Since the 1970s the Korean peninsula has never been far away from conflict. In common with his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-un likes to use inflammatory rhetoric and provocative weapons-testing to pressure the United States by increasing the risk of military confrontation. The nuclear crisis in 1994, when the Clinton administration came close to authorising pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex, was probably the closest the region has come to war since 1953. But the current crisis may actually be more dangerous than 1994, for two reasons.
The confident Mr Kim
The first is that the regime in Pyongyang is more confident than ever in its ability to deter the US and South Korea from carrying out military strikes. The brash young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has already demonstrated a risk-acceptant approach to the world and has put the pedal to the metal on accelerating the country’s nuclear and missile programs. North Korea is a nuclear-armed state possessing a mix of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium devices estimated at 15-20 in number. There is strong evidence Pyongyang is working hard to acquire the capacity to strike US targets, as well as those of its allies, including Australia and Japan.
All of this is worrying enough, but of added concern is that Kim Jong-un may have an exaggerated sense of his own ability to manage a crisis. With a nuke in his back pocket, combined with a willingness to embrace risk, Kim almost certainly believes the US and its allies will back down if push comes to shove. Even if nuclear weapons are removed from the equation, in the first several hours of any war, the US military has estimated Seoul could be subjected to around half a million rounds of North Korean artillery per hour. This is pretty sobering stuff for US and South Korean decision makers.