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Why war with North Korea may be the only alternative

By Simon Louie - posted Thursday, 4 May 2017


On Saturday April 29th, it was reported that North Korea launched yet another missile from Bukchang in the South Pyeongan province. This has been the second failed launch in two weeks, and is yet another example of the North's defiance towards the international community.

With the election of Donald Trump it can be seen that the era of strategic patience towards North Korea has come to its end. North Korea has continually thumbed its nose at the rest of the world - as early as 1992, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported inconsistencies in North Korea's plutonium production. In 1994 under the Agreed Framework, the North was supposed to halt its nuclear program, which it subsequently reneged on. President Bill Clinton had been tempted to bomb the North in 1994, but considered the cost too high. The subsequent six party talks (involving North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and America), which began in 2003 when North Korea formally removed itself from the Non-proliferation Treaty, made no progress in getting North Korea to stop work on developing nuclear weapons, and indeed the North simply used the talks to buy time, and gain aid and monetary assistance from South Korea, during the latter's failed 'Sunshine policy,' which tried to change the behaviour of North Korea.

The world is now at a very, very dangerous point. Whilst North Korea does not currently have a missile that can hit Australia or the United States, according to former CIA officer Dennis Wilder it appears that within four years it will have this capability. Part of the reason military action against North Korea has not been taken earlier is the very real fear that Seoul, with its population of over 25 million people, could suffer over one hundred thousand casualties by an attack from North Korea in only a few days. From North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's perspective, having nuclear weapons is perfectly rational, as they are the ultimate guarantor of his regime's survival-he need only look at what happened to Muammar Guddafi and Saddam Hussein to realise that they are the ultimate deterrent to being attacked.

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History has shown that the North Korean regime is both outwardly aggressive and cannot be trusted to keep its word. In 1969 North Korea killed 31 American sailors by shooting down a spy plane. At the time President Richard Nixon considered attacking North Korea, but decided against retaliation. It must be remembered that there was nearly military action taken in 2010 when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island killing four people and wounding nineteen. Kim Jong-Un has shown himself to be a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator, ordering the assassination of his half-brother and killing off those in his inner realm whom he perceives a threat to his rule.

The United States has responded with the deployment of the THAAD missile system in South Korea, designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Yet despite its deployment, THAAD is not an ultimate guarantor of security. It is indeed possible that Japan itself may build nuclear weapons in response - and were that to happen, then this would set off an arms race across Asia, as China would build more weapons in turn, and by extension countries such as India already uneasy with China's rise in the region would probably respond with building more nuclear weapons of their own. Such a chain of events would bring into question the entire NPT framework, and would serve to heighten tensions in our region. It would also show that the United States was ineffective in countering rogue regimes, and lead to even more global instability in our already troubled world as more US allies throughout the world question the ability of America to stop nuclear proliferation. It must be remembered too that the US failure to stop North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon in the first place has emboldened Iran, and a nuclear armed Iran could make the current nightmare that is the Middle-East seem mild by comparison.

What about trying to get China to use its leverage to try to stop North Korea? It is true that China does hold considerable sway over North Korea, being its principle trading partner and supplies much of its oil. Indeed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called on China to do more to stop North Korea. Nonetheless, it is unclear just how much leverage China does have over North Korea-President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have never met, and China has not been able to halt North Korea's nuclear program in the past. However, despite President Trump's exhortations that his talks with China have been productive in dealing with North Korea, beneath the surface a much different reality exists. Firstly, it is not in China's interests to put so much economic pressure on North Korea that it implodes. Whilst China is not happy with North Korea's building of nuclear weapons, China is arguably more fearful of action which could potentially send millions of refugees into its own North-East. China already has more than enough internal problems of its own, with a slowing economy and a possible banking crisis looming. Secondly, China does not want a unified Korea with American troops potentially staring across from the Yalu river-China helped Kim Il-Sung during the Korean War when it was apparent that his regime was about to be over-run and sees North Korea as a buffer state.

Many policies have been tried over the last two decades, and none has had the slightest effect in changing the nuclear policy of North Korea. As unpalatable as it may seem, the only alternative left may be military intervention. During the 1930s, the Western democracies tried talking to and appeasing Nazi Germany at every turn, in the hopes of modifying its behaviour and fully resolving its territorial claims. The result was that Hitler's appetite grew with the eating, and soon the Allies were cursing themselves for not having taken military action sooner. It is indeed a truly horrific thought that hundreds of thousands may die in any armed conflict but the thought of Kim Jong Un acquiring a missile that could hit America or Australia is too simply awful to imagine.

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About the Author

Simon Louie is research associate with Risk Intelligence Solutions.

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