The crisis on the Korean Peninsula brings a real threat of nuclear war in the Pacific and beyond. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons in defiance of international opinion, while the United States and its allies engage in provocative actions and threats in North East Asia.
The immediate origins of the present crisis lie in a successful long-range missile test by North Korea at the end of July, ahead of joint US-South Korea military exercises in August, a nuclear war simulation. In response to the test, the US conducted a live-fire missiles exercise with South Korea in advance of their annual war games. President Trump followed up with his threat of ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ – particularly offensive on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
North Korea’s military top brass suggested Kim Jong-un send a missile over the US territory of Guam, but he held back. As the US-led war games began, however, North Korea carried out what is thought to be its first hydrogen bomb test.
Trump repeated his implicit threat of pre-emptive strike with a statement that all options were on the table. Minutes later Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was telling the media that diplomacy remained an option, just as Defence Secretary James Mattis had done in response to Trump’s fire and fury tweet.
Mixed messages like these add uncertainty to an already dangerous situation.
Hostilities between North Korea and the US go way back to the Korean War. With the aid of China, North Korea fought the US to a standstill in 1953. An armistice was negotiated, but no peace treaty has ever been signed – something which North Korea continues to press for.
Differences over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are now in their fourth decade. They began with its attempt to develop a civil nuclear power programme, in a quest for economic development. Six Party Talks have made little progress since they opened in 2003. While China and Russia call for negotiations without precondition, the US insists that North Korea renounce its nuclear ambitions before talking begins.
South Korea is host to the third largest number of US troops overseas, with 35,000 US military personnel stationed across 83 sites. In April the White House announced that the anti-missile system it was installing in South Korea, Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), was now operational.
Be it by mistake or design, nuclear confrontation is a real possibility. Missile tests, live fire exercises, troop and vehicle movements - the opportunities for an accident are high. But given the confusing signals from both parties, so are the chances of one side misinterpreting the intentions of the other.
The British government is facing both ways. Theresa May has called for diplomacy, whilst backing Trump at the UN Security Council. And on a recent trip to Japan, she told Prime Minister Abe that the UK will participate in joint training exercises and deploy an anti-submarine frigate to the region next year.
By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has condemned provocations by both the US and North Korea, called for them to begin talking, and urged May to do likewise. Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he said: ‘The risks of an unintended escalation into full-blown conflict are too great… There can be no question of blind loyalty to the erratic and belligerent Trump administration.’
In response to a Commons statement on Korea in September, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry reiterated that ‘for the US to turn its back on diplomacy at this stage is simply irresponsible and, as its closest ally, we must be prepared to say so.’ A recently-tabled motion (EDM 243) from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas encourages a return to Six Party talks and calls on the Government to reject a military solution.
Labour’s message needs be taken into the conference hall and announced from the platform in Brighton. Labour CND will be highlighting the need to address the underlying causes of regional insecurity and conflict, including the creation of a nuclear weapons free zone in North East Asia.
· Carol Turner is a Vice Chair of Labour CND and author of Corbyn and Trident: Labour’s continuing controversy, available £9.95 post free from Public Reading Rooms http://www.prruk.org/
· Take action for Peace in Korea at CND website www.cnduk.org – lobby your MP, send a letter to Theresa May, and join CND’s protest at Downing Street, 5pm to 6.30pm, Thursday 29 September.