The Truth About the Brewing 'Nuclear War' Between North Korea and the US
We spoke to the former head of the British Embassy in North Korea about what's really going on.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
This week, a billion dollar missile defense system with the ability to "intercept North Korean missiles" was deemed "operational" by the US command stationed in South Korea. Amid protests from anti-war activists, opposition from the Chinese government, and an argument between Washington and Seoul over who will pay for it, the THAAD missile defense system has become the latest point of contention in an interminable standoff between North Korea and the United States.
Relations between the two nations have been vexed since the Korean War in the 1950s, when the US Air Force "killed off"—to quote one general—20 percent of the North's population with 500,000 tons of conventional and chemical weapons. More recent history testifies to the fragile success of negotiations, which collapsed in the 2000s when George Bush declared North Korea part of his infamous "Axis of Evil," and Kim Jong-il responded by detonating a nuclear device.
In recent years, things have only gotten worse. Obama's presidency saw the US lead a "strategic pivot" toward Asia-Pacific, which meant an intensification of US presence in the region to counter Chinese hegemony. As a result, the paranoia has intensified in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, which sees itself as increasingly encircled by its old enemy. Trump's thick-skulled belligerence hasn't helped either.
But while the media carelessly whips up hysteria with talk of "World War III," it's important to remember that these standoffs are a yearly occurrence—in the Korean Peninsula, they have the character of routine.
To complicate our picture of two petulant princelings facing each other off and threatening to take the world down with them, we sought out some sober analysis from James Hoare, associate fellow in the Asia program at Chatham House in London and former head of the British embassy in North Korea.
VICE: It's hard to keep track of what's going on. What's your survey of the situation?
James Hoare: This is not something that just happened this year—it happens every year. It's a standard consequence of the US-South Korean military exercises that take place around March and April every year. They're very big. They're said to be "defensive exercises," but there's no such thing as defensive exercises: Exercises are exercises; they can go either way. And the North Koreans react: Their rhetoric and threats go up.
But it doesn't actually alter anything on the ground. The North Koreans still have the same problems they've always had: If you attack the United States, you've got to be suicidal. If you don't have the means to attack the US—which I don't think they do, although they're working toward it—then you make a lot of noise instead.
Equally, I think that they're clearly determined to carry on with the development of a feasible nuclear weapon, and that is going to lead to hostile Western reactions. So you've got these two patterns, which are quite well established, coming together. I suspect the rhetoric on both sides will die down once the exercises are over, but the underlying concern about North Korea's nuclear program will continue. So I don't think you're going to have World War III just yet.
"Every March [when the North Korean military exercises happen], I stop watching television because I can't keep answering these silly questions about whether we're going to war now."
Is hysterical media reporting to blame for the lack of proportion?
I was just speaking to an American journalist who's been studying North Korea for quite a long time, and he said, "Look, every March [when the military exercises happen], I stop watching television, because I can't keep answering these silly questions, 'Are we going to war now?'" This is rhetoric. We know how the North Koreans use rhetoric—they hype it up. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's going anywhere.
Part of the problem is the "madman" analysis we have of the North Korean leadership in the West—it stops us from having a clear-eyed assessment of how North Korea might be pursuing its perceived self-interest.
The fact is that we don't really know very much about Kim Jong-un. We don't know how or what he thinks. He's different from his father and grandfather; he doesn't have the links they had with China. But, so far, he hasn't proved suicidal. He does hype up the rhetoric, but, so far, they've backed away—as always—from a really dangerous confrontation.
In the past, there were really heavy exchanges of fire along the demilitarized zone [between North and South Korea]: Ships have been sunk; people have been killed in South Korea by raiding parties from North Korea; the South Korean Cabinet was blown up in Rangoon [in 1983]. There have been pretty serious and worrisome moments, and yet the armistice has held.
People on both sides of the DMZ do seem to have the ability to scale down things—everybody seems to be able to judge when you can't push them much further. A few years ago, we had exactly the same sort of noise being made—the North Koreans saying, "Do this, or we'll wipe you out!" And they didn't—it all faded away.
To what extent should we be seeing this as a symptom of a much wider standoff between US and China?
I think there is a strong element of that. The Chinese are worried about the prospect of the US being established higher up the [Korean] peninsula than it is already. They don't like the North Korean nuclear program because it increases tension, and the role of the United States, so they put some pressure on the North Koreans—but they're careful they don't push them too far because then they'll go off and do something that really could be quite dangerous.
Much of the US concern with North Korea is, in fact, related to China. When I worked in government, I used to say to my American CIA contacts, "We know how to spell Beijing: It's P-Y-O-N-G-Y-A-N-G!" They laughed.
"The real uncertainty this time around is that we don't know what Trump's position is. He's the new unknown quantity."
The history of North Korean and American relations shows that negotiations can work. Is there an appetite for them?
That's true, but I don't know: The real uncertainty this time around is that we don't know what Trump's position is. He's the new unknown quantity. He has a State Department that is missing large chunks of people—there haven't been appointments for all sorts of levels—and he's notorious for... Well, it's a bit like Éamon de Valera [a prominent Irish politician in the early 20th century], who was asked how he knew what the Irish people wanted. He said, "I look into my heart." Well, I think Trump looks into his television.
That has introduced an element of uncertainty, which you've seen in the last week. On the one hand, every option is on the table for the US, including the military, and then this week he says, "Oh, I could talk to Kim Jong-un!"
As someone who led the British embassy in North Korea, how important do you think the country's self-image is during these moments of crisis?
I think that's another factor that has to be taken into account. A lot of the posturing has to do with domestic considerations—it's phrased in terms of the US, but it's not aimed at them. The real need is to project yourself as the strong, capable leader, who's keeping our country independent.
That sounds like British prime minister Theresa May.
Well, in a sense, it's not dissimilar. Whether it's true, of course, is another matter. But, really, people often forget that there is a domestic side to all these things and much of the noise is playing back within North Korea.
What have the soundings from the British government been? It seems like May has been echoing the American side quite willingly.
Well, Britain does. There's no doubt that the US leads on the Korean issue. We don't really do anything very separate from what the United States does, nor does the rest of Europe, really.
I've been asked whether we will close our embassy; I don't know, and I hope not. I don't see that closing the embassy actually does much, except further isolate North Korea. And even if we don't have much influence, it's better to talk with them and hear directly from them, rather than not. But I don't look to Mrs. May—particularly with an election coming up—to start intervening on the Korean Peninsula. Americans wouldn't want it anyway.
Is it left to a third-party to generate the political will for negotiations, or will all this panic just dissipate after a while?
I think this particular period of tension will probably calm down even as the underlying problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons doesn't go away. But there are ways of trying to deal with that. The Chinese say to the US that you've got to try and talk to them. But the exercise-related tensions that we've been seeing over the last few months will fade away. I mean, keep your fingers crossed.
Follow Yohann Koshy on Twitter.