This week, the United States and its ally South Korea began large-scale military exercises, and North Korea responded by threatening ‘merciless retaliation’. This follows Pyongyang’s recent back-and-forth over whether to strike Guam and President Trump’s warning that North Korea was facing a future of ‘fire and fury’.
Not surprisingly, people are a little worried. I received an email from an old high school friend. We had not corresponded in a while. The email comprised two words: ‘Save us’.
My friend knows that I have worked on North Korea and nuclear weapons for more than 15 years and that I have, in fact, been to the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea) to discuss nuclear policy.
“I’m on vacation in Maine. You’re going to have to handle this one”, I replied with a smile.He wasn’t the only one asking. Facebook friends, journalists, relatives. There was even a guy at the Home Kitchen Cafe in Rockland, Maine who recognised me and asked a waitress to approach me on his behalf. I walked over, and we chatted for a minute. He explained that he thought it was a bad time for the US and South Korean military exercises before returning to his Reuben sandwich.To no one’s surprise, I can’t ‘save us’, but I can give you a sense of where things stand, where they might be going, and a few things we might want to do. Consider this the inside scoop from that high school buddy who happens to be a nuclear weapons and North Korea expert.“How dangerous have things gotten? Are we about to get into a war?”
No, we are not about to get into a shooting war with the North Koreans - or at least probably not. Well, not for now, anyway. The military exercises and President Trump’s impromptu threats do not suddenly make a military conflict more likely today than it was last month or last year. In history, major wars – not nuclear wars, just plain old large-scale, bloody conventional wars that kill millions of people – don’t happen every day. Big wars like WWI or the Korean War – and nuclear wars – are low probability, high consequence events. They don’t happen very often, but when they do …
And for the most part, the fundamentals have not changed. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is correct to say that the US and South Korea maintain an overwhelming military advantage over North Korea. If war were to break out, North Korea would lose and lose badly. It would be the end of the Kim Jong-un’s regime, and the one thing Chairman Kim wants is to remain in power.
That does not mean the situation is set, let alone stable. Pyongyang is on a course to develop a nuclear missile that can hit the US homeland. Though it’s not quite there yet, at their current pace of testing, that day is coming sooner rather than later. Obviously, that would be an unwelcome development, but it won’t be any different from the situation our treaty allies Japan and South Korea and the 80,000 US troops and their families who live there have been facing for some time now.
And it’s worth remembering that, today, Russia and China have nuclear weapons aimed at American cities – just as the US has their nuclear weapons pointed at them – and have so for decades. So it’s not a good situation, but it’s not a totally new one either.
“But if North Korea doesn’t want to attack us with nuclear weapons, why are they rushing as fast as they can to build them?”That’s a great question, and it’s tough to answer. It can be hard to judge the intentions of an adversary, but it is even more challenging in the case of North Korea, arguably the most closed country on the planet.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Should you be worried about North Korea?’