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Why A World War III Over North Korea Sounds Interesting But Is Less Likely To Happen

Updated on 17 May, 2017 at 12:01 pm By

Something terrible is happening in this part of the world.


Google Maps

What, you ask? There is a very high probability of a World War III. Yes, this is not some conspiracy theorist’s wild assumption; this is something that the famous (or notorious, if you would) hackers group Anonymous just claimed in a video they posted online. The video has sent the world in a tizzy for a third world war means the near annihilation of the region where it would be fought.

But before we move to the possibility of a war of all wars, we need to take a look at the history, geopolitical reality, and condition of the chess pieces who might get involved in this madness.

That part you see in the map shows five nations and four seas. One of those nations is North Korea, always in the news for its threats against the United States, ballistic missile tests and a nuclear tests. (The sixth is reportedly being planned as I write this.)

On the surface, it appears that the bellicose Pyongyang is willing to risk everything to bring Washington on its knees. And since US President Donald Trump ordered a carrier battle group to move close to North Korea, chances of the clouds of war engulfing the region very soon have become stronger.


A graphical representation of the USS Carl Vinson carrier battle group which has been sent to the Korean peninsula to keep a check on North Korea. SCMP

But why this extreme animosity? To understand that, we need to take a quick dive into the history of Korea.

What is the history?

The trouble between the two Koreas, as we see it today, dates back to the period between the end of World War II and the Korean War.

The feud started after Japan was defeated in World War II in 1945. Since northern part of Korea was liberated by Soviet forces, the communists, who were already in existence in that region, became stronger and formed a party. The southern part was freed from Japanese occupation by the Americans, who then influenced the politics in this region.

It is not that the south didn’t have any communists. In fact, the main communist party, Communist Party of Korea, was founded in Seoul in 1925 and operated till 1946. That party became part of a larger communist party, Worker’s Party of South Korea (WPSK), in Seoul and carried out armed attacks on American forces as well South Koreans supporting them. They operated till 1949, when the members and supporters of the WPSK fled to North Korea and merged with Worker’s Party of North Korea (WPNK) to form Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK).

In May 1948, the South had been declared by United State as the Republic of Korea (ROK). In September of that year, the north declared statehood as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

And do you know who the Soviets chose to head the DPRK? Kim Il-sung. Yes, this man:


Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea, speaks at a mass rally in Pyongyang in July 1953. Handout/Reuters/Corbis

Kim Il-sung, who would later become the first ‘Supreme Leader’ of North Korea, had by now become the most prominent face of the communists in Korea. Backed by the Soviet Union and the Chinese communists, Il-sung was able to carry out what communists across the world do – a purge. The purge led to the elimination of all his rivals within the party and made him what we know him as today.

As the leader of a purely communist nation and backed by Soviet Union, and later China under Mao, Kim Il-sung had only one task: defeat the great enemy of communism who goes by the name of United States of America.

The Cold War was already on. China had defeated US-backed Kuomintang (KMT) of Chiang Kai-shek who escaped to what is now Taiwan in 1948. So the ground looked ripe for all the communist forces in the east of Asia to do something big.

Reunification of the two Koreas was presented as a goal – a goal that remains entrenched in the mind of Pyongyang as well as Seoul. Both technically want to overrun the other and unify the Korea peninsula.

So in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War. Initially North overran South till US-led UN forces came to Seoul’s aid. They then pushed back and captured North Korea. Then China intervened and helped North Korea regain its lost territory.

And just in case you did not know, the Korean War never actually ended. The two countries signed an armistice in 1953, not a peace agreement. An armistice is like a ceasefire to allow for talks. The armistice ended the war in 1953 but Pyongyang and Seoul have never come to an agreement over terms of peace.


A US Marine with captured North Korean guerrillas following the assault at Inchon. Bettmann/CORBIS/

So between North and South Korea, the war is not over. Technically, the war is not just between the Koreas but also between North Korea and the United States, or, in other words, between communism and capitalism.

So by all probability the tensions are going to mount further than they are now.

What is the current situation?

In North Korea

North Korea is run by the Kim family. The current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il who succeeded his father Kim Il-sung. Though a failed state by socio-economic parameters, the Kim family has been able to hold onto power through a potent mix of nationalism, isolation, and anti-US propaganda. If you may have noted carefully, North Korea’s threats are directed at United States. (Why? Will be explained later in this article.) All its nuclear tests were done with the objective to make Washington D.C. take notice.


Kim Jong-un with North Korean special forces during an event. KCNA

Pyongyang continues to improve an ICBM which can hit the US west coast at Alaska. What North Korea lacks is the capability to mount a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried halfway across the world and hit their greatest enemy. Once they are able to do that, it would actually become a serious problem for D.C. So should Washington not be alarmed? It should be because experts have said that the repressive Kim Jong-un regime will have a nuclear-capable ICBM in the next five to six years. And once they get their hands on something like that, it is only a matter of when not how for a strike at the US.


The range of North Korea’s missiles.

But the US and South Korea are not the only enemies of the North. Japan, too, is seen by Kim as a problem. This is why Japan was one of the first in the region to raise an international alarm when North Korea tested its first nuclear missile.

In Japan

Ever since the end of the World War II, Japan’s military has been technically under the thumb of the United States. Article 9 of the island nation’s pacifist constitution puts a whole host of limitations on the Japanese ‘armed forces’, if you would call it so, because Japan has no standing army de jure.



The Japanese self-defense forces cannot act unless attacked. Forget invading another nation, the Japanese armed forces cannot even leave their land for a preemptive strike on an enemy. So the US is responsible for the defense of Japan. But over the years, the Japanese government has enacted laws to somewhat relax the limitations without any objection from the United States. So today, Japanese self-defense forces can participate in UN Peacekeeping missions and can also assist an ally nation militarily if the ally nation is attacked. This technically means that Japan can come to the aid of the US if North Korea attacks the US.

Japan knows very well the threat from North Korea. The threat is so real that in April this year, sales of nuclear shelters in Japan went up. Most importantly, the Japanese government, too, told prefectural administrations to hold nuclear evacuation drills indicating concern over a possible North Korean attack.

And Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has perhaps become militarily strong enough to win any conventional war against any country in all of East Asia. The Japanese navy, for instance, is technologically superior to all other navies in East, Southeast and South Asia. In just two years, Japan constructed two helicopter destroyers of the Izumo class.

In South Korea

South Korea now has a new president in Moon Jae-in, who is way more liberal in his outlook than his disgraced predecessor Park Geun-hye. Jae-in said that he is ready to go to Pyongyang for the sake of peace if circumstances permit. But that does not mean that South Korea is putting its guard down. On the contrary they have just paved way for the installation of the THAAD missile defense system enraging both China and North Korea.



Though South Korea’s relationship with Japan is not the same as it is with US, Seoul and Tokyo will ally in case of an attack from North Korea. Since the US is an ally of both, it is like a friend of a friend is my friend.

In China

China sees Japan’s growing military might as a major threat, and they do have their own bitter history and ongoing territorial disputes. To Beijing, therefore, a militarily powerful Tokyo is like the return of the Imperial Japanese forces – a situation China would never want to see.

At the same time, China has opposed the installation of the THAAD in South Korea accusing the United States of trying to impose its military might.

Its relations with South Korea are not bad. Though Beijing wants to prevent the installation of the THAAD, it is also willing to work with Seoul to denuclearize North Korea.

On the other hand, China is the only avowed ally of North Korea. Their common ideology and history, as was described above, is the reason why Pyongyang is still practically breathing. But do note that shared ideology is not the only reason why Beijing supports Pyongyang.


Chinese paramilitary near a marker depicting the North Korean and Chinese national flags with the words at Tumen in China’s Jilin province. AP

North Korea serves as a heavily-armed eastern guard of Beijing who keeps everyone else in East Asia feel threatened and away from China’s doorstep. This keeps China’s worries from the eastern side of its border somewhat alleviated so that it can focus on other matters such as the South China Sea dispute and its claim on Taiwan, the fifth country in that map. China will not want the United States to breathe down its neck in the east, which will happen if North Korea is not there.

This is why China came to North’s aid in the Korean War. Moreover, China is now a global giant and is more focused on expanding its economic power through the One Belt One Road policy and keeping a check on the rise of its greatest rival in Asia – India.

The United States

Ever since Donald Trump came to power, he has been trying to reign in North Korea in a stricter manner than his predecessor. Sanctions are in place, but the US armed forces under Trump act in a slightly different manner than they did under Obama at least with regard to North Korea.

But this does not mean that Trump wants a war with North Korea. He is simply preparing militarily for the worst, which is what every sovereign country in the world would do. Though the media in the US might be appearing to suggest that Trump will order an invasion of North Korea, it is still highly unlikely.

However, sending an entire nuclear-armed carrier battle group might appear as a definite indication of a war. And Trump has been very clear that North Korea will be punished if it goes on a misadventure. If there is a war, the actual belligerents will be North Korea and the US – and you know why from the history they share.

But from the most pragmatic (and optimistic) outlook the fact is that there is not going to be any war – not as of now.

Why no war?

Reason 1:

Simply put, there is a lot at stake. What will a war do? Kill millions and destroy the economy of the entire region. North Korea has nothing to lose, but China has – both politically and economically.

If North Korea attacks anyone, a retaliation will follow. The allies – US, Japan and South Korea – will put their collective effort in completely annihilating North Korea, kill Kim Jong-un and place their own puppet in power. Kim wouldn’t want to die and China will not let that happen; they didn’t during the Korean War, and you know, again, why.

Given the fact that every nation in the region, except North Korea, is an economic powerhouse, they wouldn’t want to let their economic achievements go down the drain because of a war. So they won’t attack even if they can. There is a risk of a nuclear war and no developed nation would want that.


The red one shows the GDP of North Korea. The light blue one is of China. Reddit/Imgur

Reason 2:

Japan cannot attack first. South Korea, under President Moon, is looking for peace with North Korea. Even Trump is trying to make Beijing understand that China alone holds the key to silence North Korea without a war.

China is North Korea’s major exporter. Ninety percent of whatever North Korea imports comes from China. Without a North Korea, China will lose a business partner. Without China, North Korea will not be there at all. Reports indicate that China is looking at placing some sanctions on North Korea because of the nuclear tests. Truth is that even the North Korean regime is aware of the damage China can do to it without anyone intervening in the Korean peninsula.


So North Korea may cause worries but will not attack. It is highly likely that Beijing will be able to make Pyongyang understand the nuclear crisis Kim is leading his nation to before something goes wrong.

Reason 3:

Ever wondered why most of North Korea’s provocations are against the United States and not its main enemy South Korea? Because North Korea wants the sanctions on it lifted or eased and that can be done only by the US.

And how do you get to force the world’s most powerful country to the negotiation table? Threaten it with the possibility of a nuclear war. An analogy is Pakistan; it creates terrorists and then tells the US that it needs money to fight them.

To the US, the security of its two allies in the region is important strategically and economically. North Korea knows very well that if it attacks any of the allies, the US will wipe it out from the face of Earth. A power-hungry Kim Jong-un would not want that. This is why North Korea did not invade South Korea when the latter was at its most vulnerable state in 1961 and 1980 – military coups.

The US knows that even if it tries to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, a retaliation by Pyongyang is enough to kill millions in that small geographic area. A single nuclear blast is enough to devastate the place. And even in 1968, when North Korea had no nukes, the US did not attack the communist country despite a hijacking of a US naval ship by forces of Pyongyang. Why? Because even then a war in the region would have killed millions and hit US economic interests. So the US won’t attack even now, which is why the Trump administration is trying to talk to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration and bring him on the same page (talks and sanctions) with regard to North Korea.

So does that mean there is nothing to worry?

No war as of now does not mean there is nothing to worry. Nobody actually saw the World War II coming. In fact, in 1938 the then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that Hitler will never go to war against Britain. He believed that the Munich Agreement would ensure what he called “peace for our time”. What happened next is the bloodiest period of the 20th century.

A theoretical representation of the region of South Korea which will be devastated in case North Korea fires all of its artillery on the South. Note that Seoul is very close to the most dangerous areas.

So if Kim Jong-un loses his sanity or if the GDP keeps going southwards, he may declare war if he is sure that he will be having China’s backing, even if reluctantly. Or if Donald Trump is in the mood to do what former US President George W. Bush did with Iraq, there will be war.

But unlike Hitler, Kim wants to reign as the Supreme Leader of his nation for as long as possible. This is why he continues to purge anyone who can be a threat to his leadership from within including his uncle and his half-brother Kim Jong-nam. This is why in spite of the rhetoric, he never acts on it or talks of global domination. And unlike Kim’s North Korea, Nazi Germany did not depend on any other country for its survival.

On the other hand, Iraq was not a nuclear power and had no WMDs. (Bush knew that). North Korea is nuclear-capable nation and Trump knows that.

China will try to ensure that North Korea’s GDP never reaches a point that it is pushed to a war. So, basically, there will be no war…for now.

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