Thinking the Unthinkable: Conflict in the Korean Peninsula

Note: This piece is meant to highlight the risks involved, and is deliberately speculative.

Originally written in July 2017

North Korea’s test-launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) crosses a red-line. If it is successful in miniaturising a nuclear bomb, then war — even a short conflict will become nearly inevitable. The ICBM test moves us towards a dangerous phase transition in the world. This moves us closer towards a military confrontation than ever before.

Despite its poverty, North Korea is still able to develop a ballistic missile programme, and a nuclear weapons development programme. China, which is North Korea’s lifeline, continues to support it. China continues to provide minimal support for the regime by supplying energy. China itself is a hostage to North Korea — it fears the collapse of the North Korean regime and the influx of millions of migrants/refugees crossing the Yalu River. It does not want a North Korea regime collapse out of concern for a reunification on South Korea/American terms. And so, China continues to provide some support to North Korea, while unable to truly control the behaviour of Kim Jong Un or its military regime. And so we come to this day in 2017. By sheer grit or perseverance, even economic scarcity or isolation has not stopped North Korea from developing both missiles and nuclear weapons.

And this is where we are as a result — a regime that is now able to threaten a large part of the world. It already has short-range and intermediate range missiles that can harm American forces in South Korea and Japan. With the new missiles, it can now threaten Alaska and Guam and a large part of Southeast Asia.

The Korean Peninsula crisis has reached a new stage of provocation. The rest of this piece attempts to play out a sequence of events.

Imagine with me now that a North Korea is getting ready to fire another missile for a test. South Korea rushes to evacuate civilians to Seoul. The missile launches. It seems to be heading towards Japan. A captain on a Japanese navy ship, armed with the Aegis system and the Standard Missile, launches its missile in self-defence. The intercept is successful, and Japan is safe.

Or consider if the North Korean missile lands in the seas very close to the Japanese home islands?

Now, would that be considered an act of war?

North Korean leaders consider the shootdown as an act of war, with satellite surveillance suggesting a large scale mobilisation of man and machinery. China puts its troops on the border of the Yalu River. Russia activates its military in the Far East district.

Perhaps the missile’s splashdown in the ocean creates the need for some kind of retaliatory military action, targeted at the North Korean missile launch sites. And if the North Koreans are getting prepared for that outcome?

What happens then? Is deescalation still possible? North Korean leaders cannot be seen to lose face for the legitimacy of their rule and their regime.

North Korean leaders know that if they proceed with an armed conflict, their military will be destroyed in days by American-ROK-Japan forces. China knows that too, and readies the refugee camps that will be needed as North Korean civilians rush towards China. Both Russia and China DO NOT WANT American forces any nearer towards their borders.

What then? If North Korean leaders proceeds with a conflict, they will launch their remaining missiles and fire their artillery batteries towards Seoul and associated American facilities across South Korea and Japan. Thousands, if not millions, of civilians will die in Seoul if they cannot evacuate in time, if Seoul is even evacuated in the first place. Some of the military bases in Seoul will be unusable. The missile defense systems will intercept a few; some of the North Korean missiles will fail in-flight. Within the next few hours, however, strategic bombers and cruise missiles from the remaining US/ROK/Japanese ships and aircraft will destroy the North Korean military.

Chinese troops might enter North Korea “at the request of the North Korean leadership” to prevent US forces from advancing further towards Pyongyang. Chinese/Russian/US special forces and support units will rush towards known nuclear sites to secure the material, and to the missile development sites to either capture or destroy remaining equipment. The Chinese might install a new North Korean leader, with a permanent Chinese military presence. The US will then head back towards the DMZ.

And this would be the best-case scenario of a limited conflict. Millions will die on the peninsula, coming mainly from the North Korean military and from the victims of the initial North Korean bombardment on the South.

The other scenarios involving a direct clash between PRC and the American military — will all be far worse. And the worst of all, though unlikely, will involve a nuclear exchange between America and Russia — unlikely because I can’t quite see Russia having a direct stake in this conflict, and also because Russia’s nuclear threat will deter Americans from pushing further into North Korean or PRC territory.

So this is sadly, where we are in the world, with the rest of 2017 before us. I truly, truly hope that it will not come to this, but the prospect of peace dims with North Korean provocations. How long can the US be seen to accept this new state of affairs?

China must now be seen to change North Korea’s policy, and North Korea must find some way be seen to destroy or halt both its ballistic missile programme and its nuclear weapons programme while remaining the legitimacy of their rule.

Or we go back to the status quo, and continue as if this is just another deliberately provocative move. But will the political leadership of the United States be seen to accept the risk of people getting hurt in Alaska?

Or in more transformative terms — that North Korea be accepted as a nuclear power. This path sets off another chain of events in east Asia. The Non-Proliferation Treaty will be seen to have degraded tremendously, and every country that has the resources will want to develop nuclear weapons in the same way the North Koreans have done it — quietly and determinedly. This path leads towards more countries getting nuclear weapons — South Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Germany, Poland, Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and on and on.

For these reasons, the North Korean ICBM is no longer an ordinary missile test, like the others. It could come to represent a phase transition in the state of affairs.

Note: This piece is meant to highlight the risks involved, and is deliberately speculative.