The crisis on the Korean Peninsula dropped out of the news in October, but rhetorical escalation by both sides continued apace. The prospect of war remains ever present.
A recent edition of the New York Times brought this home with dramatic effect. According to East Asia watcher, journalist Nicholas Kristof:
- John Brennan, former CIA boss puts the likelihood of war at 20- 25%,
- John Hopkins University expert Joel S. Wit gives it a 40% chance, and
- Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, is laying odds at 50:50.
War need not be nuclear. But a conventional conflict would not mean a small or local war. The US Congressional Research Service estimated that a non-nuclear war could cost 300,000 lives in the first few days, and the nuclear threat would be ever-present.
The continued uncertainty is already beginning to change the shape of East Asian security. Japan has signalled its intention to increase its military budget by over 6% next year. The crisis allowed Shinzo Abe, now re-elected, to include a commitment to repeal Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution, as a major part of his presidential campaign.
Article 9 restricts military activity to the protection of Japanese borders. Abe has made no secret of his wish to ditch it, and have Japan play a bigger international military role. The current crisis has made this easier.
In South Korea, President Trump’s recent visit was greeted with demonstrations for and against. But President Moon’s ‘sunshine’ policy of opening up relations with the North has taken a hit, and his hesitant reservations about THAAD, the US missile defence system, voiced earlier this year, have been put on hold.
China’s Premier Xi Jinping continues to emphasis dialogue and return to six-party talks. But in the event of a pre-emptive strike by the US, it is almost inevitable that China would be drawn in.
US intentions remain uncertain. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson puts forward a freeze-for-freeze option and the possibility of talks. Trump continues to assert “all options on the table”.
The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. Threats of nuclear use have been added to growing militarism, xenophobia and reactionary nationalism. It’s time to assert the need for a nuclear free zone in and around the Korean Peninsula.