Trump Should Worry: How a Terrible War with North Korea Could Begin

Robert Farley

Key point: Pyongyang cannot win, but it could still kill millions.

The most intense period of fighting in Korea ended some 62 years ago, but the divide across the Peninsula remains the world’s most visible legacy of the Cold War.  While the Republic of Korea (ROK) has become economically successful and democratic, North Korea has become a punchline

Nevertheless, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has continued to increase the sophistication of its ballistic missiles, has developed nuclear weapons, and maintains the world’s largest garrison state.  Pyongyang has also made clear that it isn’t afraid to provoke Seoul (and Seoul’s biggest supporter, the United States) with aggressive moves such as the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, and the bombardment of South Korean islands.

The general peace on the peninsula has more or less held since the 1950s. Still, while North Korea’s power has declined substantially relative to that of South Korea, the idea that Pyongyang might come to the conclusion that war could solve its problems still worries U.S. and South Korean planners. 

If North Korea faced a situation in which it determined that war was the only solution, how might it seek to crush the ROK, and deter the United States and Japan?

Timing is Everything…

North Korea’s best hope for success in peace hinges, as it has for the past seventy years, on the potential collapse of the global capitalist system. This sounds… optimistic, but consider that South Korea suffered badly during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, that the capitalist world continues to suffer from the fallout from the 2008 Financial Crisis, and that Japan faces what appear to be insurmountable economic difficulties.

Even if a world economic collapse does not bring capitalism to its knees, another such crisis could put stress on the relationship between South Korea, Japan, and the United States. 

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