Another day, another North Korean missile launch. This time, the hermit kingdom tested a Hwasong-12 missile on Sunday, May 14, 2017, which reached an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers (approximately 1,300 miles) and flew 787 kilometers (approximately 500 miles), according to the state news agency KCNA.
The United Nations Security Council is set to meet on May 16th in response to the launch. Russia condemned it, per CNN, but also warned against “intimidating” North Korea, a remark obviously aimed at the United States. As North Korea moves closer to developing weapons that can strike U.S. territories in the Pacific, not to mention the western portions of the continental United States, U.S. military and political leaders must begin to seriously consider measures that will thwart any attack on America, including preventative military options.
That, my friends, should scare the hell out of you, because a conflict on the Korean peninsula has the seeds within it of a third global war. How could a limited conflict in Korea morph into World War III, you ask? One need only examine the strategic imperatives and likely rationalizations of the involved parties to see a path to a cataclysmic global conflict.
Start with the United States. The Trump administration has made no secret of its toughening line on North Korea, and its view that the regime there presents a threat to American security. This arguably justifiable posture might very well force the U.S. government to develop limited military options to neutralize the North Korean ballistic missile threat. All well and good. Many would see the necessity of such a move, and best case, the rest of the world would grudgingly accept such a limited U.S. military strike (of whatever type).
How would North Korea react? This is the wild card, and is like asking how the meth-head on speed might react to the police officer’s shout to cease and desist and lie on the ground to be handcuffed. We have no idea, in other words. What North Korea might do in response to a limited U.S. military operation is anyone’s guess, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that, like the drugged-up tweaker, the regime will charge the world’s global policeman head-on. That’s when things will become interesting, and the world will be on the precipice of another world war.
If North Korea does choose to engage the U.S. militarily, China’s will be the next critical move. China will have to respond to a U.S.-North Korean conflict, and how it does so will likely determine whether the conflict is limited or protracted and widespread. China will no doubt want to prevent a war, but once a conflict erupts, the giant next door to North Korea might feel compelled to become involved.
Why? Simply put, China might feel the need to become a partisan to secure a say in the inevitable post-conflict settlement. Strategically, it cannot allow a U.S.-allied and reunified Korea to exist on its doorstep, if it saw that as even a remote possibility. It is likely that such an outcome would seem a greater danger to China than becoming involved in a conflict with the United States. Let’s not forget: China has already fought the U.S. in Korea once before.
Should China make the choice to enter into the fray, one could reasonably expect uprisings to erupt in China’s Muslim west, as the minority there is emboldened to act. The countries of southeast Asia might also see an opportunity to take sides against the bully to their north. It’s also not unreasonable to think that a territorial challenge from India might again arise in China’s south, as India sees its historical rival militarily preoccupied with the United States and its allies.
More seriously, China might also take the opportunity of a conflict in east Asia that is consuming American forces to finally seize Taiwan. Why not? The country has made no secret of its ultimate aim to reclaim its “renegade province.” This would immediately test the U.S. resolve to defend its ally Taiwan, while simultaneously defending South Korea from the North.
Next, we move to Russia. Vladimir Putin will have to make a cold and deadly serious calculation in this case. On one hand, he might see the opportunity to reorganize the global order through a large-scale war, and secure for Russia a stronger strategic position. On the other hand, Russia already wields a veto on the UN Security Council, and perhaps Putin will choose to keep Russia neutral to avoid major economic, diplomatic, and military losses.
In the event that Russia does side with China and North Korea, it would be so that Putin could deliver a military and financial blow to the United States, thus weakening America’s relative global position (if he assumed the United States would lose the conflict).
Conversely, Putin could even feasibly decide to offer to side with America, if he thought Russia could secure diplomatic and territorial concessions afterward. Putin might calculate that America would be victorious and use the opportunity to offer support to gain reciprocal support for Russian diplomatic aims in Eastern Europe. With Donald Trump as U.S. president, it is not unreasonable to think that such an offer would be favorably viewed by the White House.
Furthermore, Russia might even use the distraction of a Korean war to annex additional territories in Eastern Europe, thus initiating a conflict on the European continent. Could NATO effectively respond to Russian incursions into Eastern Europe if America was tied up in Korea? Putin might gamble on a “no.”
Next, it is a given that South Korea will be involved in any conflict on the peninsula. One could also assume that Japan will be forced to take America’s side, to counter both North Korea and China. Japan might see the opportunity to finally do away with its pacifist constitution, and become a “normal” militarized power as it sides with its rival South Korea to aid America. China will of course be inflamed further by the involvement of Japan, its nemesis since the Second Word War, and even prior to it.
Staying in the region, it is also likely that Australia and New Zealand will side with the United States in the same vein as the ANZUS Treaty of the 20th century. In this case, though, they would be siding with the United States to counter Chinese power in the region, as opposed to Japanese. However, both Australia and New Zealand will be reluctant to antagonize China. If push comes to shove, though, both countries should choose to side with the United States. A great deal would depend on how China reacted to a Korean crisis.
The other countries of Southeast Asia will also likely be forced to become involved as conflict in Korea and Taiwan would surely spill over to affect the South China Sea and the Straight of Malacca. The sea lanes there are some of the most important for shipping in the world, as they are the gateway for trade to and from Asia. These nations will also likely fear a victorious China, and the power it will project after such a conflict, if it feels emboldened and empowered. The South China Sea is currently ripe for conflict as it is.
Returning to South Asia, we noted above how India might react to a conflict tying up Chinese forces in Korea. Should the world’s largest democracy use the opportunity to antagonize China, expect that China would enlist its ally Pakistan to engage India in Kashmir and elsewhere. Pakistan would likely gladly and willingly respond to such an invitation against its historical nemesis. War could then move to South Asia, in addition to East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe, as already described.
As it stands in this worst-case scenario, we are already seeing potential conflict in a large swath of the world. North America could be engaged next, if China and/or Russia brought the conflict eastward to America’s west coast. Furthermore, how would Chinese-friendly countries in Africa and South America react if they were asked to become involved on the Chinese side? They would all have to make their own strategic decisions in this regard, but it is not unreasonable to assume that at least a few would side with China and Russia—even if just in diplomatic terms—at a minimum.
Before you know it, war has erupted out of the Korean peninsula like a global pandemic, overtaking most of the world in the greatest crisis for the international system since the Second World War. Although many of the pieces would have to fall into place for this worst-case scenario to occur, the same could have arguably been said in 1914 and 1940. The world’s leading powers, especially the United States of America, should work hard to prevent such a crisis before it erupts, and snuff out the North Korean spark.
Featured image courtesy of NBC News.