The United States and South Korea launched the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise several days ago on the Korean Peninsula despite North Korea’s warning of a “merciless strike” issued ahead of the planned drills. The parties have long been exchanging heated words. In early August, Pyongyang said it would deliver a strike at Guam if provoked by the United States, while President Donald Trump said North Korea’s threats would be “met with fire and fury.” Will this war of words lead to a second no-win Korean war? Alexander Vorontsov, Head of the Korea and Mongolia Department/Korea Section, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, talked to valdaiclub.com about the possible future of the conflict.
It is clear that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is volatile. When US-North Korean tensions spiked in early August, the sides came alarmingly close to crossing the red line. The war is unlikely to begin soon, but the international trends of the past decade regarding the Korean Peninsula show that the crisis will likely flare up again and again.
The US Goal: To Destroy North Korea
The crisis is rooted in the unsettled US-North Korean relations. The United States has used a host of pretexts to refuse to normalize relations with Pyongyang or to replace the 1953 armistice agreement, which stopped hostilities, with a permanent peace treaty. After so many decades relations between the two countries are still governed by this obsolete treaty.
Why does the United States refuse to recognize North Korea and sign a peace treaty or any other agreement to reliably protect peace on the peninsula? Washington has refused to hold an equal and constructive dialogue with Pyongyang because its main goal is to destroy North Korea in any way possible.
The US' policy towards North Korea, which Pyongyang has described as hostile, is aimed at liquidating North Korea either peacefully, through economic measures, or, if they fail, by means of a war.
The price of the military option would be prohibitively high. Washington is certainly aware of this, or else it would have long destroyed the North Korean regime as it has done in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.
However, North Korea’s military potential is much bigger than the potential of Yugoslavia, Syria or Iraq. Also, North Koreans are resolved to go to the bitter end in defense of their country and have placed the stake on the development of the nuclear missile technology. The latter is Washington’s biggest concern, although it has been warned that North Korea is working hard to create a nuclear missile shield.
Many other countries have a similar or even better nuclear missile capability. Their missiles are capable of reaching the US mainland, yet Washington does not view this as a clear and imminent threat. But when North Korea made a nuclear bomb, the first US reaction was to consider a strike. Wouldn’t it be more logical to hold talks to normalize relations? This would guarantee that North Korean nuclear missiles, if they are produced, would not be launched at US targets.
However, Washington has so far refused to consider any diplomatic solution. It says openly that now is a good time for strengthening sanctions, not for talks.
Having rejected a military solution, the United States has instead focused on strengthening sanctions. It hopes to weaken North Korea with sanctions and pressure, forcing it to collapse so that South Korea would occupy the whole of the peninsula and remain a military and political ally of the United States.
Many in the mainstream media and the US establishment see North Korea’s total isolation and blockade as the best solution. Not a single US dollar must reach the country, China must shut off the oil pipeline to North Korea to starve the country of energy resources, and vessels must be prohibited from leaving North Korean ports.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said more than once that the United States has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of the peninsula. But the US policy towards North Korea is clearly aimed at its collapse and regime change.
North Koreans say that they judge Americans by their actions rather than words. They describe US actions as a hostile policy and say that the only option in this situation is to build up their nuclear missile capability and to strengthen their defenses.
Embargo, Pearl Harbor and Guam
The United States introduced a similar embargo against Japan in 1941. It did not intend to attack Japan but hoped to tie a noose around its neck so as to pressure and influence Japan. The Japanese reply came as a complete surprise: Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to the Pacific War.
North Korea’s statement on plans for attacking Guam in response to possible US provocations, made in early August, is a clear warning. Hopefully, this acute and dangerous crisis, which can be compared to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when a Soviet-US confrontation almost started the third world war, will encourage the sides to resume talks.
A Second Korean War
The worst-case scenario clearly includes a full-scale military conflict, the second Korean war that will have extremely tragic consequences. There will be no winners in this war.
Americans are confident of the victory of the US-South Korean alliance. But the United States is located far away from the potential theater of war and hence relatively safe, while South Korea will be devastated in the potential conflict. Seoul will be the first target to be destroyed by North Korea’s conventional artillery systems, which are deployed in close proximity to the city. This proximity is one of the main factors deterring an attack on North Korea. There are 23 operating and several suspended nuclear reactors in South Korea and several nuclear facilities in North Korea. These reactors could become the random targets of conventional attacks, which would result in a Chernobyl-scale tragedy.
The first Korean War, which began as an internal conflict, quickly became internationalized. History is likely to repeat itself again in case of a second Korean war.
Precision Weapons Defy Boundaries
A large-scale conflict between the two Koreas will also affect neighboring countries. During the first Korean War, in which the Soviet Union was not officially involved, the Americans bombed a Soviet military base in the Primorye Territory “by mistake.” This could have provoked the Soviet Union into entering the war, because we had every reason for delivering a strike in response. But level-headed politicians in the Soviet Union and the United States prevented the escalation. The Americans offered an apology and financial compensation.
During the Iraq War, the much-touted US precision weapons hit targets in all the neighboring countries. There is no guarantee that the missiles that are fired at North Korea will not overfly the border into Russia.
Russia has a short land border with North Korea, only 17.5 kilometers, while China’s border is 1,352 km and hence, China has more causes for concern. China has recently announced, although unofficially, that if North Korea delivered the first strike, China would not defend it, but it would prevent a regime change in case of a military attack on North Korea.
South Koreans don’t want to perish in the war either. When the Americans said they were ready to attack North Korea, Japanese and South Korean delegates at various conferences asked their American colleagues if the United States was willing to sacrifice them to protect their own security.
In short, the consequences of the second Korean war could be tragic both for the Korean Peninsula and the adjacent states. This is why the neighboring states, including Russia, are urging a peaceful solution to the Korean problem. Russia does not accept North Korea’s nuclear status, but it has pointed out that the North Korean nuclear issue must be settled exclusively through negotiations.