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A permanent crisis on the Korean Peninsula

The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is escalating.

“North Korea,” President Donald Trump told reporters on Aug. 10, “best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A day later, Trumptweeted again, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Just hours after President Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, Pyongyang announced a plan to launch four intermediate ballistic missiles to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Although Kim Jong-undialed his Guam threat down a bit on Aug. 15 and signaled a pause in the escalating war of words with the “foolish Yankees, “there are fears that North Korea could change its mind if the situation flares up,” writes Alice Foster of Daily Express, “North Korea’s military has successfully created a miniaturized nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside its ballistic missiles… Guam is well within range of North Korean missiles. After North Korea threatened Guam, the pacific island of Hawaii began making preparations for a possible attack by the Kim regime.”

As Pyongyang is “carefully examining” its plan to strike Guam with missiles, tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops are gathering on the Peninsula to take part in a 10-day, massive joint military exercise, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 17.

The Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 17 has long been planned for Aug. 21-31, but now comes at a time, says Oliver Holmes of the Guardian, “when both Washington and Pyongyang are on heightened alert, raising the specter of a mishap or overreaction.” The Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills have always included an exercise of “decapitation strike,” a trial operation to eliminate Kim Jong-un and his generals. And following the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 16, North Korea has conducted a series of nuclear and missile tests.

The current situation on the Korean Peninsula, warns Robert Carnell, Chief International Economist at ING, “is beginning to develop into this generation’s Cuban missile crisis.” Fifty-five years ago, during the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster, President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even.”

Will the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula escalate into a second Korean War? The answer is: Highly unlikely.

Looking from Pyongyang’s point of view, Kim Jong-un’sprimary goal is to sustain the Kim dynasty, against all odds. A war with the United States will for sure spell the end of his family dynasty. What the 33-year-old North Korean dictator wants is his own survival and that of his regime, and to avoid what happened to Muammar Gaddafi of Libra. Kim Jong-un is ruthless, and sometimes reckless, but he is not crazy, and certainly not suicidal.

And looking from Washington’s point of view, a war with North Korea will cause a tremendous disaster in South Korea, and conceivably in Japan as well. “Estimates of casualties and physical destruction on the Korean Peninsula, and possibly Japan, under any war scenario are so exceedingly high,” writes Franz-Stefan Gady of the Diplomat, “casualties in the larger Seoul metropolitan area alone may surpass 100,000 within 48 hours, even without the use of North Korean weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. Department of Defense assessed that a second Korean War could produce 200,000-300,000 South Korean and U.S. military casualties within the first 90 days, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.”

Last but not least, looking from Seoul’s point of view, South Korea has a forceful message for all major powers: There will not be another war on the Peninsula. In his nationally televised address on August 16, South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared, “Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula. Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action. The people worked together to rebuild the country from the Korean War, and we cannot lose everything again because of a war. I can confidently say there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula.”

The North Korean nuclear crisis has already lasted for more than a decade. And since the U.S. and North Korean objectives – regime change vs. regime preservation – are fundamentally incompatible, a perpetual crisis on the Peninsula is the most likely scenario. A direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang or between Seoul and Pyongyang is the only way out of this everlasting crisis.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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