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North Korean Crisis: Too Late to Turn Back?

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The crisis on the Korean peninsula, with North Korea performing nearly everyday missile launches, has stumped the world. With both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un being termed as unpredictable autocrats, the inevitability of war on the Korean peninsula is becoming obvious by the day.

The Myth of ‘De-nuclearization’

The immediate cause of the current conflict pitting US, South Korea and Japan, against North Korea supported by China and Russia, was the persistent pressure by Trump to get North Korea to ‘de-nuclearize’ or give up its nuclear weapons development programme. Persistent pressure by Trump propelled North Korea to start a series of missile launches of its long-range nuclear-armed Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), with the first launch taking place in July this year.

The North Korean regime wants to develop a miniaturized nuclear bomb that can be loaded on to an ICBM to complete the weapon. In September, in its sixth nuclear test, the regime claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, with reports of the test producing a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. However, despite the series of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council – much of it watered down at the insistence of Russia and China – North Korea will not give up its nuclear programme.

The reason is simple – the pursuit of nuclear weapons, for the hermit country, is less a quest for power and more of a survival instinct. The savage and cut-throat politics of international relations since the Cold War has ensured that, technically, North Korea continues to be in a state of permanent war with US and South Korea. When the US and former USSR clashed over the Korean peninsula resulting in its division into the Communist dictatorship of North Korea and US-backed South Korea, what followed was a temporary truce or an armistice which has continued since 1953. But the crisis was never resolved. Successive North Korean dictators continued to strengthen the country’s nuclear programme. The temporary and weak international negotiation to check North Korea was completely reversed when former US President George Bush declared complete hostility against the country, terming it a ‘rogue state’.

The rest is history. From then onwards, everything that North Korea has done – an immense acceleration in its nuclear programme and channeling all funds into militarization – has been out of the survival instinct in a deteriorating world. From 2003 onwards, international politics began to reveal its ugly colours, shedding the façade of liberalism and spawning global terrorist groups.

While the common man harps on and on about the evil of terrorism, it should be remembered that terror groups are proxies for selfish nations to wage unconventional warfare against each other. Countries like the US, Russia, Arab countries, Pakistan etc. sponsor one or other terror group (like, Shia Hamas and Hezbollah versus the Sunni ISIS or, in Kashmir, the ‘home-grown’ militants versus the Al-Qaeda and LeT) to launch attacks which they cannot do themselves since they have to keep up the façade of a so-called ‘liberal, rules-based international order’.

The international order is anything but this. And North Korea was quick to realize that it can trust this deplorable system only at its own peril, having seen the fate of dictators like Saddam Hussain and Gaddafi, who chose to surrender to the US. Currently, it is witnessing the unravelling of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, strengthening its conviction that US cannot be trusted – today it will sign a so-called peace ‘deal’ and tomorrow it will tear it to pieces, more so with Trump at the helm. Peace is a mirage, especially for North Korea, which is still technically in a state of war since the 1953 armistice. Under such conditions, how can the US even remotely expect North Korea to “de-nuclearize”?

Whose Fault is it?

The North Korean crisis has fueled impressions that it is all about two mad men – Trump and Kim Jong-un – clashing with each other mindlessly and stories about the sad condition of people in North Korea, which is rightly called a ‘hermit’ state. These impressions may be partly right – life in an atheistic dictatorship where the despot is worshipped as a God and people are psychologically conditioned to be slavish and subservient has to be different, although North Koreans themselves are happy with that – but what the we need to grasp is North Korea is not an aberration on a so-called natural and liberal global order, but very much a product of that order.

The international conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that instead of pitying the North Koreans we need to question whether we ourselves are also not living in a mere delusion of freedom, which has become a sophisticated mask for large-scale cruelty and fulfillment of selfish interests. And a country which lives under the delusion that peace is possible is calling for its own death – Japan, in this case. Japan is, perhaps, the country that is the most threatened in case escalation on the Korean peninsula leads to a war of some kind. While US and South Korea will mount the offensive, US will be far from receiving a direct attack and more than capable of destroying North Korea, while South Koreans are still regarded by North Koreans as oppressed brethren gone down the wrong path. China – more than military threats – is concerned about the inflow of North Korean migrants into its territory in case the US makes its threats real and also it does not want a united Korea allied to the US.

But the country most at danger is Japan, which alone is seriously viewing the Korean crisis as a precursor to ‘World War III’. North Korea hates Japan, having being ruled by the imperialist Japanese from 1910 till 1945. Japan – being the mortal enemy – has been at the receiving end of two of the missile launches by North Korea. Unfortunately, Japan’s search for peace is vain. While Shinzo Abe himself has been trying his best to revise the country’s post-war pacifist Constitution and recently, even gave the Japanese military ‘limited’ powers to conduct operations with foreign allies, the people have been dead set against any revival of militarism. With an almost non-existent opposition and the North Korean threat, the Japanese people are endorsing military options with reluctance. Once Abe manages to revise the Constitution, Japanese military role will no longer be limited to defense and areas like disaster preparedness. Japan will have jumped into the fray with all other countries.

The case shows clearly how in the present international system all countries have to be positioned for war, whether they want to or not. For many, like Japan, it is a basic survival tactic in a depraved system.

Thus, it is not a question of what will happen in the event of a war on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is a miniature despot country that does not pose an existential threat to the US in military terms. The bigger implication is that it will let the nuclearization cat out of the bag and the mad rush of an arms race will be out in the open. It is already happening at less publicized levels, as all countries create small alliances, conduct joint military ‘games’ or sessions and ramp up their defense architecture, but the precipitation of Korean crisis will likely bring things a couple of steps closer to collective destruction. Even the little façade of false morality and liberalism that the UN and countries are trying to portray at present will be completely gone and nukes will be out in the open.

And as signs show, we are far past the stage where the Korean crisis can be averted. Trump’s latest threats and actions – including against Iran – have effectively ensured that North Korea will only further hasten its nuclear programme instead of negotiating. As Japan has assessed accurately, the ‘time for talks is over’ now.

And now, in the times that we are living in, we have to be more worried about a yet bigger threat– the wholescale environmental havoc that a nuclear disaster would entail. Recall the famous disasters like the Bhopal gas tragedy or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which have permanently handicapped the future generations. A nuclear disaster on the Korean peninsula would not even be limited in its geography like these disasters. Some of the immediate consequences would be the permanently impairing effect of nuclear radiation which can effect living cells by causing changes in the genes, erupting volcanoes, landslides and massive earthquakes. Already, China has reported that mountains in the North Korea-China border area, housing the sacred Mount Paektu – an active volcano that last erupted in 1903 – could be in danger of another massive eruption following North Korea’s blast which has been estimated to be at least 100 Kilotons.

There are also genuine fears that the worst kind of environmental disaster could ensue if North Korea tests a Hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. While the current tests have been carried out in underground chambers or ballistic missiles in the sky, igniting the Hydrogen bomb in the Pacific would be the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere in nearly 40 years. The blast would immediately kill most of the marine life within strike zone, while the radioactive dust and ash flying into the air will carry extremely dangerous particles over hundreds of miles.

This grim scenario is now about to become a reality. Whether we in India appreciate it or not, this is the reality of everyday life in nations like Japan, where every civilian is ready for war and in a defensive mode. With the way things are preceding each day, war may be inevitable. It may happen now or later, but surely, with the way countries are positioned the world over and with an increasing arms race, we cannot expect peace. Even the current situation is not peace; it is a covert war.

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