A US-North Korea war is highly unlikely. What is likely is status quo – vibrating waves of security tensions, sanctions, and South Korea and Japan’s whiny diplomacy to tell on North Korea to the US. As much as the world is entertained by Trump’s loud rhetoric that the US will unilaterally take care of the North Korean problem, the stakes are too high for China, South Korea and Japan to allow US attack on North Korea. Perhaps the only agenda common to China, South Korea and Japan right now on this matter is that none of them wants a war in the region.
When it comes to North Korea, we’re talking about a regime that:
- thrives on the nation’s fear of the regime;
- is not accountable to the nation for its actions;
- will not hesitate to starve the nation just to be able to wage a war, if it must;
And yet it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un wants to start war with the US. The dictator is brandishing threats against the US and its two Asian allies in the region to likely seek the least compromised peace treaty with the US. The regime would not see itself gaining in a peace negotiation unless it can project formidable military capability. Sustaining the regime is undoubtedly Kim’s biggest priority and going into a war with the US is his least likely option.
The US unilateral strikes on North Korea will likely anger Japan and South Korea more than China as the two Asian countries will have to bear the brunt of a North Korean retaliation. The safety of South Koreans and Japanese are as important as that of the US, not to mention that there are 29,000 and 50,000 US troops in South Korea and Japan respectively. Besides, North Korea has massed artillery and missile capability adjacent to the demilitarized zone, close to South Korea. It has been estimated that in this scenario alone, North Korea could potentially cause 100,000 casualties in South Korea.
China, on the other hand, has remained ambivalent whether or not it will defend North Korea in the event of a military conflict. According to the 1961 Sino North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression toward North Korea. But the Asian superpower has its own priorities in the region and can likely adopt other means to stop the supposed war between the US and North Korea. China’s support to North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953). Since then, China has provided political and economic backing to the North Korean regimes. But relations between the two countries have strained over the years since North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beijing has also supported sanctions from UN Security Council Resolutions and implemented new trade sanctions including reduced energy supplies to North Korea and has called for denuclearization talks. But China is also known to have stopped international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China’s support to North Korea ensures a buffer between China and democratic South Korea, home to around 29,000 US troops and marines. Also, the apprehension of hundred of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China in the event of an unstable North Korea is a huge concern for Beijing. It is highly likely that China will want North Korea’s stability, which, otherwise, will jeopardize China’s strategic buffer and bring US troops too close for comfort.
While Trump has been urging China to do more to confront North Korea, the US has also sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, heightening concerns in China. China is worried that North Korea’s test of military hardware could provoke a strong response from Washington. Amidst the tension, China has sought Russia’s help to cool tensions over North Korea. Russia has also warned North Korea that Kim’s threats to deliver preemptive nuclear strikes could create a legal ground for the use of military force against the country.
There is a realistic possibility that the US does not know exactly what North Korean nuclear capability is as Kim’s threats have rapidly escalated US concerns. But the US ought to know that North Korea’s military capability is sufficient to annihilate millions in South Korea and Japan, should a war break out between the US and North Korea. That North Korea will be smashed in retaliation cannot be a consolation or measure of success in this war.
The US has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits. Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior. But the only likely power to influence North Korea is China. Pressing China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear arms is, however, ineffective, rather pushing China to make sure that North Korea does not use them is a reasonable way forward. It is almost certain that Beijing will actively seek to stop a supposed US strike on North Korea. This could be through attempts to force North Korea to negotiate. If that fails and a war is imminent, China is likely to deploy troops on the line in North Korea to dissuade the US from striking. It’s the same strategy that the US adopts as it stations troops in South Korea and Poland. The Chinese forces in North Korea would then also be in a position to force a coup and install an alternative government to the Kim regime, which ensures that North Korea survives and Chinese priorities in the region are served.
The lynchpin of this assessment is that Kim Jong Un is a rational actor in this matter. It is likely that he will not lose sight of his need to sustain his regime. With that in perspective, tensions will still prevail but the likelihood of a war in the region is remote.
World leaders on Friday reacted with anger after North Korea carried out its fifth, and reportedly biggest, nuclear test.
The latest test was announced on state TV after a 5.3 magnitude tremor was detected near the Punggye-ri underground nuclear site. Estimates of the explosive yield of the latest blast have varied, with South Korea’s military reporting that it was about 10 kilotonnes, enough to make it the North’s “strongest nuclear test ever.” Other experts have disclosed that initial indications suggest 20 kilotonnes or more. The bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in 1045 had a yield of about 15 kilotonnes.
In its statement announcing the underground test, North Korea disclosed that it was aimed at further developing the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads so that they could be mounted on ballistic missiles. In its statement, the North disclosed that it could not produce “at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.” While the North ahs previously made claims on “miniaturised” nuclear warheads, they have never been independently confirmed. North Korea also expressed anger at the “racket of threat and sanctions…kicked up by the US-led hostile forces” to deny a “sovereign state’s exercise of the right to self-defense.” The country has also been angered by a US and South Korean plan to install an anti-missile defense system in the South and by the allies’ massive annual joint military exercises, which are still taking place. The test comes on the country’s National Day, which celebrates the founding of the current regime and which is often used in order to show its military strength.
Shortly after the confirmation of the nuclear test, South Korea accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of “maniacal recklessness,” adding that “such provocation will further accelerate its path to self-destruction.” China also “firmly opposed” the test, while Japan “protested adamantly,” adding that North Korea is an “outlaw nation in the neighbourhood.” Russia disclosed in a statement “we insist that the North Korean side stop its dangerous escapades and unconditionally implement all resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile the United States warned of “serious consequences,” including “new sanctions,” with President Barack Obama stating that he had agreed with South Korea and Japan to work with the UN Security Council “to vigorously implement existing measures imposed in previous resolutions, and to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions.” The United Nations Security Council is due to meet later behind closed doors in order to discuss the issue. Such nuclear tests are banned by the UN, however this is Pyongyang’s second test in 2016.
Since its first test in 2006, the isolated communist country has been targeted by five sets of UN sanctions. Talks involving world and regional powers have failed to rein in the North’s nuclear programme. In recent months, the North has conducted a series of ballistic missile launches and has in the past often stated that its aim is to hit US targets. The North’s recent actions have tested its relations with its only ally, China. China condemned January’s test and repeated that on Friday after the latest. China’s foreign ministry stated that it would lodge a diplomatic protest and urged North Korea to avoid further action that would worsen the situation. Analysts have also reported that Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is increasingly becoming aggressive.
Over the past week, tensions have continued to mount between North and South Korea, in the wake of Pyongyang’s recent rocket and nuclear tests.
On 11 February, North Korea vowed to cut two key communication hotlines with the South. The latest move comes after Seoul suspended its operations at the jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex in the North. Kaesong is one of the last points of co-operation between the two Koreas and a key source of revenue for Pyongyang. The North has called the shutdown “a declaration of war” and has designated Kaesong as a military zone. Seoul meanwhile has stated that the suspension is aimed at cutting off money, which the North uses for nuclear and missile development. On Thursday, Pyongyang also vowed to seize the assets of South Korean companies in Kaesong, and said that all workers from the South had to leave by 17:30 local time (08:30 GMT). South Korean companies had already started withdrawing managers, equipment and stock after Seoul announced the suspension. However according to sources, some South Korean workers were still in Kaesong after the deadline, stating that they had been instructed to wait for further instructions from South Korean officials.
North Korea previously cut communication hotlines with the South in 2013, however it reopened them after relations between the two countries improved. The hotlines, which are intended to defuse dangerous military situation, include one used by the military and another used to communicate with the United Nations Command at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. A third hotline is maintained by the Red Cross.
Last month, Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test, while on Sunday (7 February), it launched a satellite into space. Both moves have drawn international condemnation.
The latest showdown between the two Koreas comes as the United States Senate voted unanimously in favor of tougher sanctions against North Korea. The draft legislation targets any person or entity trading or financing anything related to weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms proliferation, North Korea’s rocket programme, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, human rights abuses, activities that threaten US cyber security, and the import of luxury goods. While all were already sanctioned, the latest measures aim to tighten the restrictions. The bill also authorities US $50 million for radio broadcasts into North Korea and humanitarian aid programmes. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill. The two will now have to be reconciled into a final measure, which will need to be signed of by President Barack Obama.
High level negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang have eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where the possibility of a military clash has loomed large since a rare exchange of fire across the border late last week.
In recent weeks relations between the two states have became increasingly hostile. Earlier this month, two members of a South Korean border patrol were seriously injured in a mine blast, an incident described by Seoul as a cowardly act of provocation which merited “harsh” retaliation. Pyongyang was similarly incensed by the commencement of joint military exercises between South Korea and the US – an annual event which the North believes is preparation for war and the eventual occupation of their capital.
These exercises were temporarily suspended after an exchange of artillery fire across the border on Thursday 20 August. According to South Korea’s defence ministry, shortly before 4pm local time, a single North Korean artillery shell was fired across the border. Minutes later, this was followed by several more shells which fell harmlessly into the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). In retaliation, South Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds back across the border while placing its troops on maximum alert and ordering the residents of Yeoncheon county to evacuate their homes. So far no one from either side of the border is reported to have been injured in this exchange of fire.
After several troubling days, the standoff ended earlier today when an agreement was reached by negotiators in Panmunjom, an abandoned village north of the Military Demarcation Line where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. Talks began on Saturday evening after Seoul passed a deadline imposed by Pyongyang to end propaganda broadcasts across the border or face the possibility of military action. The South eventually agreed to this demand and in turn, the North agreed to voice its regret over the injuries sustained by the two South Korean soldiers. Former South Korean diplomat and current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has congratulated both sides for speedily resolving the crisis before it was allowed to escalate and expressed the hope that the two countries could use this decision as a springboard to solve other problems which affect the troubled peninsula.
As of 11 June 2015, 122 laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus have been reported by the South Korean health ministry, including 10 fatalities, making it the largest outbreak of MERS outside the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past three weeks, more than 3,800 people have been placed under quarantine, 641 of whom have been released after testing negative for MERS. For those infected during either the first or the second wave of the outbreak, the virus’s maximum two week incubation period has elapsed, a fact which has caused health officials to speculate that the disease has already peaked. Whether it has or not will depend on whether the containment measures adopted by the South Korean government were able to identify, isolate and treat those who had come into contact with the disease.
First identified in humans in September 2012, MERS is a viral respiratory illness from the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the disease that struck China in 2003, infecting more than 5,300 people and killing 349 nationwide. There is no vaccine for MERS and doctors do not entirely understand how it is spread, except that it appears to be a zoonotic disease passed to humans from infected camels and bats. Most people infected with MERS become unwell quickly, experiencing fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and muscle pain. Like other respiratory infections, it is not always possible to identify patients who have contracted MERS, as they may present with a range of non-specific symptoms in the early stages of the disease.
President Park Geun-hye’s government has been criticised for its failure to respond more swiftly to the outbreak of the disease and to identify “patient zero”: the 68-year old South Korean who returned home after an eight day trip to the Middle East where he had developed a cough and fever. After seeking treatment from four different health care facilities, the index patient was eventually hospitalised in Pyeongtaek, a city 65 kilometres southwest of Seoul. While refusing to name the specific hospitals and clinics visited by the patient, South Korean health authorities have confirmed that MERS cases were subsequently reported in three of the four institutions in question.
While health officials remain optimistic about containing the outbreak, its effect on South Korea’s economy is likely to have more far-reaching consequences. In what the Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol described as a “pre-emptive more to contain the economic fallout from MERS”, interest rates have been lowered by a quarter of a percentage point to 1.5 percent. While precautionary measures such as these are doubtless in order, their effects have yet to be felt. Consumer confidence has been noticeably shaken by the virus’s spread and South Korean businesses, particularly those in hospitality and retail, have reported a sharp decline in sales. Tourism and international business has likewise been effected, with over 54,000 foreign travellers cancelling their plans to visit South Korea this month.
As the situation in South Korea continues to develop, concerns have been raised by health care professionals over MERS potential to become a global threat. While MERS is considered to be a potential pandemic threat, it seems unlikely that this particular outbreak will take on such catastrophic proportions. First, MERS is not a human virus. While it can be contracted by humans from infected animals, it is not highly contagious; in order for it to go pandemic – to pose an existential threat to members of the community – it would need to mutate. Second, the outbreak is comparatively small and mostly centred on hospitals and clinics. Although MERS spreads poorly between people, medical procedures and equipment, such as respirators, may aerosolise the virus from the lungs and infect people nearby. As a situation like this is unlikely to arise outside of a hospital setting, the spread of the disease is likely to be slow and once detected, more easily contained. Third, MERS is not SARS. While related, these two diseases differ in one important respect: SARS had developed the ability to be easily spread between people while MERS has not. Whether MERS will at some point in the future undergo genetic mutation enabling it to infect humans more easily is, at this point, mere speculation.