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November 30, 2022

North Korea: The danger of escalation

Early last week, North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK) – which is involved in a nuclear dispute with the U.S. that reminds us of the dangerous Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 – launched missiles that overflew Japan (a clear breach of sovereignty), so that Japanese authorities evacuated the population from the potential areas of ground impact. Also last week, namely on Thursday, in a response meant to remind the DPRK that it is basically playing with fire (read: war, Washington stating that “all options, including the military one, are on the table” to solve the crisis), an American – South Korean air fleet that included two U.S. Air Force B-1B supersonic bombers conducted live-fire drills simulating precision airstrikes on DPRK’s nuclear facilities, at a training site in South Korea. Of course, the said bombers did not carry nuclear payloads, and the exercise was meant to be a signal deterring the DPRK. The North Korean communist regime’s response came almost immediately. On Sunday, hence almost 72 hours later, a massive warhead was detonated, presented as the explosion of a hydrogen bomb, causing a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the area.

Undoubtedly, we are dealing with a historically unprecedented escalation of the confrontation on the edge of the nuclear abyss between the U.S. and the DPRK, which has recently experienced high points of tension (the most recent one between July 29 and August 14 this year). On the same day on which the DPRK detonated the hydrogen bomb, 3 September 2017, American President Donald Trump commented the latest North Korean provocation, presenting his opinions on Twitter but without hinting what the real response will be: “North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States. South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing! North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.” Proof of the American leadership’s preoccupation with this challenge is also the fact that, after the comments above (3 tweets), Trump returned several hours later, mentioning, first of all, that “I will be meeting General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea,” and after several minutes that “The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.”

Basically, we are in a situation of utmost gravity, in which not few experts consider that the only proper reaction to the provocations of the North is the use of force to check the DPRK’s accession to nuclear status and, in a way, to “normalise” a constant attitude of infringement of international legality, which could be mimicked by others too. Hence war. Of course, there are other opinions too, and in order to understand what the following days have in store for us we present the main scenarios identified in the analyses published so far. Firstly, it has to be said that, for most experts, it is of utmost importance to identify the goal that the North Korean communist regime seeks to attain through repeated nuclear provocations that have grown in frequency in recent months (13 missiles launches and nuclear tests in 2017, up until last Sunday). In our opinion, two possible scenarios relative to the intentions of the Kim Jung Un regime stand out among the plethora of analyses and stances. First, that Pyongyang is forcing the international community – by heating-up the current crisis to glowing-red levels – to recognise the DPRK’s status as nuclear power, this way the preponderant perception so far that the communist regime seeks the avoidance of regime change (see the events in Iraq, Afghanistan or, now ongoing, in Syria, in North Korea’s view) being far surpassed. The attainment of such a target would result – of course, at the end of some negotiations – in the conclusion of peace after the 1950-1953 war, both the U.S. and South Korea being technically at war with the DPRK, as well as in possible changes on the Korean peninsula (the setting up of a federation or something else concerning the future of the two Korean states). The second plausible scenario is that, in this manner, the DPRK is trying to convince the international community to drop the sanctions on Pyongyang, adopted through UN resolutions, and, in this way, to avoid an internal explosion that would mark the end of the communist regime. The latest UN resolution adopted last month mentions unprecedented sanctions adopted without opposition within the Security Council, endorsed also by China, the DPRK’s ally.

Undoubtedly, these two scenarios are worth considering if we ignore that there are other commentators and analysts who deem that the North Korean leader is a psychiatric case, since many of the actions he has taken since taking power – killing his step-brother and uncle – would justify such a hypothesis. A nuanced note: the possible implementation of the first scenario would give the DPRK a high margin and an upper hand in starting a process of reunification of the two Korean states in line with its own outlook.

As strange as it may seem, considering the disproportion of forces between the U.S. and the DPRK, Pyongyang is using the nuclear weapon and the secret that shrouds the North Korean communist regime’s atomic dossier – how many nuclear weapons it has, whether it has the technical capability to put miniaturised nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles etc. – to defy Washington first of all. Whether directly, as was the case two weeks ago when it threatened to “encircle” the island of Guam – U.S. territory – with missile strikes, an intention it gave up – nevertheless pointing out it is a postponement –, or indirectly, as was the case early last week when it launched missiles over Japan, a U.S. ally (the treaty obliges America to offer immediate support), Pyongyang is defying Washington, showing from whom it expects an answer in the current crisis.

There are some theories according to which there are secret negotiations between the two states and the higher frequency of DPRK provocations in the last week is a form of pressure Pyongyang is allegedly exerting on its negotiation interlocutors, in an effort to attain its goal. At the same time, it has been noted that the current U.S. strategy is to sow confusion in Pyongyang in what concerns Washington’s responses to the DPRK’s ever more frequent provocations. Thus, quoted are both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence General Jim Mattis, who hint through their statements that there is also a negotiated solution to the current crisis, while President Trump favours the military response (in his frequent tweets).

The other side, Pyongyang, “persistently and craftily pursues its drive to acquire nuclear-armed ICBMs while stopping just short of provocations that might demand some kind of U.S. military response.” In the asymmetric duel between the U.S. and Pyongyang there are however other components and great powers involved, which add major risk factors to the current crisis and which need to be explained. We are talking about the position of China but also the position of Japan and South Korea, not to mention another major player that made its presence known the other days through the flight of a nuclear-capable bomber through the crisis area – Russia. In his latest posting on Twitter (September 3), before this article was published, D. Trump writes: “The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.” It is probably the thing the DPRK fears the most: complete international isolation and internal implosion.

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