If North Korea matches its warlike rhetoric with actions we are all in trouble. Kim Jong-Un may not have inherited the kind of nuclear warheads from his father that are ready to be put on to long-range missiles.
But he could still decide to pulverise much of South Korea with an intense conventional bombardment. Japan is also within North Korea's range, as are American bases in North Asia. There is a worrying precedent for the involvement of the major powers. More than 60 years ago when the North launched a major attack on the South, both the United States and China became embroiled in a costly and inconclusive conflict. New Zealand and Australia were involved, too.
A replay of that history is not impossible, but it is not particularly likely, either. North Korea has a long record of issuing threats which exceed what it is really planning to do, and the distribution of power is not in its favour. South Korea today boasts a strong military force, and is backed by its ally the United States. North Korea's ability to harm those around it is more than matched by the capabilities that are arranged against it, and more of those are now on the scene as the United States has beefed up its presence near the peninsula.
North Korea also has a major power ally in China. But Pyongyang should know that it is losing Beijing's patience. China does not feel ready to abandon North Korea, which occupies an important strategic position and which is led by a fellow communist regime.
But if Kim Jong-Un led his country into a major war this year, he could not assume that Beijing would be there to support him.
In a crisis, however, these cold calculations can easily give way to reckless behaviour. The threatening messages that have been emanating from North Korea recently have been of an unusually high intensity. In just a matter of a few days, we have heard that North Korea considers itself to be in a state of war with the South, that it is prepared to engage in a nuclear confrontation with the United States, and that it plans to restart a mothballed nuclear plant. Pyongyang's track record is also worrying: in 2010 it sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled a disputed island under the South's control.
We will probably end up with something in between a suicidal all-out attack by the North and more rhetoric without any military action. More island shelling by North Korea's military is among the likely prospects. But this time South Korea is likely to respond more forcefully. And even if both North and South begin with the intention of limiting any such exchange, there is no guarantee of that restraint being sustainable. The United States is treading a tightrope: in assuring South Korea of its support and telling North Korea it will defend its ally it risks provoking the North into something worse. And quite how much constraint China can apply to North Korea in a heated situation is open to question.
This stressful episode raises some important implications for New Zealand. Most directly, a major conflict started by North Korea could do severe harm to the economic prospects of each one of our top five trading partners. South Korea (No5) would inevitably suffer, but so too could Japan (No4). Given the possible spread of the conflict the United States (No3) and even China (No2) could well be affected. Australia (No1) would also find it hard to escape economic harm, given its own dependence on the leading North Asian economies.
We have no way of knowing what will happen to the region if East Asia's record of avoiding major armed conflict for many decades comes to an end. That record has stood since the limited border clash between China and Vietnam in 1979. But we can expect that the confidence which has underlain the co-operative mechanisms in Asia will have been severely shaken. We're simply not prepared for a region where states decide they can't rely on co-operation to secure their futures and have to go it on their own militarily, especially if they feel American power is no guarantee of deterrence.
Even less is New Zealand ready for a serious period of animosity between China and the United States, which is one of the possible consequences of a major conflict on the Korean peninsula. Having been involved in the last Korean war, will New Zealand have managed to step adroitly when we are asked to contribute to the new one?
No matter how frightening the rhetoric emanating from the North becomes, the huge conflict which could generate these bad outcomes is not the most likely prospect on the Korean peninsula today. But in thinking about this more extreme scenario we are reminded that the assumptions behind New Zealand's current foreign policy could still come asunder.
Robert Ayson is director of Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies.
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