Alexander Gillespie: World's only option to let Kim save face

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North Korea's young leader must be allowed to claim small victory in order to avert a crisis nobody wants.

Complete escalation of every weapon in Kim Jong Un's arsenal could take minutes. Photo / AP
Complete escalation of every weapon in Kim Jong Un's arsenal could take minutes. Photo / AP

We are perilously close to stumbling into a war of potentially global proportions. The ridiculous nature of this situation is that no one wants it. However, no one is being smart enough to avoid it either.

China, the economic and cultural power-house of the future, has no interest in either Armageddon or a Korean peninsula consisting of rubble and corpses. South Korea has no interest in providing the corpses. Recession-bound America, finally emerging out of its murky wars on terror, has no interest in fighting a war in which success will be measured in elevated levels on the Geiger-counter.

The party with the least to lose in this situation is North Korea.

This is a dynastic regime based upon orthodox communist foundations, which makes the Syrian dictator, Bashar al Assad, look positively libertarian. North Korea is clearly failing by any sensible indicator, such as being able to feed or provide fuel for its own population.

It is held together by fear and the need for a "strong man" to defend them from both internal and external enemies. Kim Jong Un is that man.

This man is not cut from the same silk of the great communist leaders like Mao Zedong, Nikita Khruschev or Leonid Brezhnev, all of whom the West had to tussle with over nuclear threats. Kim Jong Un was born in luxury, and then groomed into the leadership of a bankrupt totalitarian regime, which he went on to inherit.

The battle for this man is not about ideological superiority, but dynastic survival. His biggest threat is not his starving population, but the liberal winds blowing through the Chinese economy, the powerful storms raging with the Arab Spring, and the obvious prosperity of South Korea.

To stand against this tide, Kim Jong Un has to convince his people that he and his regime are essential for their survival. For this, scapegoats must be found, enemies must be created, and tension maintained with bluster, rhetoric and threat.

The only problem is that this stupidity may lead, by accident, to war. History is full of examples of wars that catch fire when an accident gives the necessary spark between two fully armed and nervous opponents.

The list of errors, provocations and stupidity along the Armistice line and associated ocean in Korea is about one a year, every year, since 1953. For the first five decades the risk was of a large scale conventional war. To avoid this breaking out, the two sides created a hot-line, whereby the leaders could keep the matter under control and keep the armed forces at bay, when accidents occurred. Now, the hot-line has been cut. Now, North Korea possesses somewhere between 12 to 24 Hiroshima-plus size nuclear bombs, and potentially thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons.

If these are unleashed on the South, the United States will reply in kind. The risk now is much, much larger than in the past. The immediate threat is to the 75 million people in North and South Korea.

The larger risk, depending on the size of the exchange, is a nuclear winter of global significance. This is the best-case scenario if weapons of mass destruction are unleashed.

The worst-case scenario is that other big players like China are drawn into a wider nuclear conflict, in exactly the same manner that World War I unfolded. If this is the case, there will be never be a fourth world war, or for that matter, another human civilisation.

The absolute goal right now has to be to de-escalate the crisis.

The way that this has happened in recent years is that the North has lashed out, militarily, at the South. They have shelled disputed areas, and sunk South Korean vessels. In such instances the South has exercised "heroic restraint" and not risen to such extreme provocation. This has allowed the bully to maintain his facade, and peace to remain. It is unlikely that South Korea is willing to pay this price any longer. It is no longer politically acceptable to turn the other cheek. This means that if Kim Jong Un tries to lash out, to save face, he will get a blood nose in reply. If this young man gets a blood nose, the population he rules will become emboldened.

To avert this risk, he must strike harder at the external enemy. If that happens, complete escalation of every weapon in the arsenal could take minutes. This is especially so if the South hits, intentionally or unintentionally, any of the North's strategic assets.

What this suggests is that some other method has to be found to get the North Korean leader out of the trap he is creating for us all. The key here is finding something symbolic, that gives the appearance that he has won a small victory.

On the military level, it may be that we accept a further missile or nuclear test, which is signalled in advance so there is absolutely no misunderstanding. It may be that we tone down the military exercises in the South, or that the armed forces in the South publicly reposition a military asset, away from the potential conflict. If this blink is done, then the North can reciprocate.

Promises of talks on peace treaties, food, fuel and disarmament can be part of the following package. But first, a symbolic step, away from the precipice is required. In any other situation, the bully should be confronted, toe-to-toe. But this is not that instance.

Here, we need to be smarter. The courage of the West must not play into a situation in which the opponent does not have the option of blinking and cannot control the outcome if he starts to twitch.

The leader of the North needs a way to save face, so he can justify his position. He is too young and has too much internal risk not to look like the winner that his population cannot do without.

For the safety of us all, we need to provide him with that optical illusion.

Alexander Gillespie, a professor of law at the University of Waikato, has written The Causes of War (2013, Oxford); and The Laws of War (2012, Oxford).

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