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Saber Rattling Between Trump and Jong-Un

Recently there has been a lot of back and forth between President of the United States, Donald Trump, and Supreme Leader of Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un. Most distressingly, North Korea recently released a report detailing how they will strike at Guam, a strategic U.S. military location in the pacific.

As a US citizen working and living in Beijing, this news is quite shocking. Beijing is quite close to the Korean peninsula and China is certainly involved in the drama. Whether it likes it or not.  

Amid all the panic and rabble rousing, I find myself asking just what is going on and what could come about from all this “saber rattling”.

Just What Is Going On? 

The press loves this type of news. It draws eyeballs to their publications and advertiser’s dollars into their pocketbooks. But why is this particular issue so alarming for so many people?

Well, because the consequences of mishandling it are potentially catastrophic.

If North Korea were to fly a missile over Japan and at Guam, they would essentially force the U.S. military’s hand. We have strong alliances with both South Korea and Japan, which means that should the DPRK threaten one of these countries egregiously enough, than we will be forced to intervene alongside our allies and attack North Korea. 

A lot of people believe that the U.S. should preemptively attack North Korea before any of this come to fruition. “Kim Jon-un is an evil dictator! We can’t let him talk badly about the U.S.!” such people might yell. However, these people fail to understand the two main reasons why it would be a terrible idea for us to go into Korea alone.

  • “Going alone” means without the international community’s support. This hasn’t worked out well for us in the past.
  • We would be putting Seoul in a very, very dangerous position. North Korea’s main objective has always been, first and foremost, to “reclaim” the southern portion of the Korean peninsula (and has the arsenal to do this). 

Therefore, it is safe to say, that we will not, nor should we, attack North Korea without first being provoked in such a way that puts either Japan or South Korea in serious danger.

Also important to note is that, for the same reasons, North Korea most likely won’t fire a missile at Guam because they would be putting themselves in a position with very little chance for survival. Sure they may destroy a significant portion of South Korea, but ultimately they cannot stand up to the combined strength of allied forces – and I wouldn’t bet on China or Russia intervening on their behalf (although it’s not impossible).  

Of course, you never know for sure what will happen, but this is my personal opinion of all the factors at play from a purely cause and effect view. North Korea likes to say and do outrageous things because, it would seem from a distance, they feel that a variety of geopolitical factors have essentially made them “untouchable”.

Enter China.

All the while the President and Supreme Leader exchange vitriol, China sits on the sidelines, trying to distance itself from the whole conflict. Of course, one can assume that they are quite enjoying themselves, as the series of events discredits the US in the media and weakens our strategic position in the Pacific, which gives the party more political clout at home and soft-power influence abroad.

But aside from their obvious satisfaction, the big question on everyone’s mind is who China would support should an open conflict with North Korea and allied forces come to pass.

In the Korean War (1950-53), China did support the North as it was allied with the U.S.S.R. at that point in time. But a lot has changed since then. Would they really support Pyongyang and risk cutting themselves off from the economic advantages of trade with Japan, USA, South Korea, etc. of today?

My thinking is that they wouldn’t. There is too much to be lost in poor relationships with these developed economies to allow such a rift. We can, however, definitely plan on China doing what is in China’s best interest. 

Hopefully, if such an event would come to pass, China would begrudgingly support Allied Forces, or at least not intervene on the DPRK’s behalf. But what if I am wrong? Certainly the idea of a war with China, caused via a conflict in the DPRK is not out of the question.

Inevitable? Possible? Likely?

The older I get the more I realize that events in the world are not planned and the future is anyone’s guess. Certainly we cannot take the possibility of a war, or a world war for that matter off of the table.

In some respects, I feel like the further away we get from the WWI, WWII, Vietnam, etc., the more likely it becomes. People become more and more complacent. Everyone thinks that war is not possible, so they act with less and less respect for the strong potentiality of such events.

What makes us think that we are so special that the possibility of a global war is nonexistent? The main argument is that now we have nukes. But is that really a strong enough deterrent against a World War? I don’t think you can say that.

War is always a possible outcome, and if you study history you will see that humans love it. 

Not to say that I support or encourage death and violence; only that we should be slightly more humble about the possibility of war.  

A lot of people aren’t taking this issue seriously because they think both leaders involved are incompetent. Well, I’m not saying that either are particularly academic or intellectually gifted, but I would only remind the reader of Franz Ferdinand and “the shot heard ‘round the world”.

Why Don’t We Take This More Seriously?

I was born in 1990 and I don’t think many people in my generation fully appreciate the true horror of war. It’s not necessarily our “fault”, just that we grew up in mostly safe, peaceful environments, where the most controversial issues were terrorism, drugs, and perhaps most vicious of all, debt.

Today, America’s younger generations as well as most of the developed world are more concerned with their paychecks and bank statements than ideological warfare or international diplomacy. We take peace for granted because, quite honestly, we have never experienced the atrocities of war first hand.

Sure, the U.S. military is still the world police. It has been since I was a child. We watched and read about the middle east and terrorism, but only small pockets of the country were affected and certainly not enough for us to really understand how it feels to lose someone we love from violent conflicts. 

In a sense, the developed world is largely a safe place and it is just that safety which lulls us into a sense of false security and place of weakness. I’m not sure what it will take for people both in the White House and on the street to fully comprehend that talk is not only cheap, but also very dangerous.

I hope it can happen without war.