By Alexander Nebesky
Apr 06, 2018

Korea: the Worst Possible Outcome

North and South Korea will meet April 27 in a historic summit, the first of its kind in over ten years. On the agenda, ideally, will be North Korea’s denuclearisation and advancement of relations between the Koreas. Since the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, North and South Korea have experienced a significant thawing in their traditionally icy relationship.

But what if instead of everything going well with productive dialogue, things veered into a horrific nuclear firestorm? What might a fresh Korean War look like in 2018? How might such a war happen? How might we, safely nestled in the Mighty Waikato, abreast of the news by way of the internet, but far from the firing lines of the Korean Peninsula be affected?

The Korean War, V1.1

The Korean War is, famously, still a thing. It was never resolved with an official peace deal. Though to be fair, such a tidbit of geopolitical trivia rests squarely in the realm of cocktail party talking points for the naive and broadly uninformed. More a ‘wow! Did you know that the two Koreas are still at war?’ said somewhere between a salmon and cream cheese baguette slice and a comment about how crazy that VICE documentary where they sneak around North Korea is than an incisive commentary on the genuine nature of the Korean War and its lasting implications.

The Korean War was a peculiar beast. It existed in its own time; it was unique to the Cold War. It was the first major conflict since the Second World War less than a decade before, a significant conflict in the battle against communism, and it tested the newly established United Nations in the face of international aggression.

It was an invasion launched by the North, backed by the Soviet Union in an effort to conquer the South and reunify the nation that had been under occupation or divided since Japanese annexation in 1910. Ferocious fighting and naked acts of aggression brought a United Nations force, lead by the United States to the peninsula to protect the South.

But the tidbit is true. Though hostilities between the two sides ended in 1953, and an armistice was signed, no official peace deal was ever concluded after over 1.8 million civilian deaths and over 2.8 million combat deaths. The armistice gave us the Koreas we know and love today, separated at the famous 38th Parallel.

Speaking to Dr Karen Buckley of the History Programme here at Waikato, it is made clear to me that for New Zealand, the Korean war was a boon for the economy, but otherwise forgotten. ‘The Korean War did lead to a boom in wool prices as the Americans stockpiled this product and the corresponding increase in export pounds was noted by those newspaper editors keen to support the National government’s economic strategy.’

We sold wool, and we hated communists. New Zealand sent a little 6000 military personnel, to serve in the war under British Commonwealth commanders.

We were a firmly democratic and capitalist during the Cold War, and we backed the US and UN intervention all the way. It is also evident that for us, like many nations involved, the Korean War is something of a forgotten war. Much like public discourse in the United States relegated US involvement in the Great War to a distant, half-acknowledged memory, the narratives in New Zealand at the time largely overshadowed our involvement on the Peninsula.

‘I think that for the ‘average’ Kiwi in 1950-53 (if such a thing exists), the residual fear of an invasion from Asia which was very real during the Second World War, coupled with a fairly fervent anti-Communist political and public attitude meant that NZ’s contribution to a stable United Nations-led world was important. In this context, NZ was doing its bit, and once there was the belief that the spread of communism was being stopped a fair way away in Korea, then this war lost its place in the public narratives to other more immediate and interesting news.’

Would we today, like our friends in Australia commit to supporting the US military deployment in the DMZ? In 2017, a handful of Australian Defence Force personnel took part in US/South Korean war games. Would we, as in the past, back the United States out of our desire to benefit from a closer relationship? Or would we steer clear without a UN mandate?

A Korean War Today

2018 has seen North Korea chill out a fair bit- they’ve been to the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong-Un went to China for a fun holiday, shit they even had a K-Pop concert attended by the Great Leader himself. At the moment things look reasonably rosy, especially ahead of these April talks with South Korea and potential US talks in May.

Nuclear weapons testing is a target both the United States and South Korea will want to pursue. Nobody but North Korea really wants a North Korea with nuclear weapons, but at the same time, the regime feels it needs those weapons to deter American military action against it – especially given the yearly Foal Eagle war games carried out by American and South Korean forces right on North Korea’s doorstep.

So let’s say shit goes really, really wrong. 2017 saw a lot of war-mongering and nuclear weapons testing. A whole lot of tweeting too, which is slightly less frightening and dangerous than an actual missile test, but still. It counts as war-mongering.

‘11 days’ says Professor Al Gillespie, ‘Is how long it would take for the radiation to get down here.’ Dr Gillespie is an expert in international laws of war and is well set to fill me in on how hellish and unforgiving a war on the Korean Peninsula might be. The first thing to be aware of is that a nuclear war isn’t the most likely outcome by a long shot. ‘I think it’s a 1% chance. It’s not even close to likely. I think it’s a very remote chance. But you have to take that 1% chance when you’re talking about the extinction of the species you have to take that very seriously.’

Hang on a minute—that’s some pretty heavy shit. But the thing with North Korea, says Dr Gillespie, is that it’s so close to those nations it might embroil in war that in all likelihood, war won’t come from a declaration, but from an accident.

‘The amount of time you’ve got for a weapon going from North Korea to LA you’re looking at 40 minutes, if you’re looking at Hawaii then maybe 30 minutes, if you’re looking at Japan maybe 5 minutes. If you’re looking at Seoul, there’s no warning. You don’t get a text from the government saying ‘run to the basement’; you’re lucky to get 30 seconds. So in that timeframe, they have to work out that what is coming across is not the ‘big bang’, and whether he would send over a nuke? No-one knows.’

North Korea only has to hit one of those targets, and millions of people would die, the entire cities being more or less levelled. It’s that lack of warning time that puts military forces on edge-- because they only have one chance to get it right, you can’t return fire when you’ve been utterly vapourised.

‘You can’t tell what is coming over the border until it has come over the border, so they only have to make a mistake once, and then once one chemical weapon, bioweapon, or nuclear weapon comes over it’s all on.’

And it’s not just a local war, held snugly between the US and South Korea on one side, and North Korea on the other. There’s a likelihood of China getting involved should North Korea be attacked first, and given their proximity to the proposed theatre of war, Japan is also very likely to find itself dragged in on the US/South Korea side of the equation. With all these powers, nuclear weapons and all involved in a war that could very well see those weapons used, and with Dr Gillespie’s assertion that 50 nuclear weapons could cause a nuclear winter, it seems that here in the sleepy Waikato we would not be safe from the end of the world. There would be no opportunity for us to ignore the war. And were we to send soldiers as part of some sort of United Nations task force, there would be no way local events could overshadow the rampant and wanton destruction like they had in the early 1950s.

The potential for a nuclear holocaust in Korea isn’t anyone’s favourite suggestion, but it’s important to note that the nuclear option isn’t the only option. There are plenty of terrific conventional arms capable of tearing rip, shit, or bust up and down the Korean Peninsula until the whole bloody thing sinks into the ocean.

Dr Colm McKeogh of Waikato’s Political Science Department has some staggering figures on the conventional arms angle of a Korean War.

‘The proximity of Seoul to the border and the amount of North Korean artillery that can shell Seoul- that is unstoppable. Tens of thousands of people could die in the first few hours of an artillery barrage—60,000 people could die within the first three hours, 10,000 of which would be US service personnel.’

That’s not exactly nuclear destruction levels of death, but 60,000 is a massive number of wasted lives.

Rolling the Dice

It’s certainly arguable; I might go so far as to say indisputable, that the North Korean regime is the worst regime in current existence regarding human rights violations and the general care it provides to its citizens. The amount of suffering and atrocity is unparalleled in the modern world, and that’s what makes for an argument that perhaps a world without a North Korean dictatorship would be a better world. It certainly seems that way from where I stand, looking in at famines, abuse, tyranny, and gulags. The moral case for war, leaving aside the threat of nuclear annihilation for a moment, seems to be at least somewhat reasonable. How many people do we stand by and watch suffer, over how many years do we allow families to be destroyed before we decide to topple the regime?

Well, see, the problem is, according to Dr McKeogh, that the moral argument is weakened by the fact that the regime cannot, and will not last. Like a gambler, the North Koreans have gotten lucky twice in the past with the transfer of power ‘The argument against war is that this regime will collapse of its own accord. They rolled the dice in 1994, and it came up with a 6. They rolled it again in 2011 and got another one. This cannot continue. It is reasonable to assume that this regime will crumble. That weakens the moral case for war.’

And I tend to agree; it is reasonable given the weight of historical evidence that absolute dictatorships tend to implode, and that communist systems tend to fail miserably. Those are more or less historical rules. Though it certainly hard to see it happening any time soon. Though Kim Jong-Un could die tomorrow of some secret disease, untreatable in North Korea and hidden from the outside world by the regime, it seems difficult to bank on the regime itself collapsing even if we know it must happen- it seems to monolithic, too aggressive, too solid. But the question of how long to wait could quite effectively be met with another question:

‘The war would bring sooner something that will happen. So how many people can you take the rest of their lives from to compress the time, give a few better years to the rest?’

‘We will see what happens!’ tweeted President of the United States Donald Trump.

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