A TV screen showing news about North Korean leader Kim-Jong-un’s launch of a ballistic missile is seen at Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on October 6. Photo: AP
Donald Kirk
Donald Kirk

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un must be talked down before game of dare escalates to all-out conflict

  • While the spectre of nuclear war hangs over the region, other flashpoints may explode first, drawing in not just South Korea but also Japan, China and even Russia
  • Any dream of North Korean denuclearisation remains a fantasy but another round of negotiations would at least be better than war

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to fire an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan last Tuesday opens a new chapter in the confrontation that is spiralling upwards in Northeast Asia.

The missile may have landed harmlessly in the northern Pacific after travelling around 4,600km, but it raised the spectre of a North Korean nuclear attack on US bases in Guam and Hawaii. A longer-range intercontinental ballistic missile could hit targets in North America.
The United States and South Korea immediately answered the challenge by bombarding a tiny islet in the Yellow Sea and firing missiles into waters off South Korea’s eastern coast. In response, North Korea fired two short-range missiles in the direction of Japan the next day.
On one level, this game of dare harmed no one, not even the local residents who were frightened when a South Korean missile misfired and blew up near their homes. On another level, though, it portends far worse consequences for both Koreas and the region.
In South Korea, pressure is mounting for Seoul to develop a nuclear programme for “defence” against North Korea – just as Kim claims to need nuclear weapons to stave off a possible “invasion” by the US and South Korea. Seoul already has short- and medium-range missiles targeting anywhere in North Korea. If the South goes nuclear, you can be sure that Japan and Taiwan would not be far behind.
A man in Tokyo, Japan, stops to watch a screen displaying news of North Korea’s ballistic missile launch, on October 4. The missile landed in the Pacific Ocean, in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The display shows the missile’s vector; Guam is shown by the red dot at the bottom. Photo: EPA-EFE

While the spectre of nuclear war hangs over the region, other flashpoints may explode first. Japan may decide the time has come to shoot down the next North Korean missile that flies over its territory. That won’t be easy, but the destruction of a North Korean missile would surely incite Kim to order many more “tests” of missiles, some of which might actually land on Japanese soil.

Kim might also see the retaliatory drills staged by the Americans and South Koreans as just the pretext he needs to fire missiles towards the South. After all, he has a new law that authorises nuclear strikes whenever the North feels threatened, much less attacked.

But, realistically, Kim is unlikely – and hopefully not foolish enough – to touch off a nuclear holocaust, to be responsible for exploding the first nuclear weapons in war since the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, to whose will Kim has to bow whether he likes it or not, has surely warned him against turning his rhetoric into reality. Xi may not be on good terms with the US, but China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, prefers to exercise stern but peaceful influence over both Koreas.


‘Blanket protection’: US says China and Russia have bolstered North Korea amid missile tests

‘Blanket protection’: US says China and Russia have bolstered North Korea amid missile tests

But what if Kim were to order strikes by missiles armed with conventional warheads? The huge US military base at Camp Humphreys, about 65km south of Seoul, and the nearby Osan Air Base, home of the US Seventh Air Force, are both sitting ducks for North Korea’s short-range missiles.

And what if North Korean artillery just north of the demilitarised zone opened fire in retaliation against US and South Korean exercises seen as dangerously close? One cannon shot into South Korea would throw its crowded northern cities, including Seoul, and Incheon port into panic mode.


US Vice-President Harris calls North Korea a ‘brutal dictatorship’ on visit to Korean DMZ

US Vice-President Harris calls North Korea a ‘brutal dictatorship’ on visit to Korean DMZ
Any such moves could escalate into a regional war in which North Korea would count on China and Russia to be on its side. The Chinese, however reluctantly, would have to support North Korea, as they did in the Korean war.
Russian, weighed down by its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, might not want to pour aid into North Korea, but Kim has been courting Russia with declarations of support for whatever President Vladimir Putin is doing.

The escalation of the North-South Korean confrontation may be awful to contemplate, but there’s also another scenario. As has happened so often in the past, the threat of much worse to come could evaporate temporarily into another round of negotiations.

Economic incentives will never be enough for North Korea to denuclearise

As usual, the Americans, some South Koreans, and much of the rest of the world, would fantasise about North Korea’s denuclearisation, and Kim would sign another statement promising to work towards that end, as he and then-US president Donald Trump did in their summit in Singapore in June 2018.

Optimists might again be induced into dreaming that the mortal adversaries were on the way to resolving their differences and, as always, they would be severely disappointed. No, there may be no permanent solution but as Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill is purported to have said, meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.

Donald Kirk is an author and journalist from Washington, DC. His books on Korea include, notably, “Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine”, and “Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung”