Yes, we should be worried. We should be very worried. Although North Korea doesn’t present scenes of violence such as we see in Syria or Yemen at the moment, it does have the potential to be a much, much nastier problem. We are looking at a regime which simply doesn’t share the values that we in the West hold dear, that is committed to its own survival, and ideally to its own expansion, and is armed with nuclear weapons. It’s the one area in the world which is most likely to see an exchange of nuclear weapons used in anger if things go wrong.
North Korea has the unique problem that it is confronted, in the southern half of the peninsula, with an alternative vision of Korea, which is rich, democratic, famous for a great cultural scene, internationally respected – all the things that North Korea would love to be. Long-term, it has to destroy South Korea. Otherwise, the very existence of South Korea is going to erode North Korea to the extent that the regime becomes untenable.
These are very traditional Koreans, committed to the reunification of the Korean nation – under their own terms, of course. Although we tend to talk about North Korean nuclear weapons as a deterrent, that’s largely because we’re so used to talking in those terms after the Cold War in Europe. If you read North Korean statements on the purpose of their nuclear weapons, they hint very broadly that this is not just deterrence – this is aimed at cowing the United States so that it does not reinforce South Korea should a conflict erupt between north and south.
“North Korea could probably overrun Seoul fairly quickly, then threaten nuclear devastation unless they surrendered.”
We get excited about the annual joint exercises between South Korea and the United States. It is easy to forget that at least twice a year North Korea also exercises, and they are all practices for attacks on South Korea. This is closer to the front of the North Korean leadership’s mind than we would really like. North Korea could probably overrun Seoul fairly quickly, simply because Seoul is so close to the border, and because they have so much artillery pointing at Seoul. Overrunning the entire peninsula, they would meet very stiff resistance – the South Korean armed forces are not to be trifled with. But the North could probably take a fair amount of it, and then threaten nuclear devastation unless the rest surrendered.
If North Korea collapses, the quick answer is that nobody knows what happens next. The favoured scenarios are either massive refugee flows across the border into China, which the Chinese would probably stop, using methods which we might feel a bit squeamish about – and that this would force a Chinese intervention. Or that the Kim dynasty is replaced by someone within the regime, who, on a best-case analysis, goes live on North Korean television, says the game’s up, and asks to talk to the South about reunification. Or there’s a military coup – and it’s important to remember that there are generals who make the current leadership look liberal.
And North Korea’s intelligence services are very active. North Korean cyber attacks are increasingly sophisticated – they recently managed to take out the cyber defence of the South Korean army, which was a bit embarrassing. They do this stuff quite a lot. We know that at various points they have collaborated with Iran. We know that they were helping Syria build a nuclear reactor, which the Israeli Air Force destroyed in 2007. As to what they’re doing at the moment: not entirely clear. It may be that as a strategic move they’ve decided to pull their horns in, or it may be that they’re getting better at concealing their activities.
John Everard is the author of Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat In North Korea