be quite rational and sensible, although at the same time quick-tempered and even capricious. However, over the years, the character of a person has the properties to deteriorate, and power, first of all, absolute power, corrupts a person. In this situation, there is reason to worry that, at least theoretically, only one person can start a nuclear war with unpredictable consequences for the whole world.

Finally, one cannot exclude the possibility that the North Korean leadership will sooner or later face a domestic political crisis or, to put it bluntly, a revolution. Although Kim Jong-un is now very popular among the people (mainly due to his economic policy, which has significantly improved the living conditions of the majority of the population), the people's heart is changeable. Nicholas Ceausescu, whose sad end is remembered by many, at the beginning of his reign was perhaps the most popular leader in Eastern Europe.

If there is unrest in North Korea, it can not be ruled out that the North Korean government and personally Kim Jong-un, not seeing for themselves any chance of salvation, will decide that it's time to "die with music" and go on using nuclear weapons against the US, and Probably, and other neighboring countries, which they will consider the culprits of their sad destiny.

From the point of view of the Russian leadership, which many of the described problems also concern, the main negative effect may be an increase in the US military presence in East Asia. Until recently, South Korea sought to maneuver between the US and China. Such a policy would be ideal from the point of view of the new president, Mr. Jun Zhe In, who, in fact, promised this during the election campaign.

However, in the present difficult situation, Moon Zhe Inu is not at all up to maneuvers between the great powers. Currently, the United States is a guarantee of the country's security, so one can be sure that the new Seoul administration, despite its restrained attitude to American values ​​and deep nationalism, will do everything possible to strengthen the American-South Korean alliance.

Does the “North Korean problem” have a solution? Here a lot depends on what is meant by a solution. If North Korea’s refusal of nuclear weapons is implied, then the problem has no solution at all.

However, less radical approaches are possible, one of which is the freezing of missile and nuclear programs. Under this agreement, North Korea, while retaining the already created nuclear potential, renounces new tests of nuclear weapons and new launches of ICBMs in exchange for various economic benefits, generous financial and material assistance, as well as military and political concessions.

In principle, one of the possible concessions has already been called-the cessation of joint US-South Korean military exercises. True, most likely, concretely this concession is not realistic, because from the point of view of Washington and Seoul, it will look like additional disarmament in the face of a possible adversary, now possessing nuclear weapons. However, a compromise is possible in this and in other areas.

However, there is no special hope for the success of negotiations on the freezing of nuclear weapons, because not only American congressmen, but also North Korea, do not aspire to it. It's really unclear whether the North Koreans themselves are prepared for the talks. As already mentioned, the economic situation in North Korea is now better than ever in the last 30 years. The economy, driven mainly by the liberated forces of the market, is growing at a rapid pace. Even pessimists talk about GDP growth at 3,9% last year. In these conditions, North Korea has no previous need for American or South Korean material and financial assistance.

In Washington, the desire to make concessions is also not observed. An attempt to conclude a freeze agreement will be perceived in Congress as “paying the ransom to a successful blackmailer” and encouraging North Korea to unceremoniously violate the international non-proliferation regime back in the 1980 – 1990s. Such an agreement will be perceived as a sign of weakness, and neither the current president nor his successors will be able to perform actions that will allow the opposition (whether republican or democratic) to present them as weak.

Thus, the North Korean nuclear crisis entered a new phase. It is, most likely, not as dramatic as many media insist, and does not pose an immediate threat to Koreans and their neighbors. However, in the long term, the North Korean problem has become even more complex and potentially even more explosive.

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