If you have questions about the end of the world, but are too embarrassed to ask them, this post might be useful.
Holy shit, are we all going to die in a nuclear war?
No. We’re not. Nuclear war is a possibility, and it’s probably more of a possibility now than it was six months ago, but as you’ll see, a lot of dominos have to fall before we end up in the worst case scenario position.
Why is North Korea so pissed?
That’s a long and complicated question. I’ll do my best to provide a summary here, but it’s important to note that North Korea is a country with a long history and a complicated set of political affairs. Like all news outlets, we can only ever capture a superficial level of their true history (particularly because North Korea doesn’t let foreign journalists into their country).
25 million people live in North Korea, which is sandwiched between South Korea, China, Russia and Japan – which is one hell of an internationally awkward dinner party.
The Kim family has run North Korea since 1948, in what can best be described as a cult of personality. Prior to this, Korea existed under colonial Japanese rule – making Japan an enemy of the North to this day.
Kim II Sung led an invasion of South Korea in 1950 with support from the Soviet Union. The US came to help South Korea, and China came to help the North – and that was the Korean War, where more than 5 million people died. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, separated by a de-militarized zone (DMZ). Both sides have signed a truce, but not a peace treaty.
The US remains friendly with South Korea, which has grown into one of the most technologically progressive countries on the planet. North Korea, meanwhile, has floundered. With the Soviet Union as their main ally, North Korea suffered when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. This triggered North Korea’s economic collapse, and a horrific famine, that killed up to a million people. This was further exacerbated by a horrific flood that wiped out most of North Korea’s farmable land.
But Kim II Sung was still worshipped as a mighty and powerful ruler (according to their entirely state-funded media). When he died, rule went to his son, Kim Jong II, and then his grandson, the present ruler, Kim Jong Un. They literally and figuratively try to keep up their elder’s image. The country is staggeringly behind the rest of the world. The few reports from the inside that we can get suggest that people are living in desperate poverty. It’s estimated locals are living on $1,800 a year on average.
It’s difficult to estimate just how many locals truly believe in the state propaganda. Still, as media technologies have grown in the last decade, there’s been an increased number of defectors attempting to flee the country.
If they’re so poor, why has North Korea put so much time and cash into developing nukes?
North Korea feels like they need to defend themselves. There are 23,500 US troops stationed on their doorstep in South Korea. The States and other would likely want to remove the Kim family from power. Plus, in recent years, North Koreans have seen what has happened to US enemies who didn’t have nuclear weapons. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was killed. He had no nukes (even though he said he did). Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s leader, was also killed after giving up his development of a nuclear program.
Ok, but seriously – why are they pissed at America?
It’s been a big year for American and Korean relationships. And it’s important to realise this isn’t entirely because of Trump. Trump’s diplomatic style is certainly aggressive. He’s a bit more bull-in-a-china-shop compared to Obama’s Jedi-mind-trick style, but the relationship was always going to come to a head sometime soon anyway. The US Secretaries of State and Defence have recently stated, “We are replacing the failed policy of ‘strategic patience’, which expedited the North Korean threat, with a new policy of strategic accountability.”
The fact that the US is so friendly with South Korea really pisses the North off. If it weren’t for the US troops stationed in South Korea, the North would’ve likely invaded again decades ago. Plus, the US does a lot of trade with the South. The North Koreans portray America as imperialists dogs who want to oppress the Korean people.
North Korea is almost entirely dependent on China for its imports and exports (more than 80%). So China is really the backbone of the North Korean economy. Back in February, the big news was that the US had managed to talk China into suspending its coal imports as part of slowing down North Korea’s development of nukes by crippling their economy. Still, if Trump’s errant tweets are to be believed, the US is not thrilled with how this process has gone. According to Trump, China is still showing too much favourability towards North Korea.
And this is one of the key dominos that would need to fall to get into scary territory. It’s not so much the North Korean, United States relationship, it’s actually the State’s relationship with China. If the US and North Korea end up in a war, and China allied with North Korea, we’re off to the races.
So why would China want to help North Korea, and not the US?
Several pretty good reasons when you think about it from their point of view.
If the Kim family falls, it’s problematic for China. Firstly, there would be a whole lot of Korean refugees right on China’s border – a massive issue for China. Secondly, if South Korea and North Korea unify with the State’s help, then China has a whole lot of American troops right on the Chinese border – another massive issue. Thirdly, if Japan, the US, and South Korea are all worrying about North Korea, it takes the focus off them for the time being. Plus, of course, if China pisses off North Korea, then there’s, you know, the nukes…
Does North Korea have any other friends?
Not really. Well, except for Russia.
Yep, that’s another scary domino.
Russia helps North Korea with some of its economy, providing some trade – although not nearly as much as China. The two countries are friendly enough that it would be difficult to determine who Russia would side with if war broke out.
So when does the shit hit the fan?
In the last couple of weeks, North Korea has openly threatened the United States, and Trump has threatened them in return. As the chess board stands at the moment, North Korea is threatening to bomb Guam – a small island nation that features a strong US military base.
If that happens, says Trump, then it’s an act of war, and no one’s quite sure what happens after that.
Wait. You said we WEREN’T going to die in a nuclear war. How worried should we be?
The most important thing right now is that North Korea doesn’t bomb Guam. That triggers the start of some pretty scary dominos falling. Recently, Aussie Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull said that they support the US completely. It’s easy for Australians to get mad at this proposition of blindly following Trump into war – but it’s probably more of a strategic move to prove to North Korea that they’d be starting trouble with a group of international allies who could really do some damage. This is also why Trump’s language has been so big on the issue, saying that if Guam is bombed, then North Korea will see fire and fury. They’re trying to scare North Korea into not doing anything.
But as for the bigger picture beyond Guam, the US military believes that North Korea can miniaturise a nuke and put it on a ballistic missile, hitting just about anyone.
But, as you can see from the image above, the authorities are unsure about how precise or developed these missiles are. It’s far more likely that the North can hit Japan or South Korea. America is currently helping out South Korea and Japan with anti-missile defence technology.
The missiles get the attention, but the North also has one of the largest artillery forces in the world – and if they decided to march into South Korea, the outcome look pretty bleak.
What do we do now?
Wait and be calm. At the moment, this is a war of words. North Korea have many decades of practice in defending themselves. Their actions may seem scary and irrational, but they haven’t done anything in recent memory to deliberately sabotage themselves. Whether they hit Guam or not is a pivot point – and is obviously the focus of a lot of background diplomacy at the moment between all the stake holders.
Australia, for the moment, is safe. China is the big gun here who we need to watch. Russia is the other silent player at the poker table. It is difficult to believe that, despite their words, North Korea would really go for Guam, knowing that they’d be kicking a mighty big hornet’s nest that could ultimately lead to their downfall.
Back at the end of the week with the news. If you want to go deeper on this issue, I highly recommend this Vox article (where I sourced the first map) and this Al Jazeera piece (where I got the missile map from). The Guam map was from the Daily Mail.
The image at the top of the article was taken August 10th. It is from the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces rally in Pyongyang in support of North Korea’s stance against the US. It was released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Aug. 11.
Update: What’s the latest?
North Korea said they’re delaying their attack on Guam for the time being – which is great news for those of us who don’t like world-ending nuclear war. America, Australia and the South Korea will continue with their planned training exercises in the South this week, which will likely piss off the North again.