Anybody watching and reading the news right now is likely being exposed to what might be the most tense confrontation the international community has had to deal with in recent months: the North Korean calls for war. For many, this may seem like the run up to an inevitable war; I have heard concerns that a war on the Korean peninsula could happen at any time. This is completely understandable, as North Korea is currently engaging on a strategy of brinkmanship to the extreme. But, as a student of international relations and foreign policy, I want to express my own firm belief on the matter: North Korea won’t do anything. There will be no war.
Recently China gave its vote in the UN Security Council for tightened sanctions against North Korea, following North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this year. This was the catalyst for North Korea’s current actions; they are now declaring their right to preemptively strike other countries with its nuclear arsenal, declaring that war with South Korea is ‘inevitable’, and ended its formal ceasefire with the South. These are all major escalations on the part of North Korea, but we must understand why they are doing this and what they seek out of it. The answers are not ‘war’.
First, we must remind ourselves that North Korea has recently had a change in its leader, and that Kim Jong Un is a young and fresh face in the North Korean political establishment. He must win over the support of the military and the other leaders within North Korea, as they control a very significant amount of power within the country. He does this by engaging in strong rhetoric and by demonstrating to the military and the rest of the world his toughness (the nuclear tests and the recent declarations, for example, are demonstrations of such). We must also keep in mind that North Korea is now ‘backed into a wall’ to a degree which it has never been before. It has always relied upon China for support and to provide a counterweight in the UN and in diplomatic talks against the United States and its allied powers. Now that China is siding with the United States against North Korea, North Korea has lost its only strategic ally in a region where it is surrounded by enemies.
With this in mind, North Korea is engaging in behavior which is entirely typical of and should be expected from a country which is backed into a wall and perceives itself surrounded by all sides. It is acting belligerent, making declarations of its strength and demonstrations of its nuclear capacity, so that it can try to swing the balance of power, or at least the perceived balance of power, back to its side. It is an entirely rational decision by the North Korean leadership to try to gain some breathing room at a time when they are being surrounded and contained. This can be seen in another country in our present day and time which feels the same way: Iran. Its no small wonder that the Iranian leadership keeps making calls for the destruction of Israel and pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Iran, like North Korea, is surrounded by its enemies on all sides and is also being backed into a corner by the international community through the UN sanctions.
Yet lets also keep in mind that North Korea is in absolutely no position to wage a war against the South, and they recognize that keenly along with us. The North Korean nuclear arsenal, if it really can be employed with any success, will be met with a major nuclear retaliation. As soon as North Korean troops cross the border into the South, the North Korean regime is doomed to be toppled. The North Korean leadership knows this, and rationally won’t take the final step of actually going to war because they want to preserve their own hold on power above anything else. The fact that the North hasn’t gone to war yet in the last 50 years says a lot about the rationality of the North Korean leadership and the fact that they recognize their inability to actually wage war.
To draw an analogy, the North is currently a school-yard pest who will kick, scream, shout, and throw rocks every once and a while to get attention and show off, but who knows that he can’t actually fight face to face with the bigger kids in the school-yard. He might be a pest, and will ‘talk the talk’, but when it comes down to it, he won’t ever get in a fight.
The difficulty with the current situation right now is the possibility for unintended escalation or miscalculation. At times of brinkmanship, even a minor action can spark a major escalation and then a conflict. Consider another case of brinkmanship, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nothing happened from it because both sides were rational actors just trying to push a conflict to the brink and emerge on top, but we came very close to a nuclear war; had any actor at that time miscalculated, war could very easily have broken out. Right now, North Korea has no plans to actually go to war, but a miscalculation or continued escalation on the part of the United States or by the North Koreans themselves can send the entire region into a conflict.
As such, the United States and the international community must approach the issue with extreme caution right now. We’re looking at a possible conflict which could erupt this year; if we’re careful enough, however, it will simply deescalate. The North Koreans are acting rationally and in what they see as their best interest. For them, these belligerent acts are what they see as the only way to get out of a situation where they see themselves backed up against a wall.