Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has been gathering a great amount of attention from Washington, and by extension the American media, due to its nuclear program and the strong remarks from President Trump on the topic. The threat of war with the reclusive Asian state has been floating on the airwaves and the internet, leaving many people on the edge.
However, one must keep in mind that North Korea should be neither underestimated nor overestimated.
The division of the Korean Peninsula goes back to the Korean War. After some initial gains in 1950, the Communist North was pushed to the border with the People’s Republic of China by the UN forces. Right afterward, Beijing entered the fray, leading to a horrid tug-of-war that lasted until 1953, when the armistice was signed. Interestingly enough, there is no official peace between Pyongyang and Seoul, so both sides of the peninsula are still officially at war.
Afterward, Pyongyang became an isolated nation, subjected to strong sanctions from the international community and led by the iron fist of Kim Il-sung and his descendants. Kim Jong-un is the grandson of the original supreme leader, and his rule has been characterized by a brutality that has surprised some analysts.
In spite of its isolationism, Pyongyang has found some support in Beijing, and the latter has been supplying North Korea with most of its food and also a great deal of political backing during the decades. As reported by the CNBC, China does not want a U.S.-aligned country sharing borders with its core territories, and this is where we get into the heart of the issue.
North Korea is a heavily militarized country. From an estimated 25 million-strong population, more than one million serve in the Armed Forces, while almost seven times that number are said to be in reserve. The Army employs thousands of armored vehicles and artillery pieces, and the Air Force is said to be equipped with hundreds of combat aircraft. Additionally, the Navy has around 40 diesel-electric submarines. This does sound impressive.
However, most of this equipment is old, in part due to the aforementioned sanctions. The core of the armored forces is mostly comprised of mid-Cold War era vehicles or local copies. The mainstays of the air defense forces are equally old aircraft, and the few MiG-29s and Su-25s belong to outdated models.
In contrast, the South Korean Armed Forces have their own locally-built tanks, which are among the very best in the world, and fly aircraft like the F-15K Slam Eagle, of a whole different category compared to what their northern neighbors possess.
Albeit the numbers and fanaticism of the North Korean Army could make a possible invasion from U.S.-aligned forces costly and protracted, the first impact would obliterate most of its conventional forces. In spite of their rhetoric, it is possible the North Koreans are keenly aware of this. This is why they need their noteworthy nuclear program.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
In his podcast, journalist Dan Carlin compared the campaigns of World War I to boxing matches. All factions tried to one-hit KO each other. It is arguable that North Korea has this very intention in mind when planning its own defense.
For starters, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, stands just 35 miles away from the border, right within the range of some of the North’s heavier artillery, or will be if Pyongyang manages even a temporary foothold in the South should a war break out. This alone could devastate the city.
The nuclear program, on the other hand, would allow North Korea to eradicate one or two targets in a single blow. Because they know that any attack against them would necessarily have to be led by the U.S., for logistical reasons if nothing else, they have been attempting to build a ballistic missile capable of reaching North America, a breakthrough they might have achieved just now, according to the New York Times.
The objective is to be able to deal such a powerful lead hook into their opponents’ faces that they will at least get bloodied, even if North Korea is still ill-equipped to fight a conventional war against their enemies. Maybe this blow, or the promise of it being dealt, could be enough to stop a campaign in its tracks, or even avoid any attacks whatsoever.
Regardless of how much damage they could be able to dish out, the North Koreans would always be on the losing side if they face a U.S.-led coalition. Their forces are simply not equipped to fight such a foe, but they would make their defeat as costly as humanly possible.
They do have a final plan in mind, though, which involves not weapons but countries.
The final result of a US-led conflict against North Korea could be an occupation or even a reunification with the South. As stated before, China is really not prepared to have a U.S. ally at its doorstep. And the same goes for Russia, which shares a small border with North Korea. Moscow has been engaged in Ukraine since 2014 for this very same reason.
The advances of NATO toward the East made Vladimir Putin’s Russia paranoid about being encircled. China has the same issues, especially now that India is leaning to the West. Having a direct border with a country that has American bases on it is unthinkable.
Make no mistake, China is a rival of the U.S. Beijing has been pushing into the South China Sea to exert influence over the most important trade routes in the world, which brings it into a crash course with Washington.
Moreover, this expansion requires patience and well-laid plans. Pyongyang hasn’t been helping at all with that. With its inflated rhetoric and the development of weaponry that amounts to a wild card in the region, it made China uneasy. This is further underlined by the sort of response the situation is garnering from President Trump.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
Even so, Xi Jinping’s government may not be able to lean away from this regime anytime soon, and if Beijing feels its interests threatened, it may lash out — maybe “give a lesson” to the unruly neighboring countries — and even finish its own civil war by finally conquering Taiwan. This would devastate the region and would be terribly costly to the U.S. Keep in mind, however, that the possibility of things going this far is quite low.
For slightly different reasons, South Korea may also not be interested in a reunification, as rebuilding and developing North Korea would consume vast amounts of resources the country may not be able to spend. Even so, there are political movements within Seoul that do call for a reunification, even under a Northern lead.
In conclusion, North Korea is not a true military opponent to the U.S. and its allies. The approach of President Trump toward Pyongyang’s inflamed remarks can almost be seen a bullying on an international scale. Still, the reclusive Asian state does have a few tricks ups its sleeve, both in the military and especially in the political arenas, which may cause tremendous damage.
International politics are, as always, complicated. One should always second-guess oneself and try to read between the lines.
[Featured Image by Wong Maye-E/AP Images]