Last year, I used this column to argue for NATO to undertake a new role, and to guarantee proportionate responses against military targets for any regime anywhere in the world that violated international norms, such as the use of chemical weapons. I was therefore glad to see that Donald Trump appears to have instigated a similar rule with his strike against Bashar al-Assad’s Shayrat Airfield, even if it is currently a unilateral doctrine.
It is right that any regime should know that there will be a damaging response from the international community if it goes so far beyond what the world views as acceptable. If we can make this clear to regimes like Assad’s, they will be much less likely to take such actions in the first place, and lives can be saved. In situations like this, we know that intervention can work. However, they must be carried out calmly, with clear objectives, and undertaken in a way that reduces any potential negative consequences.
This Easter long weekend began with news that the Americans have sent what some in the media have referred to as an “Armada’” to the Korean peninsula, and Mike Pence arrived yesterday in South Korea to discuss what can be done. When Barack Obama left office, he told Trump that the biggest issue of his term would be North Korea, not Syria. It appears that the new President has taken this message to heart, and has switched his focus to the problem.
The reason for this heightened tension is that it is widely believed that North Korea is building up to its sixth nuclear test. It now appears that the 105th anniversary of the birth of their “Eternal Leader” Kim Il Sung has passed without any atomic celebrations, and that instead we saw a failed test of a long-range missile, but it is clear that North Korea remains committed to enhancing its nuclear capabilities.
It is to the international community’s shame that its regime already has the nuclear capabilities that it does. For some reason, the Kim dynasty has mainly been met with bewilderment and laughter rather than the outrage it deserves for enslaving the county’speople, and concern at the continuous development of their military. But it now seems that the world is finally dealing with North Korea with the seriousness that the issue requires, as the regime’s technical capabilities improves, and its determination to achieve being able to arm a long-range ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead only grows.
However, the North Korean situation differs vastly from Donald Trump’s attack on Assad’s airfields in Syria. Any actions taken against that country absolutely cannot be undertaken unilaterally.
First, because any strike against North Korea would be met with a strong retaliatory response. Even if the Americans are able to destroy the country’s widely-dispersed nuclear programme, we must remember that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is only 35 miles from the border, well within range of potentially devastating conventional strikes. And this is before you even consider other countries and allies in the region: Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be afraid of starting a wider war.
Second, it is unlikely that the North Korean leadership would change its behaviour: if anything, any attack woud be likely to make them more determined to have powerful enough weapons to ensure that no one would ever try and influence them militarily again. Therefore, any military action against North Korea would have to guarantee removing their ability to develop further nuclear weapons. The American Government has stated that regime change is not their aim, but it seems likely that such a major attack could well cause it.
And this leads to the third problem: if action leads to the removal of the Kim Jong Un, what comes next? North Korea poses unique problems. There is no political opposition and there is no civil society independent of the regime. The entire structure of the country and the whole state has been provided by Kim Il Sung’s dynasty for decades and the current leader’s grandfather is still revered as the Eternal Leader, despite having died 23 years ago.
It is a country with no private access to the internet or external sources of news, no opportunity for ordinary citizens to travel abroad, few foreign tourists allowed in, and no unsupervised interaction with locals if they are. Another leader may come forward from outside the current dynasty to replace them, but this would bring the prospect of factionalisation, and civil war would become a possibility. And if the state ultimately collapses, any transition to becoming a modern society would be a cataclysmic culture shock. Furthermore, it seems likely that many citizens would continue to idolise and remain loyal to the leaders that their lives have revolved around for as long as most can remember – whether or not they’re still alive.
It may well be that the international community is eventually forced to take military action to eliminate the threat to those countries that North Korea sees as its enemy. However, the entire region must be involved in crafting a solution, if it is to have a chance of success. Any military action against the country would be highly likely to create huge regional instability, economic disruption, as well as potential wider war and loss of life. Trump should beware of applying the lesson of Syria in North Korea: he cannot act alone.