In a recent article in The Guardian, 94-year-old war veteran Harry Leslie Smith delivered a stark assessment of the current political climate. ‘I did not hear the thundering approach of war [in 1939], but as an old man I hear it now for my grandchildren’s generation. I hope I am wrong. But I am petrified for them.’ He recalls how in the August of that year, he laughed at the fascist monsters beyond his reach, not knowing that the days he had lived in blissful ignorance were numbered.
But are we really being faced with the impending march of war? It is easy to see how this could eventuate. The U.S. administration has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” and it has returned threats in kind. Turnbull has even chimed in, quick to sign up our soldiers to a hypothetical war under the ANZUS treaty despite it only requiring consultation. It seems the dominos are all lined up, and all that is needed to start ‘Korean War 2.0’ is a misstep on either side. However, the geo-strategic reality makes this a far less likely prospect for three key reasons.
Firstly, the People’s Republic of China has an interest in the continuation of the North Korean state. There are of course explanations linked to the fact that the two states are ideologically aligned in some sense to notions of ‘authoritarian socialism.’ However, the real reasons as to why a North Korean collapse is impermissible are far more strategic than ideological. A collapse as the result of a war that the U.S. is guaranteed to win (notwithstanding the human toll) would lead to a massive refugee influx. Due to the heavily militarised border with the Republic of Korea, the flow of refugees would naturally head north over the Chinese border into Jilin and Liaoning Provinces. That would be unacceptable for the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, the collapse of North Korea would bring U.S. forces to China’s doorstep, no longer acting as the effective buffer between the two states militaries.
Secondly, it is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would be the first to strike the U.S, despite his rhetoric. There are some who argue that he is not a rational actor, and therefore cannot be taken to fear the possibility of annihilation. But looking just at his actions over the last few months this proposition is challenged. Kim made the grand threat that he was making preparations for a mid-August ICBM strike off the coast of Guam. Did this happen? No. It did not occur because China intervened, stating that the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which in Article II requires China to defend North Korea in the event of attack, would not be adhered to if North Korea dealt the first blow. This statement ultimately resulted in a back-step from Kim, with the Korean Central News Agency stating that he would wait and see what the ‘foolish Yankees’ did. This makes it clear that Kim can be controlled, and to some extent that he realises that without the Chinese security guarantee, he is far more vulnerable and an attack would be suicidal.
Finally, war is unlikely because, despite what the Korean propaganda might suggest, the United States is not hell bent on dismantling the North Korean state. The U.S. has an interest, as it has since the discovery of the uranium enrichment facility Yongbyon in 1985, in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I’d even go as far to say that if North Korea was not a rogue nuclear weapons state, it would not pose a threat to U.S. territory and would therefore be a security threat localised to the Korean Peninsula. Compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the U.S.’s core aim, and if that was achieved then the threat would only be to South Korea. It is ironic that North Korea sees nuclear weapons as a mechanism of survival against U.S ‘aggression’, while the very existence of nuclear weapons is part of what drives that aggression. If Kim gave up this ambition, the Chinese security guarantee would be enough of an assurance for the State’s survival and the U.S. would inevitably back off sanctions and rhetoric. Regardless of this, the situation that exists on the peninsula could hardly be likened to the climate of Europe in 1939.
I respect Smith’s fears. Although I consider war as unlikely, the media has a tendency to play up the war of words between the U.S. administration and the Kim regime. This in turn makes people more fearful than they ought to be, and the threat becomes aggrandised to a point where ordinary Australian’s become alarmed. This should not be the case, and I foresee the status-quo of the 1953 armistice continuing while the war of words rages on. Unlike Smith, I do not hear the coming march of war. It’s true I may be wrong. But if I am, this article will be the least of my worries.