The world could be moving into a multipolar Cold War if recent missile launches and aggressive rhetoric continues.
In the North of Japan, people woke up from the most horrible alarm clock imaginable. The loud screams of the nuclear bomb-alert that went simultaneously as a text messages was sent out by the government, stating that North Korea had fired nuclear missiles over japans mainland. The he shocks of the event left the world asking; what’s next? Just a week later Iran launches a test missile, breaking the Iran-deal, leaving the Obama led effort to prevent nuclear proliferation seem useless. There are several options of how to solve this conflict, the problem is; non are preferable. By provoking the world, Kim Jung Un is putting international law, and states willingness to act on their threats, to a test. It is both destabilising and it delegitimising the effectiveness of the international community.
The cold war ended in optimistic activism towards denuclearisation trough the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty). A belief that diplomacy and international law as the ultimate path to avoid conflict and tension between states. The NPT was successful in the sense that the nuclear states did downscale the amount of weapons they possessed, but unsuccessful in preventing new states to develop the bomb. On the other hand, ff the goal was reaching “global zero” - a world free of any nuclear weapons - the whole deal was a fiasco. More states seem to value nuclear weapons as the ultimate defence strategy, and are for that reason starting their own programs.
North Korea started developing their own nuclear program as early as in the 1950’s, with support from the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Today's situation is probably not what China expected. The road to where we are today has been bumpy. The numerous attempts to make a deal with North Korea, through the six party talks including Japan, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and the US has been unsuccessful, only slowing the prosess in periods. The regime has since then openly been upgrading their nuclear arsenal with the goal of developing intercontinental missiles that can reach US mainland, to deter the US nuclear power. Provoking the whole world, putting international law and states ability to act on their threats to a test. North Korean provocations can be harmful in delegitimising the effectiveness of the international community.
The logic behind the provocations; the bigger the threat, the bigger the gain
Because of the regimes isolation and unique form one can only try to make sense of their behaviour by analysing the actions and history.
It seems logic to assume that North Korea feels threatened because of their history with South Korea, the war that technically never ended, but settled with a truce. On top of that their ultimate ideological enemy after the Cold War, the US, is supporting both South Korea and Japan in the east. Both countries of the Korean Peninsula have expressed their wish to unify the two countries again, or more correctly they both wish to govern both sides of the 38 parallel. It is irrelevant whether or not a south Korean attack, with help from the US is realistic or not. As long as Kim Jung Un believes and suspects it. Nuclear weapons is for that reason the perfect weapon to keep enemies away. And despite the fact that interaction with the world market would benefit the North Korean economy enormously, the fear of the regimes existence is the rational behind keeping the bomb by the suspicious authoritarian state.
The historic relation between North Korea and the US does not solely explain the escalating conflict with increasing numbers of missile launches. We have to take all recent international affairs into account. The fear of western liberal democratic expansionism arose again after the US and NATO interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. State leaders where killed and regimes overthrown in the name of humanitarianism and defence. While it has been speculations in the true intentions of the western interventions, the North Koran provocations can be interpreted as a North Koreas deterrence strategy, a way of showing power and willingness to use the bomb if ever confronted.
Additional reasoning involves the notion that the economical sanctions only led to human suffering, because the Pyongyang respons was simply to reorganize their finances to afford the extensive nuclear arms race. With a marginal economy, with little to no trade at the international market, Kim Jung Un might be desperate in his attempts to attain leverage in future negotiations. The bigger the threat the bigger the gain at the negotiation table. The fear of western democratic and liberal expansionism in non-democratic regimes, can be compared to the fear of Islamism in the western world, different methods but producing similar perceptions.
North Korea knows that any attack of another country would end in their own destruction. The US has the power to wipe out the whole country with either conventional or nuclear weapons, so any sudden attack is not very likely. But the card President Trump currently is playing, playing on fear and uncertainty could have fatal consequences. As we know from the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis, any miscalculation, wrong perception- or information interpretation could lead to unintended war of mass destruction. Both the opposition in South Korea and the Chinese government has shown discontent to the deployment of US defence missile system on South Korean soil, due to the offensive character it possesses, even though it is a defence system. It is painting a picture of how bad this conflict can and has become when the answers to the escalating conflict is purely military, creating the comparison to the cold war not that far fetched.
Possibilities and prospects
There are a handful of more or less realistic options of how to handle this delicate situation. The involved parties are North Korea, China and the US (with its allies).
Military pre-emptive strike is one possibility. Taking out military facilities of importance to cripple the capabilities of North Korea. This option is offensive or defensive, depending on how you see the situation. At first glance it might seem like a preventive solution from the outside of the South Asian region and outside North Koreas missile reach. For the citizens of Seoul or Japan that recently was woken up by the alarm clock from hell; a pre-emptive strike is considered as a highly risky move. For China this is not even a possibility, due to danger of possible counter retaliation attack against neighbouring countries. Retaliation is after all in the heart of deterrence theory.
Regime change by a military intervention, targeting people of importance could also solve an immediate threat of nuclear war. But the downside of this possibility is; who would then govern? It would most probably create the biggest humanitarian crisis the modern world has ever seen with a population of over 25 million, where the dominant part of these people are extremely poor, undereducated and brainwashed (if that’s allowed to say?). That's one reason why China - despite the growing annoyance over Kim Jung Un - does not want a regime change. It would leave them with millions of refugees that would bee a huge economical expense. Plus, a reunification of Korea governed by South Korea would mean an expansion of the western liberal democracy and would weaken their strategic position in the region.
Economical and political sanctions have been forwarded with various strength trough the UN since Kim Jung Un officially withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and again in 2009. Even China is sanctioning their own old ally. Kim Jung Un’s father and Grandfather both had good ties to Beijing, Kim Jung Un on the other hand has never been officially invited to China nor have Xi Jinping been in Pyongyang. Their relationship is only based on a mutual ideological opponent and trade relations. The sanctions have clearly not been working as intended, the North Korean regime’s willingness to maintain a nuclear program despite starvation and health issues has been badly underestimated.
Economical sanctions have a record of being ineffective, but new optimism grew out of the (until a week a go) successful Iran-deal. Where hard pressure forced the regime in making a denuclearisation deal after years of political and economical sanctions. The success, can regardless lie in the political aspect of the sanctions. The sanctions on Iran prior to the Iran Deal threatened the county's international position, and their internal legitimation. Iran did not see total isolation as an option.
Even though the Iran Deal broke after President Trump's humiliated the deal and the regime in a speech at the UN, it does not prove the ineffectiveness of the deal, rather it showed the fragility of the actor’s trust. The only obvious similarity between North Korea and Iran is that their not democratic countries, and of course that their both not very much liked by Washington. Bush included the two states in the axis of evil speech after 9/11, and Trump continuously makes his opinion very clear. But other than that the two countries are fundamentally different, and methods that will work in the pursuit of denuclearisation thus will have to take different forms. It’s important to remember that North Koreas regime is an anomaly in todays world. Regardless of recent events there are lessons that can be taken form the Iranian experience; good multilateral cooperation, which the Iran deal was a result of, between the US and Europe, including Russia.
Why can’t we just accept North Korea as a nuclear state?
Is it not unfair that some countries are allowed to have the extremely deadly and effective weapon? Yes, it is, but it is also how international affairs are structured, the security council for example, not very fair but the best out of the worst options, the most realistic effective solution for its time. If the five official legal nuclear states; France, the UK, Russia, the US and China accepted North Korea as a nuclear state who is next? It is not unlikely that North Koreas other neighbours Japan and South Korea would decide to develop nuclear weapons to deter Pyongyang in North Korea is allowed to keep its program. And there goes the vicious circle, where more and more states will see the need to protect them selves and claim the right to develop a nuclear arsenal.
In the six party talks, Washington offered everything they could think that Pyongyang would want politically and economically to give up their nukes. The only thing that seems to be left, is acceptance of North Korea as a sovereign nuclear state.
Lack of good options not willpower
Its easy to understand, from the list above that it is not due to the lack of will to solve this conflict but a lack of good options. US Diplomats has claimed their willingness to sit down at the table with North Korean representatives with one precondition: that Pyongyang stop the illegal launches. North Korea on the other hand could sit down ar the table but will not comply with the preconditions. Therefore, the talks will not come any further before one of the parts give up their claim. China sees to the US as the state with power to solve this conflict and visa versa, but with president Trump the world slowly turns its eyes to Beijing. It is for sure an interesting power triangle, Xi Jingping, Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un. The cooperation between Beijing and Washington is crucial and decisive for the situation, even though the relationship seems to develop in to an even more hostile relationship.
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