Beware of the nuclear risk

24.11.10 Publication:

It is tempting to regard the firing of artillery shells at an island on the other side of the world as unimportant. That temptation is especially strong when the culprit is North Korea, a country that has a long record of nasty actions that turn out to be a kind of brinkmanship, a form of negotiation. The Korean war of 1950-53 took place a long time ago, even if no peace settlement has ever actually been signed. Yet those temptations should be resisted. These North Korean actions really are dangerous. In fact, they may prove to be one of the biggest threats to world peace and prosperity in our time.

North Korea, described traditionally as “the hermit kingdom”, is such a closed, secretive country that the outside world knows remarkably little about what is going on there. We know that this Stalinist dictatorship, established in the dying days of the second world war by a Korean guerrilla leader, Kim Il-sung, and now led by his elderly son, Kim Jong-il, is poor and suffers frequent famines, but is nevertheless the most militarised nation on Earth. We also know that it has tested nuclear weapons, using technology originally supplied by China and more recently bought from A.Q. Khan, the renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist. We know that its only close ally is China, though even China seems to hold its nose when dealing with it.

Beyond that, we know precious little. Three recent events should, however, have caught our attention. One was the sinking in March by North Korean torpedoes of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The second was the official announcement during the summer that Kim Jong-Il will eventually be succeeded by one of his younger sons, Kim Jong-eun, about whom virtually nothing is known except that he is just 26 or 27 years old. The aim is thus to perpetuate the communist world’s only ever family dynasty. The third occurred just a couple of days ago: an American nuclear scientist reported that he had been shown round a previously secret, and apparently modern, uranium-enrichment facility, the sort required for the production of nuclear weapons.

After those events comes the fourth: the shelling on Tuesday of Yeonpyong Island, which is off the west coast of South Korea, just near the disputed border with the North. It is not yet known how many of the 1,300 residents might have been killed. The South Koreans returned the fire, scrambled fighter jets and declared a high state of military alert.

So what should we in Europe make of this? There is a relatively sanguine explanation. But there is also a more worrying explanation that could lead to a highly dangerous scenario, a scenario capable of leading to the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945 and of bringing America and China into a direct confrontation.

The sanguine explanation is linked to the announcement of the younger Kim as the anointed successor as the North’s leader. On this theory, the young man has no power base or experience, and so needs to show his toughness and determination in order to build support for himself in the North Korean military. Thus, sinking warships, unveiling secret enrichment plants and shelling islands are acts of bravado. They are deadly and worrying, but need not lead any further, any more than the much worse acts ordered by Kim Il-sung in the 1980s, such as the bombing in Burma’s capital Rangoon that killed most of the visiting South Korean cabinet or the guerrilla raid on the South Korean president’s residence, the Blue House, led to actual war. Such acts just have to be endured and, where possible, deterred.

Let us hope that this proves correct. But hoping for the best is not a good way to conduct foreign and security policy. So we should also imagine the worse things that could happen, or which could explain what is going on.

The alternative explanation is also tied to the succession, but has a less calming conclusion. The end of Kim Jong-il’s reign and the announcement of his young and untested successor may well be provoking these signs of aggression. But they could be occurring not just as acts of bravado but as part of a more desperate effort to maintain a weakening regime or to avert a serious internal power struggle. In that case, they might not just fizzle out. They could form part of an escalating confrontation with South Korea and most probably with the United States.

Two crucial questions then follow: how to respond, if more and more people are killed by North Korean weaponry? And how, amid such a confrontation, to handle relations with China?

The initial answer to the first question is, as with the sinking of the Cheonan, to complain within the United Nations. But the more shells that fly and the more people that die, the harder it will be to stop there and to avoid the pressure to retaliate. In a battle of retaliations, it is easy to imagine how matters could escalate out of control, even to the point of the North Koreans threatening to use, or even using, nuclear weapons. The ultimate bluff would then be called: whether in response to the killing of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, the United States is willing to use nuclear weapons to punish North Korea, as it has always pledged to do.

Then, we must think of China. How might it respond amid a battle of retaliations? It noticeably failed to condemn North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan in March. It always says it is favour of peace, calm and stability. But also it appears to prefer to keep North Korea as an ally, as a buffer state on its own eastern border. If the battle escalates, it will have to choose which policy it really wants to preserve, peace or alliance. One reason why it is possible to imagine the North Koreans using their nuclear threat is because they think America would not dare to retaliate, knowing that China stands behind the Kim dynasty.

Does it, even when it becomes dangerously aggressive? And what would it do if the regime were to collapse, amid an internal civil war? We could be about to find out.