War With North Korea? Tensions Ramp Up to Dangerous Levels

North Korea put the world on edge today with a worrisome announcement that it would be prepared to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, days before the scheduled bilateral exercises between South Korea and America slated to begin on March 11. Despite the provocation, it is unlikely that the situation would deteriorate to all-out war, not in the least if we consider the signal from China’s UN ambassador Li Bao Dong to return to the six-party talks as soon as possible.

The latest round of UN Security Council sanctions that prompted Pyongyang’s kneejerk response put further restriction on goods that can be traded with North Korea to include high-tech products and jewellery, as well as sanctioning companies and entities that conduct research and development into nuclear components, including for weapons.

Last December’s missile launch and North Korea’s third nuclear test in February spiked the tensions to the highest levels they have been in a few years, at least since the last device was exploded in 2009, and the Cheonan sinking in March, 2010.

Even if we might think that this latest round of destabilization could be a false prelude like the many provocations preceding it, it doesn’t mean that the risk of hot war is ever far away. For all intents and purposes, North Korea remains a dangerous and unpredictable actor.

The truly dangerous part comes when North Korea’s propaganda, itself a fundamental driving force for the public legitimation of the regime, begins to interfere in calculated policymaking. While nuclear tests and satellite launches represent technological milestones on their own, it is just such acts that can push the border between propaganda and policy to become dangerously grey, especially with a radical regime as North Korea’s at the center of the whole process.

It is doubtful that this latest round of rhetoric will result in open conflict, but we cannot guarantee that future such recurrences in the midterm will not end in blood.