In mid-April, Google searches for ‘World War III’ hit an all-time high right after US President Donald Trump declared that he would fix North Korea’s issue without the aid of its long-time supporter, China. This statement, made after Syrian bases were struck with US Tomahawk missiles, coincided with a meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In order to understand why conflict escalation in the Korean Peninsula incites fear of a catastrophic war, we need to trace the history of North Korea’s relations with the US and China.
There existed only one Korea under Japanese rule between 1905 and 1944. Following their victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese had appointed Emperor Sunjong ruler of Korea, but after World War II broke out in 1939, the Japanese empire was abolished as two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—established their spheres of influence in the world. Subsequently, during the Cold War, the Korean empire was divided into two sovereign states: North Korea and South Korea. North Korea was supported by the Soviet communist ideology, with a government led by guerrilla fighter Kim Il-sung who had fought against the Japanese Empire for the Soviet Red Army. In South Korea, the US installed a government of its own interest under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, a Korean-born statesman who had been exiled to the US. Although these two states had emerged from the same political entity, they differed greatly in terms of political ideology and economic structure, as well as on several contemporary issues, including the accommodation of refugees from the South. These differences resulted in the 1950 Korean War, in which North Korea invaded South Korea. Kim Il-sung had effectively taken control of almost all of South Korea before President Harry S. Truman ordered the US military to intervene in the form of ‘police action’; although this was mandated by the United Nations, the efforts were largely led by the US.
It took three years to end the Korean War by general unwritten armistice with a great human cost. More than 5 million people were killed, including around 54,000 American troops, 225,000 troops from the South, and 295,000 soldiers from the North. Kim Il-sung, in the aftermath of the war, used it to his advantage by presenting himself as a saviour, someone almost God-like. This self-representation was enabled by his portrayal of the US as the archenemy, and its success as a campaign is demonstrated by the fact that 15 April continues to be celebrated in North Korea as the Day of Sun, on which people remember their Great Leader.
Kim Il-sung started grooming his son Kim Jong-Il as his heir apparent in the 1970s; the younger Kim would eventually assume leadership after his father’s passing in 1994. Kim Il-sung also further expanded relationships with China and the Soviet Union so that North Korea would have ready allies to combat any future external aggressions. All North Koreans were affected by the Korean War: US and allied forces dropped more than 600,000 tonnes of bombs onto North Korean territory, and 70 percent of the casualties were civilians, most of them from the North. The war left 5 million people dead or missing and a further 10 million separated from their families. This created a precedent for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il to inflame anti-American sentiment, which they used as a pretext for military build-up. Anti-American sentiments were also heavily foregrounded in North Korean politics and culture, as well as in the military, economy, and education system.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions emerged in 1976, when it received Scud missiles from Egypt. This marked the beginning of a decades-long project that would ultimately lead to the nuclear weapons that pose such a threat to the US today. During and around 1962, Kim II-sung tried to convince his Soviet allies to help him to build nuclear facilities, but Russia flatly refused. He asked China too but had no luck there, either. Finally, in 1968, Russia agreed to help North Korea build nuclear facilities; however, these were strictly for energy purposes only. This was a concern to the US and its allies for many reasons—Russia’s involvement with nuclear energy posed potential future threats as the facilities could be upgraded for the development of nuclear weapons at any time. The United Nations opposed the idea, but North Korea refused to give up, emphasising their right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology (a key pillar in the 1968 Treaty on Non-Proliferation). Kim Jong-il surprised the world when the news of his first nuclear test in 2006 broke from the North Korean foreign ministry. Since then, North Korea has continued to expand their nuclear sites despite warnings and tough sanctions.
North Korea manages to keep threatening the US, South Korea and Japan with their combative rhetoric. President Bill Clinton first unveiled plans to sanction North Korea in 1998 after it broke the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Three Presidents served full terms in the White House without making any progress curbing North Korea’s nuclear program; on the other side, gradual development led to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. These days North Korea seems much more aggressive; their technology has been refined and augmented, and they’ve expanded their program to include rockets and long range missiles under Kim Jong-un’s rule. In the last five years, Kim Jong-un has tested 36 missiles, exceeding his father, who conducted only 18 missile tests during his 18-year dictatorship.
Many political strategists believe sanctions against North Korea slowed but failed to halt its nuclear programme, eventually leading it to obtain nuclear bombs despite tough sanctions. Rationally, there is now little hope of de-nuclearising a country that has publicly declared America its archenemy and worked round the clock for almost three decades with the ambition of one day being able to launch a nuclear attack if provoked. Uncertainty regarding the prospect of balancing North Korea surfaced in 1961 when North Korea signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Cooperation Aid and Friendship Treaty, which ensures China’s protection against external aggression. Article 2 of the treaty—which expires in 2021—states immediate military assistance should be offered by each nation to the other if other countries or coalitions attack them. It is therefore natural that China should respond if the US were to strike North Korea, dragging China into any emerging conflicts.
North Korea remains a secretive nation, confusing its immediate ‘foes’ about its capabilities by surprising the world with new missile tests each year. Ranked 23rd in the world in terms of military strength with a one million strong army ready to fight at any time, one thing is for sure: it could definitely deal a heavy blow to South Korea. With heavy artillery always pointed towards the South, some researchers believe Seoul could be struck with half-a-million shells in under an hour. In 1994, the US Department of Defense advised Bill Clinton not to attack North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility; he’d hoped this would prevent the North from obtaining a Nuclear Warhead, but the Department of Defense argued that such a bombing would invite one of the deadliest combats the world had seen since the Korean War. Jessica Mathews, former deputy to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, once suggested that the US would be unable to protect Seoul “at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe the first forty-eight.”. Seoul’s 40km distance from the border makes it an easy target dangerously vulnerable to North Korea’s heavy artillery firepower. North Korea’s massive store of some 2,500-5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons could be used quickly against South Koreans if the regime felt there was any risk of an external attack. China, on other hand, always wary of leaving North Korea vulnerable to a US air strike, does not want the US on its doorstep either. The biggest fear is that North Korea’s nuclear program—that many believe could seriously damage the US and its allies beyond the Korean Peninsula with its strike ranges of up to 4,000km—may now pose a serious threat. Kim Jong-Il reportedly once said, “I would destroy the world or take the world with me before accepting defeat on the battlefield”; a dangerous rhetoric maintained by his undeterred son Kim Jong-un.
Santosh Ojha is a graduate student in Political Science and International Relations from Nepal.