Which hot buttons could drive North Korea to war?

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16 December
11:15
December
2016

There are any number of possible buttons. If, for example, they got into a firefight on the border with South Korea. Remember that we came very close to that in 2015, with the North Koreans blowing the legs off South Korean soldiers in their trenches, and an exchange of artillery fire. If something like that went bad, the North Koreans might easily find that they were forced to choose between doing nothing – which would make them look weak, which they hate – or escalating, which would put the South Koreans in a similar position, and before you know where you are, you’ve got a much nastier war going on. 

"There’s a real risk of war by accident."

Back in 2010, there was the North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island by the North Koreans. Remember that at that point the South Koreans actually had attack aircraft in the air on their way to North Korea, and the order to strike had to be countermanded at the insistence of the United States. It was pretty close. Since then, the United States and South Korea have sat down and very solemnly worked out response strategies, and it has been agreed that next time, the South Koreans wouldn’t be called back. So if North Korea over-eggs the pudding just a bit, and launches another attack on South Korean assets, then gets whacked by South Korean F-16s, feels the need to retaliate against that – well, you can see how it goes. 

There’s a real risk of war by accident. The North Koreans think hard and calculate carefully, but they do sometimes miscalculate. I’m pretty sure that they miscalculated in 2015 – that they weren’t expecting the South Korean reaction. And I think they probably miscalculated over the fifth nuclear test. I don’t think they were expecting the sanctions on their coal exports. And they could of course miscalculate in a conflict situation.

There are things other countries might do which would be interpreted as provocations, but North Korea very carefully won’t say what those actions might be. They talk about attacking if anybody insults the honour and dignity of the Supreme Leader – what does that even mean? Quite deliberately, everybody else is left guessing as to what North Korea’s red lines are. It’s not inconceivable that it could happen in response to internal dissent, and it wouldn’t be the first time. 

Another possibility, which I hope is now receding, is if South Korea decides it is going to embark on its own nuclear weapons programme, which there has been a lot of discussion about. That might really spook the North Koreans, by denying them what they perceive as their nuclear advantage, and they might do something silly. 

"All of a sudden, North Korea finds itself confronting a United States which is quite capable of playing by North Korean rules."

It’s noticeable that ever since Donald Trump’s election, they’ve gone quiet. We’ve had one big cyber-attack, but that was probably planned before. We’ve had no big missile launches, nuclear tests, anything like that. I think they are puzzled. They are suddenly confronting a United States with which they are not used to dealing, one that is not run any longer by people committed to upholding the international order as it stands, and not committed to the established principles of US foreign policy. All of a sudden, North Korea finds itself confronting a United States which is quite capable of playing by North Korean rules.

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