Chris Ogden is senior lecturer and associate professor in Asian security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.
With both the United States and North Korea intensifying their war of words concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, tensions are rapidly escalating in East Asia.
Following President Trump’s threat to counter North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has responded by stating that US troops in Guam will be the target of its long-range missiles.
Although such rhetoric has long been a mainstay of the Hermit Kingdom, marking it out as one of the world’s most volatile entities, the leader of the United States now appears equally keen to match such bombast.
This current situation runs against previous US diplomatic approaches, which preferred to be conciliatory and reserved when dealing with North Korean belligerence.
This recognised the danger of antagonising a nuclear-armed adversary in close proximity to 75,000 US troops based in South Korea and Japan, as well as the absence of a viable military solution that could avoid re-igniting conflict in the region.
Instead, the last 10 months have heralded the arrival of the impulsive, provocative and reckless President Trump into this precarious situation, which has only served to compound this nuclear standoff.
With two such unpredictable individuals keen to appear strong and in control to their domestic audiences, the stage is set for a major strategic miscalculation between the two sides.
Notwithstanding the true nature of North Korea’s missile capabilities, which may – or may not – be able to reach Guam, or even competently deliver a nuclear device, it is the seeming unwillingness of either leader to appear to back down – and therefore to not win – that is of utmost concern.
Indeed, the recent unprecedented linguistic ratcheting, especially from the US, is gradually preventing a peaceful diplomatic solution being achieved.
Any military conflict between North Korea and America, especially if nuclear-edged, would be brutal in scale.
Apart from endangering the 75 million people living in the two Koreas, a war would unleash vast levels of instability in the region, with the possibility of conflict spreading to US allies such as Japan and South Korea, millions of refugees flooding into Russia and China, and business production – in the world’s most critical economic zone – all but collapsing, precipitating (at least) a global recession.
For a Scotland already facing the uncertainties wrought by Brexit, it would be catastrophic. We must hope that humility can take us back from the brink.
- Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer / Associate Professor in Asian Security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.
His latest book, China and India: Asia’s Emergent Great Powers, is out now.