Second Korean War?

23 July 2003

A Second Korean War?

By Gwynne Dyer

Fifty years after the end of the Korean War in July, 1953, could there be another one?

President George W. Bush said two months ago that North Korean nuclear weapons “will not be tolerated”. Last week North Korean officials at the United Nations defiantly informed their American counterparts that their country has finished reprocessing enough plutonium to create half a dozen nuclear bombs, and will move ahead quickly to produce the actual weapons. This moved former US Defence Secretary William Perry to worry aloud in a ‘Washington Post’ interview that the Bush administration is “losing control” of the situation. “I have thought for some months that if the North Koreans moved toward (reprocessing), then we are on a path toward war.”

How bad would such a war be? If ‘regime change’ in Pyongyang and an Iraq-style conquest of North Korea were the American war aims, very bad indeed. That was the US war aim for a good deal of the time during the first Korean War, and in three years that war killed three million Koreans and levelled every city in both North and South Korea. Half a century later, the Korean peninsula is at the heart of industrialised Asia, with Japan to the east and China to the west. According to US military estimates, one million people, including 50,000 American troops, would be killed in the first month of a second Korean war.

It is not, however, a high probability. To believe in a second Korean war, you must believe that North Korea already has or soon will have usable nuclear weapons, and that North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il is crazy enough to use them knowing he would die in a nuclear fireball himself twenty minutes later. Or else you must believe that the Bush administration is crazy enough to launch a full Iraq-style invasion of North Korea with the objective of ‘regime change’, and that South Korea would let the United States do that.

Otherwise, the worst thing that can happen in the Korean peninsula is unilateral American air strikes against North Korean facilities that somebody in the US intelligence community thinks are nuclear weapons production sites. That would not be a happy development, but it would not be anything like as bad as another Korean war.

Are there nuclear weapons in North Korea? “If you combine known facts with circumstantial evidence, we can be more confident that weapons of mass destruction exist in North Korea than in Iraq,” says Ahn Young-sop, professor of North Korean Studies at Myongji University in Seoul. Yes, but most of those ‘facts’ and evidence come from the same US intelligence agencies that brought us the fabulous vanishing WMD of Iraq, so how confident is that?

North Korea had a nuclear weapons programme before 1994, and continued with some clandestine work on uranium enrichment even after its deal with the United States, China, Japan and South Korea in that year supposedly halted it. The programme has doubtless gone back into high gear since January, 2002, when Mr Bush’s speech-writers added North Korea to the ‘axis of evil’ almost at random (they needed some non-Muslim state for balance, according to former White House speech-writer David Frum), because Bush’s speech scared Kim Jong-il half to death. But is it now on the brink of producing actual weapons? Nobody outside North Korea knows.

Getting nuclear weapons as fast as possible is a rational response by Kim Jong-il to finding himself on a US hit-list: the best deterrent to an American attack is the ability to strike at South Korean and Japanese cities with nuclear weapons. (Pyongyang has no rockets capable of reaching the US.) And if ‘as fast as possible’ isn’t really very fast, then it makes sense for North Korea to bluff and say it already has nukes.

But the only situation in which it might plausibly use them (if it has them) is against a full-scale American invasion that threatens the regime’s survival. That could not happen without a huge US military build-up in South Korea, but the existing US troop commitment in Iraq simply doesn’t leave enough troops available for another ground war. In any case, the South Korean government probably wouldn’t allow it: as President Roh Moo-hyun said during the election campaign last December (before his handlers hushed him up), “If the US and North Korea start a fight, we should dissuade them.”

North Korea, which is hopelessly outgunned, is certainly not going to start a fight, and the only attack the US can make without South Korean support is conventional air and missile strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities. That would unleash a major diplomatic crisis in east Asia but it would not threaten the survival of the North Korean regime, so it would probably not lead to ground war in Korea. And it would still make no sense for Pyongyang to launch a nuke either at Seoul or at US forces in South Korea, since American retaliation would be instant and terrible.

The only problem with this argument is that it depends on the North Korean regime remaining rational no matter what Washington does.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Are there…that”; and “Getting…nukes”)