How North Korea’s nuclear weapons are helping to prevent war
B. Z. Khasru says North Korea is following the lead of other small nations threatened by foes with superior military might. Kim Jong-un’s gamble might just pay off – if China can live with a nuclear neighbour
Atomic bombs are proving to be blessings for small nations that face enemies with far superior conventional and nuclear forces. This is especially true of North Korea, which expects to reap nuclear peace dividends, as fiery rhetoric gives way to cool heads.
Over the past 20 years, nuclear weapons have prevented at least three potentially big wars: between India and Pakistan, between Russia and Nato, and between the US and North Korea – as well as China by extension.
If Afghanistan had atomic bombs, for example, Afghans could have avoided the 40 years of mayhem since the Soviet Union’s invasion of their country in 1978. If Iraq had a nuclear arsenal, one million Iraqi lives and some 5,000 American lives could have been saved.
Nukes are, in fact, the chief deterrent to all-out war.
Pakistan’s refusal to adopt a no-first-use policy has helped it avoid full-blown war with India even though the nuclear-armed neighbours fought several border skirmishes in recent years. Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities have blunted India’s advantage of having vastly superior conventional strength.
Pakistan is not alone in holding the nuclear trump card. Russia dared to mount an offensive in Ukraine to roll back Nato advances into Moscow’s backyard only because of the strength of its nuclear arms without which the US-led European military alliance would have steamrollered Russia out of Crimea. President Vladimir Putin’s public reminder that Russia is a nuclear power discouraged a Nato misadventure.
North Korea is the latest example of how a small nation can keep a giant adversary at bay in the face of extreme provocations. North Korea knows it would face annihilation, as Iraq did at the hands of the US, without its nuclear bombs or the protection of China’s nuclear umbrella. However, despite its rock-solid opposition to a second Korean war, China is unlikely to stick out its neck if America undertakes surgical strikes against North Korea, unless Washington occupied Pyongyang and sought to remove North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
With North Korea possessing nuclear weapons, chances of a US attack are low. North Korea is not on a suicide mission, so it will not be the aggressor. And US President Donald Trump will seek to contain the risk, rather than eliminate it, as have previous administrations. Both Trump and Kim have a penchant for wars of words, but neither has his hand on the nuclear button.
After a year of escalating tensions, attention has again shifted to finding a peaceful solution. Four major players are involved: the US, North Korea, South Korea and China. America seeks North Korea’s denuclearisation, North Korea wants to be a nuclear nation and bring South Korea under its control, South Korea prefers the status quo with a denuclearised North Korea, and China wishes for a unified Korea under Kim.
How can these opposing forces be coalesced into a solution? By following the formula used in German reunification. As a first step, the US should establish diplomatic ties with North Korea, as it did with East Germany. Like it or not, denuclearisation of North Korea is nothing but a dream. Kim’s nuclear weapons are no longer bargaining chips but essential to national identity and security. Bulldozed by chronic sanctions, Kim finds nuclear weapons a cheaper and safer alternative to running economically ruinous and militarily dangerous conventional arms races. Moreover, if the US insists on North Korea’s denuclearisation, Kim may ask why Washington did not apply the same pressure on Israel.
How do North and South Korea communicate?
In the end, the vexing question is if China can live with a nuclear North Korea. Will China worry that Pyongyang may want to edge away from Beijing to be able to choose its policies more freely? It seems unlikely. China will come down hard on North Korea if Kim threatens to fire missiles at US cities. Kim is more interested in retaining power and bringing South Korea under his control than hurting America. His nukes are his safety net against Trump’s fire and fury.
B. Z. Khasru is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War and The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link