North Korea – war of words need not lead to real war



by James Trottier

Ottawa Citizen
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.

Image credit: Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
Support Canadian Global Affairs Institute Subscribe






Le Canada en mission au Mali
by Marchie Vastel (feat. Dave Perry & Jocelyn Coulon), Le Devoir, March 20, 2018

Should Canada risk soliders’ lives in its peacekeeping mission in Mali?
by Anna Marchia Tremonti (feat. Jocelyn Coulon), CBC The Current, March 20, 2018

Un engagement canadien au Mali “en deçà des attentes” selon Jocelyn Coulon
by Celine Galipeau (feat. Jocelyn Coulon), Radio-Canada, March 20, 2018

Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia includes ‘heavy assault’ vehicles
by Murray Brewster (feat. Dave Perry), CBC News, March 19, 2018

Roughly 250 Canadian troops are heading to Mali – what dangers will they face?
by Amanda Connolly (feat. Dave Perry), Global News, March 19, 2018



Support | Submit | Media Inquiries
Making sense of our complex world. | Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.
Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Suite 1800, 421-7th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada  T2P 4K9
Canadian Global Affairs Institute

8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada  K1N 5S6

Phone: (613) 288-2529 
2002-2018 Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Charitable Registration No.  87982 7913 RR0001