A new Cold War or just empty bluster?

Things are heating up between the leaders of the US and North Korea, write Dr Stephen Noakes and PhD candidate Jake Cowan. But while North Korea’s military is not to be trifled with, the possibility of nuclear war is very remote.

If recent reporting on the standoff between Donald J. Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-Un is to be believed, one could be forgiven for thinking that tonight’s supper may be their last meal.

Trump’s tweet that North Korea is "looking for trouble" followed last Saturday’s celebrations for the 105th birthday of that nation’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, which featured a massive outdoor parade showcasing the country’s military prowess and latest technology. Although the parade was followed by a widely-anticipated but unsuccessful missile launch on Sunday, the demonstrations were enough to elicit Trump’s tweeted response. In reply, the North’s deputy UN Ambassador, Han Song Ryol, accused the US, and Trump in particular, of turning the Korean peninsula in “the world’s biggest hotspot”, before adding that “thermonuclear war may break out at any minute”.

Please allow us to disabuse you of these fears.

Though not completely absent, the threat of nuclear warfare remains very, very remote for a variety of reasons. To begin with, North Korea has made similar threats against the US and its East Asian allies for decades. In 2011 it warned that it would turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" following military exercises by South Korea on the anniversary of fatal shelling by the North, which killed two marines and two civilians.

The North also engages in frequent showcases of its latest military innovations, and is known for its saber-rattling. Demonstrations of military prowess such as Saturday’s parade have deep historical roots and are cyclical, even predictable. Some experts have argued that they have more to do with domestic politics than international affairs, and are in fact carefully choreographed to bolster the popular legitimacy of the Kim regime through appeals to national pride.

Dr Stephen Noakes and PhD candidate Jake Cowan. Photo: Supplied

Additionally, evidence has emerged that the American battle carrier USS Carl-Vinson, whose reported deployment to the waters off the Korean peninsula was the source of North Korea’s charges of US provocation, was not sent to deter the North from its missile tests, but to take part in long-planned training exercises with the Australian navy.

To be sure, North Korea’s military is not to be trifled with.

It continues to develop and improve upon its missile technology as evidenced by a successful test of the solid-fuelled KN-11 mobile missile in February. Its standing force of approximately one million soldiers, combined with a further three million reservists, gives it one of the largest armies in the world. However, it does not have the resources to prosecute a conventional war for any serious length of time, and it is not at all clear whether some of its recently-paraded weapons merely represent ambition rather than capability.

If the risk of war is so small, just what are the likely consequences of the two presidents’ escalating war of words? Is it all just bluster from the mouths of two infamously cocksure world leaders?

We contend that words, though different from deeds, matter a great deal and have the power to shift the global political landscape, not always for the better. As watchers of Korean affairs and international politics, we have come to expect bombast of the brand coming out of Pyongyang this week. We are less accustomed to the nebulous statements, flip-flopping, hot-headedness currently emanating from Washington.

By announcing that “the era of strategic patience is over” and that the United States and [their] allies will “deal with” North Korea, administration officials run risk of instigating a neo-Cold War in which all countries are consumed by a near-constant threat of provocative action hanging in the air. This treading-on-eggshells state of heightened alertness, well-known to older generations, would be grounded in the threat of “mutually assured destruction”, just as it was in the Soviet era.

We urge calm in response to the recent war of words between the US and North Korean presidents: We are confident cooler heads will ultimately prevail. However, this outcome requires world leaders, especially Trump, to act as stewards for peace, which calls for words to be carefully chosen.

For all Trump’s bombast, we believe the US government still possesses polished communication skills. Now is the time for them to be put to use – no-one who lived through the first Cold War is eager to do so again. 

Dr Stephen Noakes is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations/Asian Studies and a specialist in Chinese politics. Jake Cowan is a PhD candidate in Asian Studies whose forthcoming dissertation examines everyday resistance in North Korea.

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