Brinksmanship in East Asia

Current headlines around Asia (and the world) have focused on North Korea and the tensions resulting from the nuclear bomb and rocket experiments that are continuing to take place. There have been five missile tests, two of which were successful, and another nuclear test is expected soon. All of which has mobilised the United States to proceed with military movements that are as large and dramatic as any that have been seen in recent times. There are also threats and counter threats of war that are coming from the leadership of both sides.

The risks for the entire world are exceptional as due to the recent economic globalisation we are all stakeholders in planet Earth. That begs the question as to why there seems to be this show of brinksmanship in East Asia. After all, there are few other risks for humanity worldwide that are as dramatic as that of nuclear war; from the end of telecommunications and trade to a nuclear winter that essentially ruins all life.

Currently, there are nine members of the ‘Nuclear Club’, that is nations that hold and maintain a stockpile of nuclear weapons: The United States, Russia, China, England, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel. The newest member of this ‘club’ is North Korea, and they are currently asserting their membership with zeal.

For a country as poor as North Korea to maintain membership, the compelling reasons need to be existential threats to the continuation of their state and leadership. For Pyongyang, the costs were extremely high, with the initial acquisition of the technology from master Pakistani spy A.Q. Khan (whose other clients included at least Syria, Libya and Iran). It is no surprise that there are numerous possibilities for countries to obtain the tools for creating weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), nor is this list of countries attempting to acquire such weaponry.

What was clearly demonstrated for many was what took place in Libya, and that was the perceived necessity for this club. If Gaddafi had been in possession of nuclear weapons, then all evidence points that he would still be in power. By acquiescing in 2003 to international demands, he stopped his programme. The results being the end of his rule (and grisly death) within a decade as his regime’s military was subjected to NATO bombing which empowered his opponents in the civil war: it is doubtful that something like that would have happened if he were able to threaten NATO countries with WMDs.

From the moment that nuclear weapons were used, containment of the information and technology that ended WWII in Japan was short-lived as the Soviets quickly developed their own atom bomb.

Initially, there were only the two nuclear powers and a constant fear that nuclear war would erupt, but it didn’t. At the height of the cold war, a term that was coined to explain the non-use of nuclear weapons was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This forced the resolution of disputes without a ‘hot war’ erupting. The theory was that there were enough arms to completely destroy both sides in any conflict; thus there was no rational benefit to conflict. This comes from the Realist School of international relations and is dependent on rational actors who are in the international arena. The difficulty arises when there is an irrational player, such as North Korea which has demonstrated irrationality from its leadership in numerous instances. The most recent being the assassination of the North Korean Premier’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur. Potentially this is raised dramatically when there are threats to the very existence of the regime in power.

A missile strike as an element of foreign policy by the Americans is nothing new; the latest incident being the punishment of the Syrian regime of Assad by the Trump administration on April 6, 2017. The attack also had several underlying implications, one was to show the leadership of the Chinese government of Xi that the US was willing to take unilateral action and policy; another was to (and send a clear message to the North Korean government that there were capabilities to destroy their bases with conventional, non-nuclear weapons). As well as to show that the Russians were ineffective in assisting the Syrians (they have forces in Syria and there is little evidence that the Russians either knew or were able to help).

Based on the reaction of the North Koreans to the attacks, calling them “absolutely unpardonable”, and Korean newspaper headlines exclaiming that they need to push towards a credible nuclear deterrent ‘a million times over’, these messages seemed to have been received.

When the costs of maintaining a nuclear arms programme are added up, they are debilitating for an economy the size of North Koreas, but their perceived alternatives are worse. So, this race for nuclear arms continues in countries such as Iran and Syria: as shown with the previous examples there are a variety of motivating factors involved if there is continued insecurity. How far Kim Jung Un is willing to go now that even China seems to be moving towards abandoning support for his regime is anyone’s guess. Just as big a question is the Trump administration’s determination in pushing forward: though dialogue has not been very effective, the path of confrontation raises the risks of MAD for the entire world.

Disruptions that would result from a major war in a globalised world, unfortunately, will have ripple effects throughout the entire global supply chain. And that means that there will be massive disruptions in Africa, and unfortunately for Rwandans, which is something that must not be discounted nor ignored as there is a lot at stake.

The writer is a Canadian scholar currently working as an associate professor at a university in Japan. He has conducted regular visits to Rwanda and has given talks at the University of Rwanda and at the Kigali Independent University.