On Thursday 28th September the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association—STAUCA—held a ‘Port and Policy’ meeting at a flat on Bell Street. Amongst the many topics debated by the attendees was the question of increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In recent months, Kim Jong-Un and his regime have made startling gains in both the power of their nuclear arsenal and in the range of their ballistic missiles. Washington has largely responded with bluster—you will no doubt recall President Trump’s promise to reign down “fire and fury” on North Korea should the regime continue making threats against the U.S. and its allies—and with heavier sanctions. The spectre of war looms in the background as top U.S. officials continually refuse to rule it out as a measure of last resort.
Broadly speaking, the members of the Conservative and Unionist Association fell along three lines of thought. First, those that felt war is inevitable and any attempts to avoid it amount to futile ‘appeasement’. Secondly, those that believed increased sanctions and heightened diplomatic pressure can achieve the West’s geopolitical goals without bloodshed. Thirdly—and this group was by far the smallest—those that thought the West had nothing to gain by further involvement in the geopolitics (nuclear or otherwise) of North Korea.
To be clear, it should be obvious by now that the North Koreans will not give up their nuclear weapons programme under any circumstances. Many security experts believe that Kim Jong-Un fears for his personal safety in such an event, and remembers well what happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Col Muammar Gaddafi after they suspended their respective nuclear programmes. In short, Kim Jong-Un believes that increasing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is a matter of life and death for him personally; no amount of hardship inflicted by economic or diplomatic means upon his people will sway his resolve.
Knowing that diplomacy and economic policy will change nothing, we are naturally led to thoughts of war. Even just a few days ago President Trump undermined his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who was said to have been in talks with the North Korean government, claiming that such negotiations were pointless and that the United States will ‘do what has to be done’. The warhawks are right that armed intervention is the only thing that will stop North Korea from continuing to develop its nuclear arsenal, but they are entirely too flippant in endorsing this course of action. Over 25 million South Koreans live in the Seoul metropolitan area, easily within reach of an enormous amount of North Korean artillery positioned just over the border. It is also important to remember that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and is likely capable of using them on major cities across South Korea, Japan, and the West Coast of the United States. Even in the event of an American and allied ‘victory’, the extreme difficulty of unifying the Korean Peninsula or governing the former DPRK would prove a herculean task.
The only rational position is one of inaction. Sanctions and ‘tough’ rhetoric will achieve nothing; war is unimaginable. North Korea will not pre-emptively strike the United States or its allies with a nuclear weapon because, as most security experts agree, the North Koreans are essentially rational actors who choose to appear irrational for geopolitical gain. There is, to be a sure, a considerable wish to see something done: the idea of a maniacal dictator having such powerful weapons at his disposal is terrifying. Sometimes, however, the most courageous thing we can do is nothing.