1. Should there ever be a Third World War, it will probably take place in Korea. If on the other hand the United States and China were to reach an agreement on a new Asian and therefore global order, it would be because the Korean issue will also have been resolved. From whichever perspective one wishes to observe it, the peninsula bisected at the 38th parallel by an area with the highest concentration of weapons in the world – thus not ironically named the “Demilitarised Zone” – is northeast Asia’s keystone. It is a cornerstone on which tensions between the world’s greatest powers are off-loaded, powers that are all directly or indirectly deployed around that latitude. China is present, precariously separated from North Korea by the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, as is the United States with about 28.000 troops deployed to South Korea, proof of its rank as the resident power in continental Asia; then there is Russia, with its immense and fragile Far East ending with a 17 kilometre-long border with North Korea and finally Japan, the colonial power that annexed the entire peninsula between 1910 and 1945, impressing upon it permanent memories of hate.
The strip of mountainous land as wide as two-thirds of Italy and with a population almost as large as Germany’s, which geographically looks like a promontory of the Chinese empire thrown into the ocean and pointing towards the Japanese archipelago – “a shrimp among whales” – has lived in a suspended state since 1953. The armistice that provisionally put an end to the miniature world war known as the Korean War – in Chinese terms a “war of resistance against America” – has withstood the test of time. That said, rarely has it appeared to be so precarious.
As far as any prospect of a peaceful reunification is concerned, this is not plausible. There is no historical precedent of integration between two neighbouring countries, both claiming the right to the same nation, but totally different as far as their political regimes, ideological background and economic rankings are concerned (the gap between the two economies is calculated as being between 15:1 and 40:1 in favour of the South Koreans). Even their languages have become so different that this has complicated conversations between “compatriots”, so much so that when Koreans from the two shores meet they must use the words uri nara (our country) when referring to their homeland, which in the North is called Chosŏn and in the south, Hanguk. All in all, the border between the two Koreas is the widest in the world.
On the northern front, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a dynastic-military dictatorship commonly considered to be threateningly unpredictable, is now a nuclear power. It is thought to have up to twenty atomic weapons. According to alarmists, by 2020 it could be equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads capable of pulverising Los Angeles or San Francisco. There are, on the other hand, a number of imaginative experts on the “Kims’ kingdom” – and analysing a data free zone requires a significant amount of imagination – who believe in its imminent implosion. This thesis has been invoked since 1948, when the divided country was raised to the status of a nation by its founding father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, still the object of semi-divine worship.
On the southern front, the Republic of Korea, the more-or-less democratic eleventh largest economy on the planet, totally dependent on American military protection, is experiencing an explosive social-political crisis. The situation has been sealed by the scandal that obliged President Park Geun-hye to abdicate her powers after the country was shaken for weeks by the “Candle Light Protest”, a mobilisation without precedents in the country’s (sub)-national history. Seoul is experiencing a sede vacante. With tension at an ‘end of reign’ level, an intensification of provocations coming from P’yŏngyang and considering the uncertainty surrounding Trump-led America’s intentions, the fear with which South Koreans are accustomed to coexist could turn into paranoia. Or chilling impotence. In the objective eyes of an analyst, the famous Asian tiger of South Korea may initially appear to be less stable than North Korea.
2. For over sixty years the Korean peninsula has been the Cold War’s museum. Geopolitical time came to a standstill with the ceasefire. From Eisenhower to Trump, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, temporary abstention from war has been respected, with the exception of cyclical but contained explosions of hostility.
By definition every armistice ends with peace or a return to the battlefield. All the internal and external players sucked into the Korean conflict have so far tacitly accepted the status quo as inviolable. This, even when – as in the case of the two Koreas, both claiming sovereignty over the entire nation – they feel obliged to proclaim the opposite for domestic reasons or prestige. It would be a symptom of recklessness to now bet on the continuation of de facto equilibria anywhere on the planet, but above all in Korea.
However, depicting as stable the instability of the clash between Seoul and P’yŏngyang makes profound geopolitical sense. For the powers more closely involved, it would mean using a fig leaf to cover their respective strategies that are not always suited to public scrutiny. If the two Koreas did not exist one would have to invent them, and this applies in particular to the United States-China-Japan scalene triangle. Washington needs Seoul to mask its deployment of troops to South Korea as a guarantee against P’yŏngyang’s expansionist aims, while instead such a presence is needed in an anti-Chinese perspective. A precaution taken by the Number One in view of revisionism shown by the Number Two, busy weaving a network of influence in the Asian Pacific. Beijing depicts itself as allied with the dictator in P’yŏngyang, while cordially detesting him, because this provides China with a poisonous chip at the poker table shared with the United States, as well as warding off the scenario of a united Korea under American protection. In simple terms, China does not wish to share a border with the USA. As far as Tokyo is concerned, it must appear to side with Seoul, in spite of a total (reciprocal) lack of trust in order to avoid such a scenario from developing. This is also aimed at consolidating its ambiguous bilateral alliance with Washington, so far based on exchanging America’s strategic protection for Japan surrendering all neo-imperial ambitions – both hypotheses a great deal less certain today than they were during the Cold War.
Finally, all the players involved in this colourful collective performance share the certainty that a resumption of the Korean War, this time at an nuclear level, would have intolerable consequences. It would effectively reduce northeast Asia from being the main driving force of global growth to a place of de-development and despair, with devastating effects on the planet’s economy.
Like every geopolitical equilibrium, even the particularly unbalanced one created in northeast Asia during the bi-polar era, is subject to erosion caused by unpredictable dynamics. Over the last quarter of a century three paradigm shifts have occurred around the Koreas. In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union sanctioned the end of the Cold War and paved the way for a United States-China clash. During the early years of this century, the People’s Republic increased its geopolitical and economic size to what is required and sufficient to persuade Washington it is looking at a serious challenger for the imperial title and one that is all the more dangerous since it is also interdependent from a commercial and financial point of view.
China thereby instilled a few doubts in the U.S.’s east Asian partners, starting with Japan and South Korea, regards to the persistent validity of life insurance policies taken out with American power. Nowadays, the predominant assessment among apparatuses responsible for studying and adjusting the course of the American battleship is that Beijing is in a pre-crisis mode. The driving force for its growth is misfiring and its political-institutional order is being shaken by silent power struggles, which the more daring among the American “hawks” interpret as the anti-chamber for regime change or, better still, the disintegration of the Middle Kingdom. This assessment is dangerously symmetrical to that of Chinese neo-imperialists, as expressed by one of their famous academics to an American colleague, “Do you really believe that we will continue to support an international system we did not take part in creating? And specifically at a time of your decline?”.
For almost half a century American strategic ideas on China have been based on two schools of thought, embodied by two august experts, both aspiring centenarians; Henry Kissinger (born in 1923) and Andrew Marshall (1921). The first, a former man of the state and, as such, the architect in the early Seventies of the 20th century’s opening to Communist China in anti-Soviet terms, later an influential instigator, messenger or ventriloquist for whoever was in power, supports a “co-evolutionary” scenario; America and China (in order of power) can and must co-manage the planet. The second, raised in the Rand Corporation, then installed at the Pentagon as the legendary director of the Office of Net Assessment (1973-2015), had suggested, well before the Soviet Union’s suicide, that strategic planning should be secretly moved towards a clash with Communist China, at the time not yet an emerging superpower. The current verdict marks Marshall’s victory over Kissinger, based on a technical knock-out. This also because Yoda – as the great maestro Marshall is nicknamed by his followers – has raised a legion of analysts and decision-makers who are his spiritual children and grandchildren and are now disseminated in American security apparatuses, think tanks, industries and universities. Many of them see Trump’s America as marking the time for revenge, putting an end to Kissinger’s Bismarck-like diplomatic moves and Obama’s vagueness. Neither co-evolution nor containment; a rollback.
Communist China – the ideological brand name remains fundamental in the neo-Marshallian perception – will come to the same end as the USSR. And since it will not commit suicide, it must be accompanied to meet its fate by tightening around its neck an iron necklace, forged by the United States on a bilateral asymmetric basis with its most important regional “friends and allies”, from Japan to the albeit ambiguous South Korea, from Vietnam to Australia. All this with a special guest appearance made by Russia, released from its unspontaneous alignment with China resulting from the deplorable Ukrainian war. Hence, not the now-aborted Trans-Pacific Partnership, a strategic agreement masquerading as a trade deal created by Obama together with Asian-Pacific partners to contain Beijing, but a hub and spoke system; America as the central fulcrum to which the spokes connect one by one; hence regional players reduced to suffragans of the imperial metropolis. A reproduction a contrario of the Sino-centric imperial diagram in which barbarian entities were classified as Beijing’s tributary nations and treated as such by the Board of Rites.
Three are the objectives to be achieved in three stages. In the immediate future to the bolts of strategic alliances in northeast Asia must be tightened, starting with Japan and South Korea, where most of the U.S. Pacific Command’s armed forces are deployed, and extort trade concessions from Xi Jinping. Over the medium term, reduce China to a state in which it is no longer a threat and, lastly, thereby ensuring the Unites State’s hegemony in the Asian-Pacific so as to certify a second consecutive American century.
3. “We have a big problem that must urgently be addressed”. This warning filled with mysterious tension, which Obama informed Trump about on November 10th during their informal White House meeting and which was revealed by the president-elect with no further details, resulted in widespread curiosity. The dominant interpretation is that the president was referring to the threat posed by North Korea and in particular the intensification of nuclear tests, as well as Kim Jong-un’s regime’s increased ballistic capacity, which could soon have the United States’ west coast in its nuclear sights. Washington is not supposedly faced with any old rogue state, accustomed to calculating costs and benefits of its own perverse intentions, but a gang of heinous mad men against whom deterrence rules do not supposedly work. According to General Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor and the avant-garde of the faction that in the new administration theorises a religious war against the Muslim threat, it is a gang that allegedly belongs to a phantasmagorical international cabal together with Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela, determined to ride the wave of “radical Islam” in order to attack the hated West. This would close the circle of the existential risk agitating America since 9/11. Another terrorist attack in grand style, this time using an atomic weapon.
Looking beyond Flynn’s apocalyptic visions, apparently incompatible with Trump’s pragmatism, how real is the North Korean “big problem”? What (il)logic moves Kim Jong-un and his acolytes? Here is the answer to both questions; the threat posed by P’yŏngyang is a serious one and that certainly cruel regime is anything but insane. On the contrary, it is a model of Machiavellianism. Let us address the matter in greater depth.
North Korea needs nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. Hence it will never give them up. No nuclear power has ever been attacked by another country. The lessons imparted first by Saddam and then by Gadhafi, swept away by the Americans and their western allies because they had given up on the idea of equipping themselves with the ultimate weapon, are very much alive in P’yŏngyang. What dominates there is the feeling of being surrounded by real nuclear powers – China, Russia and the United States – or dormant ones capable of turning to the Bomb very quickly – Japan, but also South Korea and Taiwan. On the other hand, the first to nuclearize the Korean peninsula were the Americans, who in 1958-59 installed Honest John and Matador nuclear warhead missiles in South Korea, violating the armistice agreements. During the Cold War, the Pentagon’s plans included the use of tactical nuclear weapons within one hour of hostilities commencing (H+1), as soon as the mass of North Korean invaders had moved beyond the Demilitarised Zone. It was only in 1991 that Washington decided to withdraw atomic weapons from its South Korean satellite after pressure was applied by the Army, which preferred the use of conventional smart bombs recently experimented successfully in the Gulf. Furthermore, the Pentagon is ready to deploy a significant nuclear arsenal to South Korea at any given time. In South Korean military circles, and those of the authoritarian Right, there are discussions about the resumption of the nuclear project started twice during the Seventies, while Professor Song Dae-sung’s book Let’s Go Nuclear has become a best-seller and half the South Korean population agrees with his thesis.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal also has an economic function. Autarchic Korea is not self-sufficient. The ruling class lives a life of luxury, satisfying all whims, while most of the population, especially in the countryside, survives in relative poverty. At times despair comes, such as during the famine twenty years ago that caused two million deaths. Since 1990, during periods of acute food shortage, the regime has been able to cyclically stage effective military-diplomatic theatrics, performing nuclear tests and making amazing statements (“Seoul will vanish in a sea of fire!”), aimed at inducing the greater powers to provide aid in exchange for soon-to-be-broken promises to freeze its nuclear programme and then reorganise the same performance when necessary. The game is now all too obvious. And like Obama, it is very probable that Trump will not want to play.
Finally, uniting military strategy and economic tactics, the Bomb symbolises the regime’s political-ideological autonomy, outlined in the original doctrine of the chuch’e, promoted by Kim Il-sung and still in force. Of course that ritual appears to be increasingly meaningless. The state’s Confucian and nationalist roots, varnished with a few dashes of oriental-styled communism, are now challenged more or less secretly by increasingly large numbers of people. This occurs especially among the young, who often manage to get around regime-imposed barriers to foreign news – access to the Internet is reserved to the elites – and they use this knowledge to trade, trafficking in DVDs, that are not only musical, selling mobile phones, but also drugs and expensive goods. This is at times done in cooperation with corrupt officers or officials. The development of jangmadang, informal markets that allow about three North Koreans out of four to resist the harshness of the state economy, is opening a few chinks in the organisation of P’yŏngyang’s totalitarianism. However, there is a significant difference between this situation and certifying the regime’s imminent fall.
The dilemma holding back the North Korean oligarchy was summarised by Kim Jong-nam, the leader Kim Jong-un’s stepbrother who fell into disgrace after being arrested on May 1st, 2001 at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, from which he had hoped to leave and visit Disneyland. From his semi-exile in China, the other Kim said, “The North Korean ruling class has its hands tied. Without reforms, North Korea will collapse, and when such changes take place, the regime will collapse.”
4. The Korean issue is not therefore simply a peninsular dispute, nor is it just a symptom of North-Asian contests experiencing a state of anxiety caused by Washington-Beijing arm wrestling. It is an issue that concerns us all, since what is at stake is nuclear proliferation. Hence the planet’s survival. Envisage the following not totally unrealistic scenario. As a nuclear power with significant ballistic capability, North Korea wields the doctrine of a first strike against the United States. Competition between China and America heats up and the United States’ Asian partners, rightly or wrongly doubt that Washington is prepared to protect them from a Chinese or North Korean strategic threat by sacrificing an American metropolis in order to answer an attack against an ally.
At that point, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – in order of closeness to atomic capacity, deriving from the militarisation of civilian nuclear programmes – could choose to become real and no longer latent nuclear powers, thereby saturating the Asian strategic area, where every power worthy of the name would have its own atomic arsenal. This would also reopen the race to strategic rearmament at a global level.
The key to everything remains the credibility of the United States. Even before being sworn in, Trump has tried to alleviate Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese fears. Perhaps these countries had taken far too seriously his isolationist election campaign slogans, with which he even threatened the withdrawal of nuclear protection for Tōkyō and Seoul, not considering the primary interest of American strategic apparatuses, led by the Pentagon, to increase military deployment to the Asian-Pacific area. However, doubts concerning their American ally’s reliability remain strong among Asian partners. Taiwan and South Korea, for example, have observed with concern how comfortable Washington was with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Would the United States perhaps do the same were the Chinese to attack their “rebellious province” or North Korea attack Seoul? And many worriedly observed how Obama recanted on the Red Line – the use of chemical weapons by al-Asad as the spark for American retaliation – which he himself stated in Syria. Was it just a slip or a precedent? To this scenario one must add the concept of alliances repeatedly expressed by Trump, who in line with a robust American tradition, interprets them more as a means for partners to make use of the empire’s resources than as a power lever for Washington.
The same questions are circulating in Europe, where Trump’s scepticism regards to NATO – not an isolated opinion in the American establishment – is taken seriously. For months now there have been subterranean consultations between the main European chancelleries, led by Paris and Berlin, concerning the expediency of being equipped with a collective nuclear umbrella, starting with the French and British arsenals which amount to 450 warheads. In Germany, a country in which anti-nuclear sentiment is extremely strong (nine out of ten Germans oppose atomic weapons), the Pandora’s Box was recently opened by the head of the CDU-CSU representation in the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Roderich Kiesewetter, who said, “Even if the U.S. no longer wishes to guarantee Europe atomic security, we Europeans need a nuclear umbrella in any case”.
Considering the rampant fragmentation of the EU, the most likely outcome would be a German nuclear weapon. The issue has become a public debate in Germany, also addressed in authoritative newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Der Spiegel. At times this includes resuming the concept of France’s supremacy, according to an old idea put forward by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who supported the enlargement of the force de frappe to include the protection of the Federal Republic. The nuclear option is waved about in Germany by Russophobe currents, who fear Moscow’s expansionism and do not trust in America’s readiness to die for Berlin.
The most important historical legacy of the never-ending Korean War will perhaps be the incentive to atomic rearmament and hence the spreading of the absolute weapon, which in the current geopolitical chaos seems increasing less conditioned by the rules of deterrence and more and more oriented at mutating into a “normal” bomb, for possible “tactical” use. As Trump says, “If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?”