Increasingly belligerent and increasingly isolated, the Hermit Kingdom has underlined its status as one of the most unknown and unpredictable entities in international affairs. Although Pyongyang’s ability to successfully launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland appears unlikely (due to both the technical prowess and range of its missiles, as well as US interceptor technology), the threat of such an endeavour is rapidly deepening tension, insecurity and fear across the Asia-Pacific.
While recent attention has focused on possible provocations against US bases in Guam, a much more immediate concern is a North Korean attack against South Korea (with whom it is technically still at war) and Japan (the subject of unresolved animus dating from the Second World War).
A nuclear strike against these countries carries the highest risk of escalation, as the US is bound by clauses in long-standing security agreements to protect both South Korea and Japan if they are attacked.
With North Korea being led by the heavily inexperienced thirty-something Kim Jong-un, who is at best pandering to internal military voices, the possibility for disastrous miscalculation intensifies. Against this background, the repercussions of any nuclear attack range from the moderate – a failure to hit any US target – to the extreme – a successful nuclear strike on the US, South Korea or Japan, in all likelihood leading to US military action. Such eventualities would led to refugee crises in China and Russia and severely dent regional economic growth.
With Asian growth driving the global economy, any economic downturn would presage the United Kingdom’s descent into a long recession.
Whether conflict is averted or not, the current crisis underscores just how effective the international community can really be when dealing with a pugnacious, nuclear-armed country. As the crisis shows, there is a clear limit to the impact of food and material aid, multilateral efforts or western rhetoric.
Moreover, successful North Korean brinkmanship will encourage other rogue states to pursue their legitimation and independence through the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. This shortcoming has serious negative portents for policy concerning Iran – another country attempting to currently acquire nuclear weapons. For these reasons, US and British stakes concerning a positive outcome and precedent in North Korea remain higher than ever.
• Dr Chris Ogden is lecturer in Asian Security at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.