North Korea has been in the news a lot lately, primarily as a punchline. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s bizarre trip to the world’s most isolated nation has prompted late-night talk show jokes and fairly racist Saturday Night Live sketches, all centered around the idea that Kim Jong-un is a joke and that North Korea is, in the end, hilarious.
Meanwhile, North Korea is threatening to resume its war against South Korea, the United States and the United Nations.
The Korean War was not ended by a peace treaty, but by a 1953 armistice. The armistice established the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries, and both sides pulled their troops back two kilometers from the line dividing the two states. Both nations maintain a strong force on the DMZ, as does the United States. While the armistice put into force a cease-fire, a technical state of war continues between North and South.
On Tuesday, North Korea threatened to nullify the armistice in response to continuing and increasing United Nations sanctions designed to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. †South Korea responded Wednesday by threatening its own military action if the North acts, with Gen. Kim Yong-hyun threatening “strong and resolute retaliations” if provoked.
Escalating tensions between the two Koreas have reached an apex in the last ten years, and a look at the timeline shows exactly why.
- 2003: North and South Korean forces exchange fire across the DMZ.
- 2006: North Korea tests a nuclear device; the test is viewed as a failure by Western observers. North Korea also launches a rocket, which fizzles soon after liftoff.
- 2009: North Korea tests a rocket, which reaches the Pacific before failing. It also conducts another nuclear test, this one more successful. North Korea also threatens to withdraw from the armistice over nuclear sanctions.
- 2010: A South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan, is sunk by a torpedo, killing 46 sailors. North Korea denies involvement, but a South Korean investigation shows the DPRK launched the torpedo. Later that year, North Korea fires artillery at South Korea’s Greater Yeonpyeong Island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. South Korea returned fire. It is believed some North Korean soldiers and civilians may have been killed, but the North has never confirmed that.
- 2012: North Korea tests two rockets, the second of which succeeds in putting a satellite into an uncontrolled orbit.
- 2013: North Korea conducts a second successful nuclear test. North Korea again threatens to nullify the armistice.
It’s easy to look at that timeline and conclude that North Korea is blustering now like they did in 2009, but the pressure on the DPRK is much more severe now. The United States has succeeded in convincing China to join in tougher UN sanctions, which further isolates Pyongyang; China has been the closest thing to an ally that the North has, and Chinese intervention unquestionably saved the North during the Korean War. If Pyongyang fears it is losing Beijing, it may move the North to conclude that it has nothing to lose by escalating tensions even further.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged North Korea to instead calm the situation.
“It’s very easy for Kim Jong-eun to prove his good intent here also. Just don’t fire the next missile. Don’t have the next test. Just say you’re ready to talk,” said Kerry at a press conference.
Needless to say, nobody wants war to break out in the Korean Peninsula. Not America, which is trying to extricate itself from another war, and has little appetite for fighting a third war in ten years; not South Korea, which has built a thriving democratic society; not China, which really doesn’t want to get dragged back into a hot war against its largest trading partner, especially to defend the Kim family dynasty.
A war with North Korea would not be easy or quick, even if China sat it out; its military is the fourth-largest in the world in terms of size, trailing only China, the United States and India. †Even with America’s technological superiority, the sheer number of DPRK troops is overwhelming. And that’s not getting into the fact that North Korea has at least some nuclear capability — or that China may not want to fight a hot war with the US, but that the Middle Kingdom probably doesn’t want US troops stationed on its border, either.
Oh, and both China and the United States have far more than some nuclear capability — the two nations have huge nuclear arsenals mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
A war in the Korean Peninsula would be destructive, horrific and potentially catastrophic, not just for North and South Korea, but for the world. For all the spectacle of Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un watching basketball, it’s important to remember that North Korea is not a joke — its threat to global stability is deadly serious.
Image Credit: Michael Day