The Next Conflict?

Whilst our attention in Malta is justifiably focused on the latest Panama Gate developments, elsewhere a serious international crisis continues to unfold rapidly. Unfortunately the North Korea issue seems to be drifting towards the worst possible scenario, open military conflict with the threatened use of nuclear weapons.

Since 1945, the Korean peninsula has been divided into two along the 38th parallel; the north under a communist regime and the south a democratic republic. Between 1950 and 1953 the two countries went to war and since then tension between them remains high. In the last weeks the situation has deteriorated as North Korea has taken an increasingly hostile stand. It is known that the country is in possession of nuclear weapons and it is persisting in testing missiles capable of delivering these weapons. Concurrently, the new Trump Administration seems set to resolve this issue. There appears to be a change in US policy, from what had been defined as “strategic patience” to a more active engagement, which does not exclude military intervention.

One key aspect of the problem is the particular nature of the North Korean regime. It has to be remembered that North Korea is led by a form of communist monarchy which is now in its third generation; the first supreme leader Kim Il Sung having been succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il, the father of the present leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea is one of the most repressive regimes anywhere with its population deprived of their fundamental human rights and also suffering great poverty.

Certainly one cannot ignore the nuclear threat presented by North Korea, especially in the context of its close geographical proximity to South Korea, Japan and also China. These countries have, in the past, pursued different measures with the objective of finding a diplomatic solution but without success. Indeed, the diplomatic experience accumulated over the last sixty years has failed to find the answer to the basic question of how to deal with North Korea. Even the US President Donald Trump, who during his electoral campaign had passed critical comments concerning what was perceived as China’s “inaction” vis-a-vis North Korea, has changed his point of view after acknowledging the complexity of the relationship between China and North Korea.

The situation is a very dangerous one because, despite all the efforts made by the international community, Kim Jong Un is persisting in the development of North Korea’s nuclear capability. It is thought that he considers this as a “deterrent” and possibly even sees it as a guarantee for his future survival. However, North Korea’s neighbours clearly see it as an impending threat to their citizens, as a source of possible blackmail and a menace to peace in the region. The international community shares this view, especially since Kim Jong Un seems intent upon developing ballistic missiles able to deliver nuclear weapons as far away as the USA. The fact that a number of test-fires of such missiles have failed is no reassurance as long as North Korea’s development programme continues.

The new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has rightly said that “Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences”. One must act but the question is how? Are there other non-military measures, such as further economic sanctions, which could be taken and would they suffice to persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear programme? The Pope has pleaded with world leaders to persist in the efforts to find a diplomatic solution. Established journals have similarly expressed their opinion for a non-military response. The Guardian led with an editorial “Apocalypse not right now” and The Economist “Handle with Extreme Care”.  

A recourse to arms, especially one carrying the threat of nuclear escalation, would have devastating effects upon the region and in particular upon both Koreas. Kim Jong Un must realise this and one would, normally expect that this would be a sufficient reason to make him abandon his present confrontational course. However, one must not assume that the North Korean leader’s prime concern is the interest of his people. His perspective might be more focused on what is the best course to follow in his endeavour to retain absolute power and it is this factor that will condition his action. This is the price to be paid when a leader puts his own interests above those of his country and it is a price which must be borne by the very same citizens who have been indoctrinated to worship their leader.

The near future will enlighten us on how the situation will evolve. In the meantime we can only hope that the diplomatic route will carry the day.

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