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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 allay doubts, the North Koreans repeated the tests on July 28. It is significant that the second launch was carried out at night and in not the most favorable weather conditions. Most likely, this was done specifically in order to demonstrate that North Korean missiles are suitable not only for testing, but also for launching in conditions as close as possible to combat ones. In addition, during the second launch, it became clear that the range of the Hwaseong-14 missile (as some experts had already predicted for a long time) was actually much greater than it seemed from the July 4 test results. 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.

There is nothing unexpected in the incident: the North Korean authorities have officially announced that they will test an intercontinental missile in the very near future. This message was contained in Kim Jong-un's New Year speech. Donald Trump, then not yet in office, reacted immediately - literally the next day, he tweeted in which he assured that, although the North Koreans are reporting a rocket launch, “it won't happen”.

Such a categorical remark then caused a lot of controversy. Many took the tweet as a warning that all launch attempts would be thwarted by military means. Others speculated that the president was almost in possession of classified intelligence that showed North Korea was bluffing. But in practice, it turned out that Donald Trump simply said what he wanted to say at that moment, but the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un said exactly what is actually happening.

After the July tests, there is still no confidence that North Korean engineers have successfully solved the difficult issue 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 solvable, 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 at any facility in the United States of America.

For many years, in both official and unofficial conversations, many American experts and officials have stated that America will "never tolerate" North Korea's development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States. The author of these lines, like many of my colleagues, had more than once seen the unexpectedly stern faces of American analysts who explained that, they say, the United States would not allow such a turn of events and a stunning and disarming blow would be a response to such North Korean insolence. Such conversations were especially frequent earlier this year, when the Trump administration had just begun its duties.

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

With some delay, people in Trump's entourage discovered for themselves what experts have always known: an attempt to launch a military strike on North Korean political and military targets will most likely provoke a retaliatory strike against the Seoul metropolis, which is located on the very border and is completely shot by North Korean heavy artillery. Such a blow, in turn, would provoke a South Korean counterstrike, followed by a second Korean War, from which the United States cannot stay away.

At the same time, the conflict on the Korean Peninsula will not be similar to an ordinary conflict in the Middle East, where everything is decided by a small air force group and, if absolutely necessary, several special forces units. Both America and partly Russia are already accustomed to such lightning-fast and almost bloodless wars. But in the case of Korea, the conflict is likely to turn into a full-fledged ground war, much like the war in Vietnam, which remains a nightmare for American military and political leaderships.

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 a military solution extremely unattractive, and, apparently, around the beginning of spring, both President Trump and his closest advisers realized this fact. In the last week, Trump has issued a series of unprecedentedly threatening statements, promising the North Korean leadership that the response to possible provocations will be "fire and fury" - such lofty language has until now been used exclusively by North Korean propaganda. He also promised that the DPRK will face "considerable 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 have already spoken about the unacceptability of a military solution, but the point is that the United States and its allies have no tools at all, the use of which could seriously affect the situation. It is possible that this circumstance will cause gloating among many in Russia. But there is nothing to be happy about, because the new situation will have a very unfavorable effect on Russia as well.

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 way, the imposition of sanctions, which followed the first nuclear tests, coincided with the beginning of the recovery of the North Korean economy from the severe crisis of 1995-2000. Around this time, in 2002-2003, the famine that raged in the 1990s was overcome and economic growth resumed. It is significant that the sanctions had no effect on this growth.

It may seem even more paradoxical that economic growth in North Korea began to accelerate significantly in 2012-2013, that is, just when the sanctions were actually tightened. This is primarily due to the fact that the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un, began to actively, albeit cautiously, carry out market reforms of the Chinese model in the country, thus ending the dismantling of the little that was left in North Korea by that time from the Soviet socialist model. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the beginning of the economic mini-boom that North Korea is now experiencing coincided with a sharp tightening of sanctions against this country.

The main attention in its efforts is now paid by the United States to China, which is understandable: China controls about 90% of all foreign trade of North Korea. It is clear that China is in principle capable of provoking a severe economic crisis in the DPRK. To do this, it is enough to completely stop trade or at least suspend the supply of oil and liquid fuel to North Korea at reduced prices. This is exactly what the Trump administration wants from China. However, all these efforts are doomed to failure, as warned by many experts, including American ones.

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 faced with the typical choice of two evils in such situations. On the one hand, North Korea, which is developing its nuclear program, is evil for China, and on the other, North Korea, which is in a state of chaos. Of these two evils, China reasonably chooses the lesser - and this, as you might guess, is nuclear North Korea.

Thus, the hopes that China will be able to become a full-fledged participant in the sanctions regime are futile. Equally futile 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 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 to be a weapon to preserve both 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 clear that the sanctions will be adopted, and the pressure on China will continue. The reason is simple: faced with a clear and real threat from the outside, both the American political leadership, and especially Congress, must take some measures that will convince American voters that those in power are not asleep and are doing everything they can.

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. North Korea will under no circumstances give up its 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 his life, and it is clear that this lesson in Pyongyang is learned in the best way.

However, even without the sad example of Gaddafi and Saddam, Pyongyang knows very well that Washington, as well as other leading powers (including China and Russia), should by no means be trusted. It is no coincidence that in private conversations the North Koreans mention not only the sad fate of Colonel Gaddafi, but also the story of the 1994 Budapest Protocol, which guaranteed the preservation of the then Ukrainian borders in exchange for agreeing to surrender the nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union.

So, what has changed in the world since the launch of ICBMs? On the one hand, there is a certain, albeit not very high probability that the United States will undertake some kind of military operations and try to preemptively paralyze the North Korean nuclear program by striking the most important industrial and military facilities in the DPRK.

The likelihood of such a turn of events, which seemed quite possible in the spring, has sharply decreased, but it is still not zero - largely due to the personal characteristics of President Donald Trump, who, as you know, is an emotional person and sometimes does not understand the intricacies of world politics. However, most likely, the status quo will remain.

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 newly emerging problem of nuclear proliferation in East Asia. After North Korea tested an ICBM capable of attacking the United States, many politicians and experts in South Korea began to doubt whether in the current situation South Korea could continue to count on the American "nuclear umbrella."

South Korea, despite its neighborhood with North Korea, has been quite calm about its security for decades, implying that in the worst case, the United States will always come to the rescue. But in the new situation, the question arises whether the United States will be ready to intervene in the inter-Korean conflict if the possible cost of 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 by military force. The presence of a nuclear potential gives him hope that the Americans will not intervene in such a conflict. Although the likelihood of such a turn of events is not high, there has been perceptible nervousness in South Korean political circles, and recently there has been serious talk in Seoul about creating its 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 significantly weaker than those that North Korea has to deal with, they will be quite painful for South Korea, which is highly dependent on international trade. It can be assumed that in this case, 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 South Korea becoming 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 not a little suspicious of its giant neighbor and would gladly acquire means of adequate protection in case of possible problems with China.

The North Korean nuclear program is fraught with other problems. The growth in the number of nuclear charges and their carriers significantly increases the likelihood of incidents. Do not discount 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 a completely rational and sane person, although at the same time hot-tempered and even capricious. However, over the years, a person's character tends to deteriorate, and power, first of all absolute power, corrupts a person. In this situation, there is reason to worry that a nuclear war with unpredictable consequences for the whole world, at least in theory, can be started by one person only according to his own understanding.

Finally, it cannot be ruled out that the North Korean leadership will sooner or later face an internal 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 significantly improved the living conditions of the majority of the population), the people's heart is a changeable thing. Nicolae Ceausescu, whose sad death 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 consequence may be an increase in the American military presence in East Asia. Until recently, South Korea has sought to maneuver between the United States and China. Such a policy would also be ideal from the point of view of the new president Moon Jae-in, who, in fact, promised this during the election campaign.

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

Does the "North Korean problem" have a solution? Much depends on what is meant by a solution. If North Korea's renunciation of nuclear weapons is meant, 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 named - the termination of joint US-South Korean military exercises. True, most likely, this particular concession is unrealistic, because from the point of view of Washington and Seoul, it will look like additional disarmament in the face of a potential adversary, now possessing nuclear weapons. However, a compromise in this and other areas is possible.

However, there is no particular hope for the success of the talks on freezing nuclear weapons, because not only the American congressmen, but also North Korea are not striving for it. It is really unclear whether the North Koreans themselves are ready for negotiations. As stated, the economic situation in North Korea is better now than at any time in the past 30 years. The economy, driven mainly by the unleashed forces of the market, is growing at a rapid pace. Even pessimists talk about GDP growth of 3,9% last year. In these conditions, North Korea does not experience the former need for American or South Korean material and financial assistance.

There is no desire to make concessions in Washington either. The attempt to conclude a freeze agreement will be perceived in Congress as "paying a ransom to a lucky blackmailer" and rewarding North Korea for unceremoniously violating the international nonproliferation regime back in the 1980s and 1990s. Such an agreement will be perceived as a sign of weakness, and neither the current president nor his successors are able to do things that would allow the opposition (whether Republican or Democratic) to portray them as weaklings.

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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