Is second Korean War imminent?

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The Korea Times

By Digital News Team

Will North Korea conduct a nuclear test in coming days? And will the United States punish it with a military strike, as Donald Trump pledged as one of the options to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions?

Any military clash between the two countries could lead to the worst-case scenario of a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula.

Many South Koreans are increasingly uneasy about possible exchanges of fire — between the two Koreas or a three-way battle involving a third country, most likely the U.S. — that could throw their lives into unprecedented chaos. The unplanned deployment of a U.S. carrier strike group to waters close to the peninsula has stoked worries. Adding fuel to the fire are widespread “warmongering rumors” on the internet, with detailed prospects, including when and how a second Korean War would break out. Many experts and government officials called the rumors “baseless,” but that seems to have done little to contain rising public anxiety.

The Korea Times interviewed four experts on North Korea and international relations to draw up a likely scenario that will play out in coming days.

A dominant prospect was that North Korea would make some form of provocation before or after the 105th anniversary of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday, which falls on Saturday, but it would be non-nuclear — possibly a ballistic missile launch — so that the U.S. won’t respond with a strike and the two Koreas would avoid a bloody head-on fight.

Nevertheless, given the fact Trump is as unpredictable as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it would be wise to say that things are still up in the air.

Three questions were equally given to four experts: Prof. Kim Dong-yub of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University; Dr. Chung Sung-yoon of the Korea Institute for National Unification; Prof. KimJae-chun of Sogang University and Dr. Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow in the Unification Strategy Studies Program of the Sejong Institute.

1. Kim Dong-yub

Q. Do you think North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test before or after April 15?
A. If North Korea conducts provocative action, the ballistic missile launch is the most likely. The possibility of the sixth nuclear test is very low. The nation takes those actions not to celebrate or commemorate a certain date, it does it by the change of domestic circumstance.

Q. If a nuclear test takes place, do you think the United States will take any form of military action against North Korea? When? And how?
A. That is a different problem. If the U.S. does react to North Korea’s provocation, North Korea will retaliate against South Korea. This would seriously harm the Seoul-Washington alliance. Furthermore, expecting the neighboring countries’ negative reactions to the attack, it is hard to anticipate that the U.S. will counter-attack North Korea.

Q. What would be the most likely reaction to such a strike from North Korea, China and Japan? Please be specific.
A. A justifying reason for the attack, such as crimes against humanity, would make the U.S. attack North Korea. But when there is no justification, it would cause an uncontrollable result. There would be a big retaliation action from North Korea, and then the South Korean public’s reaction towards the U.S. will deteriorate, which will threaten the South Korea-U.S. military alliance enormously.

2. Chung Sung-yoon

Q. Do you think North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test before or after April 15?
A. The nuclear test is unlikely to happen, but military provocation is highly expected. North Korea conducts provocative measures under two conditions: a) when there is a necessity and b) when there is any political and diplomatic interest for them. Currently, it needs to confirm how much its ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) have improved, and react firmly to the U.S.’s suppressive counter-North Korean policies. Considering the time needed for the preparation, North Korea’s military provocation will happen at least one to two months later.

Q. If a nuclear test takes place, do you think the United States will take any form of military action against North Korea? When? And how?
A. The U.S. taking a firm stance against North Korea and attacking the nation are two different problems. It is evident that Trump is considering taking military sanctions as one of the options, but there lies a greater risk of “war escalation in the Korean Peninsula,” which makes it difficult for the U.S. to do any military action.

Q. What would be the most likely reaction to such a strike from North Korea, China and Japan? Please be specific.
A. It will be differed by the time and the purpose, but if the U.S. really does attack, in a very low possibility, it is clear that the nation should have already prepared for the war escalation to have a “War Escalation Dominance Strategy.”

3. Kim Jae-chun

Q. Do you think North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test before or after April 15?
A. North Korea must be scratching its head hard. It wants to send messages to the world that it will stick to its own path despite mounting pressure from the U.S. and the global community. But it should be a pressing matter on North Korea to see its relations with the U.S. tarnishing to something irrevocable, given the military state conducts the sixth nuclear test. North Korea might be taking into account that the test could raise eyebrows on South Korea’s progressive presidential election candidates such as Moon Jae-in. The sixth test, on North Korea’s part, must demonstrate the state’s ability to control hydrogen bombs, not atomic bombs, and have skills to minimize and standardize its nuclear weapons. North Korea will conduct the sixth test, whether April or not, because it never wants to give up its “nuclear-armed country” brand. If the test was done this month, it will be around the 15th.

Q. If a nuclear test takes place, do you think the United States will take any form of military action against North Korea? When? And how?
A. The U.S. will not throw a preemptive military strike at North Korea. But if it does, North Korea will retaliate by attacking South Korea. The U.S., allied with South Korea, is responsible for taking part in an inter-Korean military clash, which it wishes to avoid. The U.S., if it has to, would rather put stronger pressure on North Korea by activating DEFCON (Defense Readiness Condition) than waging a military war on the state.

Q. What would be the most likely reaction to such a strike from North Korea, China and Japan? Please be specific.
A. North Korea will be easily provoked and retaliate strongly in any fashion. China will not approve of America attacking North Korea. Japan has no choice but to ready itself for a semi-war stance because it knows it could be targeted by North Korean retaliation.

4. Cheong Seong-chang

Q. Do you think North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test before or after April 15?
A. It is possible that, with signs of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test being detected, the test will be conducted before Apr. 25, the foundation date of the People’s Army. The website 38 North estimated that North Korea’s fifth test carried explosive power of 15,000-20,000 tons. It is expected the sixth test will carry the power of at least 14 times that of its previous test.

Q. If a nuclear test takes place, do you think the United States will take any form of military action against North Korea? When? And how?
A. Given North Korea carries out the sixth nuclear test, the U.S. will push for stronger anti-North Korean measures at the U.N. Security Council, including a secondary boycott and moving its strategic nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. could also throw a precision strike at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center to prevent North Korea’s further advancement of nuclear capability.

Q. What would be the most likely reaction to such a strike from North Korea, China and Japan? Please be specific.
A. If the U.S. attacks the Yongbyon facility, it will open the curtains to the worst-case scenario — nuclear war — as North Korea could attack South Korea’s nuclear plants or Seoul using nuclear weapons. China would certainly disagree with the U.S. attacking North Korea. China would withhold its engagement in the military conflict as long as the Kim Jong-un regime does not collapse so that it does not have to clash with the U.S. Japan will support the U.S. in attacking North Korea because it needs American support as it tries to beef up its imperial military force.