The unlikely war

The dictator of North Korea does not want war but to maintain his regime undisturbed. He believes that nuclear weaponry is a key to it – says Eric Ballbach Director of Research Unit II ‘North Korea and International Security’ at the Institute of Korean Studies, Freie Universität. He says that despite the popular belief, China does not have absolute power over Pyongyang; its influence over its politics is limited. However, Beijing does not have such ambitions. It has well-founded political and economic interests to leave the situation undisturbed and preserve the current status quo on the Korean Peninsula. China does not want the reunification of the two Korean states under American aegis, or millions of North Korean refugees flooding the country after a possible weakening or collapse of the system. The United States would lose even more if a war broke out, not to mention its effects on the world economy…

Péter Zentai: What are the chances for an outbreak of nuclear war because of North Korea?
Eric Ballbach:
Totally excluding its possibility would be quite unwise. Even more, since this war of words has been going on between two of the world’s most unpredictable politicians. It is clear that the dictator Kim Jong-un and the President of the United States Donald Trump play a fatal game. However, the chance for the escalation of a war is rather small – and for a nuclear war it is even smaller. The USA is not in a position to be able to carry out a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
First of all, the USA – just like Russia, China, South Korea, or Japan – does not know where North Korea stores its nuclear weaponry. Obviously, somewhere underground, but the outside world does not know more than that. Secondly, a war waged on the Korean Peninsula – even if fought with traditional weapons – would cause immediate and drastic market, stock exchange, and real economic downturns in the world’s most dynamically developing area which is the lifeblood of the world economy. The collapse of world economy would be unavoidable.

When Trump attacks the North Korean dictator – only with words, so far -, one might wonder if the real target of his menacing rhetoric is Beijing? The official stance in Washington has always been that North Korea and its system are under Chinese control and they are dependent on Beijing…
However, this has not been true for a long time. In reality, China’s possibilities to intervene are far more limited than what the media and certain politicians depict in the rest of the world and mainly in the USA.

But North Korea’s economy is totally relies on China…
Eighty percent of North Korea’s external trade is conducted with China or via Chinese mediation. It is also true that North Korea’s economy and its integration into world economy – thanks to Russia and China – have been notably dynamic lately. As a proof, in the first quarter of this year, its trade flow with China increased almost by 40% – in comparison to last year. This relationship is founded on mutual benefits. China does make profits this way – both economically and politically. It has no interest in the breakdown of the regime in Pyongyang.

What could China lose from a North Korean regime change?
China’s stable economic development – which is evidently a world economic interest – would certainly be disturbed if the status quo changed on the Korean Peninsula. China worries that suddenly, millions of North Koreans leave for China to find shelter and settle down. Also, if, for some reason, the regime in Pyongyang collapsed, it would likely result in the reunification of the two states on the Korean Peninsula – guided by America.  It would mean that American forces would increase in the area, and some of them would move from South Korea to North, to the Chinese border. Installing American stations on the Chinese border? – Beijing would not let this… So China’s interest is to maintain the status quo and the regime in Pyongyang, and to preserve North Korea’s annual 4% economic growth. It is not a coincidence that China is one of those who are against penalisation against North Korea.

How efficient could international sanctions be? How much could they weaken the position of the North Korean dictator?
They would have hardly any effect, mainly due to China’s actions and interests. China will disregard those measures anyways, and will keep buying and reselling or use iron ore and other basic exports of North Korea, such as fish, seafood, and other fishery products. North Korea could easily go around penalisations that target financial and banking containment by Chinese, Iranian or Russian mediation.

Is the North Korean dictator really that unpredictable? Is it really impossible to predict his motives?
All in all, it is somewhat clear what he wants: to maintain the system, and – by that – his personal power. Internally, he can feel safe: his father and grandfather built up the system extremely efficiently. So nobody and nothing questions his power. However, he learnt from Gaddhafi the Libyan dictator’s fault that sooner or later the West – a significant external force – will eventually end such regimes if they deem the dictators and the systems militarily vulnerable. The Libyan ruler solemnly gave up producing or owning nuclear weaponry – presuming that by doing so, the West will leave him be and be cooperative. However, the promise just sealed Gaddhafi’s fate – or at least, this is what the North Korean dictator learnt from the Libyan events. The greatest lesson Kim Jong-un learnt was that he has to make his country a ‘nuclear-weapon state’ as fast as possible, because nowadays, the only ‘life assurance’ for dictators and dictatorships are nuclear weapons.

Original date of Hungarian publication: August 14, 2017