by James Trottier
September 26, 2017
Let us not confuse an escalating war of words between North Korea and the United States with an actual escalation towards war. The threats by both sides are meant as a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, war. However, the risk – which has existed since the Korean War – is that such threats can be misinterpreted by one or both sides and lead to inadvertent armed action. Hence the concern of Canada and the international community to de-escalate the rhetoric.
Donald Trump took to the podium last week at the UN General Assembly in a unique and extraordinary performance. I served as a diplomat at the Canadian Permanent Mission to the UN for four years and attended several General Assembly sessions but have never witnessed such an outburst from an American president and, rarely, from any other leader. In the end, however, it was bluster and bravado, attracting headlines and fraying nerves rather than an advance warning of imminent military action. Trump’s administration is governed by the same constraints in dealing with North Korea that have bedevilled his predecessors.
Despite musings from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis about a military option that does not entail catastrophic losses in South Korea and Japan, I know of no credible expert who believes there is any such option.
That the U.S. could destroy North Korea is not in doubt; that capacity has existed since the Korean War. However, apart from causing the deaths of millions of North Koreans, doing so would set in motion a chain of circumstances including the death of untold numbers of South Koreans and Japanese and many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans and other foreign residents in South Korea. It would also probably result in an intervention by China (which incidentally has an estimated 800,000 nationals in South Korea) and risk a full-scale war. Even during the Korean War itself, the American ability to destroy North Korea by nuclear attack existed but was never exercised – for reasons that still apply today.
The day governments seriously believe that the U.S. is about to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea is the day that, beginning with the U.S. but including Canada, EU countries, Australia and others, foreign citizens are evacuated from South Korea and governments issue advisories warning against travel to the region. It is telling that no country has significantly changed their travel advisories for South Korea in the present circumstances. Nor has the U.S. made any move to evacuate Americans from the region.
As for the North Koreans, they will continue to issue threats, of which they are past masters. The Trump threat of destruction has given them an excuse to up their own rhetoric. In the past, they have routinely threatened to turn Seoul and, in more recent years, Los Angeles, into seas of fire. That they could have done so to Seoul at any time has not been in doubt. That they have not done so speaks to their appreciation of the consequences of any such action, namely the ultimate destruction of the Kim regime and probably of North Korea as an independent country. As with the U.S., their threats are a substitute for military action.
The Trump threat of destruction has provided an excuse for the North Korean regime to up their rhetoric. Hence its musings about conducting a nuclear test in the Pacific (as opposed to the launching of missiles without nuclear warheads) which is unlikely for various reasons including doubts about its technological capacity to carry out such a test and recover useful data.
A halt to the North Korean nuclear program is a non-starter. An option that is still possible, however tenuous, is a freeze, but on terms that may not be acceptable to either side. Short of this, the international community will ultimately need to prepare itself for the reality of a nuclear North Korea, as it did in the past for a nuclear Soviet Union, China, Pakistan and India, among others.
In the immediate term, what the international community needs is an end to the escalating war of words.