The buzz among everyone I talk to who is watching the news nowadays is about what is happening (or at least, what we THINK is happening) in North Korea. With three successful missile launches under its belt and a host of UN sanctions being thrown against it it recent months, North Korea has ramped up its rhetoric against the United States and what it deems as the “puppet state” of South Korea and many major news media outlets run daily reports on the threat posed by the rogue state.
Is there actually a danger of Pyongyang launching an attack against the United States of America? Contrary to the blockbuster-flop Red Dawn or what Yahoo news might tell you, probably not. Andrei Lankov, a professor at the Kookmin University in South Korea and an expert on North Korea affairs, stated in Foreign Policy magazine that an Luxembourgian invasion of Germany or a Georgian invasion of Russian would be more believable than a cross-Pacific North Korean invasion of the United States. Despite the North’s avowal to “sweep away” America’s Anderson air base in Guam, it is unlikely that the North lacks a blue water navy and would be unable to even make the trip to Guam, much less obliterate the heavily defended American base.
Likewise, despite the successful nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean regime since December, the country lacks the payload delivery to send nuclear weapons to the West Coast of the USA. This is the same North Korea whose attempt to launch an Unha-3 rocket in April of 2012 ended in the rocket’s disintegration in the atmosphere mere minutes after lift-off. Though the North has upgraded its abilities since then and successfully launched a three-stage missile in December, its longest-range missile (the Taepodong-1) has a maximum range of 2,500 km, much less than required to strike the United States.
This is not to say the North is not dangerous, as a matter of fact, I believe it is one of the most dangerous states in the world at this moment. The danger, however, lies not in its ability to strike the United States, but in its willingness to attack South Korea, an invaluable US ally. The New York Times reports today that the North has cut off military hot lines with the South, its primary form of communication with Seoul and a gesture that suggests an escalation of tension between the two sides. This action comes in response to the recent election of Park Geun-hye, who the North claims is pursuing aggressive actions against them, and the deployed of two US B-2 stealth bombers over North Korean air space in a show of solidarity with the South.
However, the North Korean regime pulled this same stunt in 2009 in response to the tightening of relations between the United States and South Korea, and though there is a small possibility that the North could attempt an invasion of the South, this is most likely another display of political brinkmanship by Pyongyang in order to garner international attention and domestic support for the regime. Even as media outlets in North Korea display images of Northern armies invading the US Capitol, the regime has yet to close the joint North-South factory at Kaesong, a symbol of economic cooperation between the two sides.
There is more going on here than what the surface-level, fear-mongering news media would lead their viewers to believe, and I would argue that all this talk of a new Korean war is a red herring distracting from the real issues in the region. The fact is that with a $1,800 per capita GDP, North Korea ranks 197 in terms of world economic power, making it among the poorest states in the entire world. Every time North Korea plays this game of chicken with the international community, it loses more and more aid and its people slip farther and farther into poverty and despair. Additionally, North Korea inflicts the most damage on its own people, 200,000 of whom now live in concentration camps which have killed 400,000 people since their inception. Additionally, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that between 600,000 to 2 million people in North Korea have died of starvation due to the squandering of the country’s resources. Anyone more interest in this subject should watch National Geographic‘s eye-opening documentary “Inside North Korea” to discern the truth of what is happening.
All this talk about a possible outbreak of violence caused by North Korea distracts from the real story: that of an impoverished country isolated from the international system by an authoritarian military regime that restricts its access to outside information. North Korea represents one of the biggest humanitarian crisis that the world has encountered since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Instead of playing great power politics, powerful nations such as the United States and China should be looking into ways to demilitarize the nation, topple the regime, and partner with South Korea to prepare for the reconstruction of what is essentially a third-world nation.
In regards to China, it is their response to this crisis that will be the most important geopolitical development coming out of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. China has already taken it upon itself to lead the Six Party Talks, a series of diplomatic summits aimed at de-nuclearizing North Korea and ameliorating the situation within the country. With many convinced that the United States is locked in a battle of dominance of the Asian Pacific with China, the resolution of the North Korean crisis may produce telltale signs of China’s political ambitions.