Why a War with North Korea is Still Unlikely.

With all the discussion surrounding North Korea’s ICBM tests (intercontinental ballistic missiles) tests and the war of words being played out between Trump and the North Korean regime, I felt spurred on to write this post. Much of the public presumes that North Korea is dangerous and unpredictable because we are not used to the extreme rhetoric that is spoken by the regime on a daily basis (to both its own population and to the outside world). What we don’t realise however, is that North Korea is the embodiment of securitisation politics and this extreme level of securitisation is what allows the regime to survive. The behaviour of North Korea is very predictable within this theoretical framework. With securitisation politics also being played out in our own states, it can come as a stark warning to us all – how far would we allow our own governments to go in the name of security?

af7276e4fbb546dcb90c0660729f9cb3_18

Securitisation occurs when an issue is elevated from a political issue (which can be dealt with using non-military means) to a militarised solution because there is an existential threat to the state. North Korea came into existence due to conflict (the Korean Peninsula was partitioned by the Soviet Union and the US, after freeing it from Japanese Imperialism). The North invaded South Korea with the help of the Soviet Union and China soon thereafter. Even though the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, it was not a treaty and therefore the two Koreas are still legally engaged in war. With the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s refusal to aid North Korea militarily in another conflict or battle, North Korea found itself in a troubling position. Socialist States were collapsing or were engaged in war with democratic States. The North’s ‘senses’ saw that it was in a troubled position and that its politics could be deemed as being unpopular internally if the right influences trickled down (the South moved from a military dictatorship to democracy, which promised a stable existence – remember that South Koreans saw how the US and other Western states functioned, taking influence from wherever they could). Securitisation means that an issue requires emergency measures and justifies actions outside the ‘normal’ bounds of political procedure (as per Buzan, and the Copenhagen School of Thought). Luckily for the North Korean Regime, no ‘normal political procedure’ besides those of Socialism and Imperialism were demonstrated or observable to the public. By remaining constantly in a ‘hyper’ State of War, the Kim family could justify isolating the State from outside influence (including the world economic market) whilst spending and concentrating wealth on the armed forces and ruling elite. Here is where the North ran into a problem however. South Korea, although the enemy and engaged in war with the North (legally) was not interested in the unification of the States through another large scale battle (socially unpopular). They have not made a ‘move’ militarily in this direction or in rhetoric. The South has not always had the means to defeat the North militarily either. This is why, South Korea has always depended so heavily on the US. South Korea therefore, does not constitute an existential threat to the North (lacking both capability and intent) and it would be difficult to portray South Korea as their ‘biggest’ enemy, without them playing the game. China also does not present itself as an existential threat to North Korea. Having a ‘buffer’ State in-between itself and South Korea (backed militarily by the US) is incredibly reassuring. China also wants to promote Socialism as a viable political system, despite the extremities of North Korea. By threatening the existence of the North Korean regime, China would face an asymmetrical battle – facing infiltration by North Korean agents, running ‘amuck’ (the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia using biological weapons demonstrates this threat and capability). For this reason, China may allow limited economic trade with it’s neighbour in order to ‘prop’ them up, but it does not want a tense relationship to get messy to the point of no return.

nkorea-us-missile-diplomacy-4

The only State in the world capable of destroying the North Korean regime, is the undisputed unipole – the US. It has the military and economic means to support a war on the Korean peninsula and is the ‘moral police’ of the world, spreading Democracy as it sees fit. George W. Bush mentioned that North Korea was part of the axis of evil, which could constitute intent. The US plays into the rhetoric of North Korea perfectly, allowing the Kim regime to keep its poor population poor, and forcing them to prop up its ill-equipped armed forces at all costs. The only ‘real’ currency or bargaining chip that the North could have, is nuclear weapons. It is for this reason, that North Korea will never give up its nuclear ambitions. The United States had its chance to demonstrate to the North Korean regime that it did not constitute an existential threat to the State in the 90s and early 2000s, but did not make a move. The North Korean regime now needs to keep up perceptions for its own internal survival, that they have the capability and intent to ‘continue’ to wage war with the Imperialist US (Myers and Lankov have also suggested this). Here is where the catch lies however, which makes a physical battle between the two States unlikely. North Korea does not have this ‘capability’. Even if they had a deployable nuclear warhead, it is unlikely that they have second strike capability. This means, the regime knows that if it were to deploy a nuclear bomb, they would themselves be wiped out by the US. North Korea has no other real military power that could threaten the United States. It will never be as technologically advanced nor have the economic means to sustain a war (remember it has trouble feeding its own population and armed forces at times). The regime knows this, but for the sake of appearances however, it needs to convince its population that the sacrifices they are making for the regime have purpose and that the regime is doing a good job at keeping an attack by the US at bay because of their own might. The State’s existence has therefore been securitised by the regime itself. By also having a deployable nuclear warhead, it can act as a deterrent to the US (whose population would not be willing to accept large amounts of civilian casualties or a large blown out war, let alone a nuclear war).

War of Words

While I don’t believe the Kim regime believes it can win a fight against the US, I will not dismiss the power of words. The difficulty lies in North Korea’s overblown warmongering rhetoric and how Trump will measure Kim’s actions and psychological state. At the moment, it seems that Trump is giving Kim a taste ‘of his own medicine’ by stating that the US will release fire and fury on a scale never seen before if US land is targeted in an attack. It’s possible of course, that Kim could become more paranoid about losing power if the US acts on one of its threats and the North could act irrationally by pre-empting a strike (leading to self-destruction) or by miscalculation. We have not seen that North Korea acts irrationally however (just as Realism posits). Remember the US intelligence community has stated that it has no reason to believe an imminent attack is present. The North is known to make small military movements (i.e. shooting at fishing vessels and across the DMZ on a few occasions) and will probably continue to test its missile capabilities near other state’s borders (as they propose to do with Guam – they have not threatened to strike Guam itself, which would be a statement and an act of aggression in terms of international law). There is no reason North Korea would stop its nuclear program. Stopping the program is illogical. As the North see’s the US as an existential threat and is able to position the US like this to it’s own advantage China cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear program without creating massive problems for itself. North Korea has almost always waited for the US to make a move – North Korea’s survival narrative is based on a conflict with the US and unfortunately, the US is playing into North Korea’s game and world view, which is the biggest failure of all.

S.

Advertisements

Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 – What Happened?

The story of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 grabbed me from the first moment I heard about the planes disappearance. I think this was for a few reasons – one, most of us get to fly quite regularly now and know that it is quite safe. The likelihood of this happening is so rare it’s almost like out of a movie. Because most of us fly from time to time if not very often, imagining that it could have been us on the plane or someone we know – makes us empathise more with the victims and their families, and makes us try to find a common ground for understanding. Two – the mysterious nature of this case is incredibly  intriguing and surreal. I do admit to being a fan of the show ‘Air Crash Investigators’ because you get to see how a mystery unfolds and is solved.

malaysia-airlines-boeing-777

I’ve been following the story from more of a security studies perspective and have been trying to unravel possible scenarios (like we all have probably). I discounted terrorism pretty early on for a few reasons. Terrorism is a method used for changing behaviour through intimidation and fear (if you don’t remember my two posts detailing what terrorism actually is or if you missed them – you can check them both out here and here). Terrorists fight for a cause – be it a political or a religious objective. They want this reason to be known. It isn’t actually about the victims of terror themselves, it’s about using the world stage to be noticed and heard. This is why after an attack – a particular group will claim responsibility for the violence. These groups are usually known about and hence people know what they stand or are fighting for. Every now and then, particular groups will actually claim responsibility for violence they didn’t cause, just to get some credence. This is usually found about about eventually though. No group claimed to be responsible for the hijacking – so this pretty much discounts terrorism as a cause. It is possible that the pilot was a lone ranger, fighting individually for a particular cause, but this also seems very unlikely as you would think that if that was so, he would also have wanted to highlight this cause on the world stage and not to disappear without a trace (that would be a bit of a fail). Early on in the disappearance, it did look possible that the two Iranians travelling on stolen passports were implicated – but I had seriously doubts about that two. Using stolen passports in that region is not uncommon at all. We would like to believe that governments are all powerful and things are within their control (especially big states like China, the U.S. etc) but one important factor I took away from my security studies is that the world is chaotic in many respects. States want us to believe that they are all powerful and that they are the only ones that can protect us in this big bad world. That’s what makes them relevant. Irregular migration is a big factor in the connected world that we live in and it usually takes place within the shadows.

So what other possible scenarios are left? Considering that the plane hasn’t been found yet, wasn’t detected my most sophisticated radars, means that it was flown by someone with considerable skill and knowledge. It’s highly possible that it was the pilots themselves who hijacked the plane. Most hijackings are perpetrated by unstable or mentally ill persons who have irrational demands, however are usually subdued eventually. Clive Williams wrote up a piece about this on SMH recently and you can read more about those types of hijackings here (he was actually a past lecturer of mine) and their characteristics – it’s a really interesting article. On the rare occasion, hijackings will occur by individuals seeking asylum or political refuge (sometimes extreme measures are taken if regular routes for claiming asylum are road blocked). That seems unlikely in this case, even though the head pilot had been supporting opposition parties in Malaysia. It seemed that he had quite a bit of personal freedom, also stemming from his own personal wealth and status as a greatly experienced pilot. Unless he was directly involved in politics, it’s a possible scenario but also pretty unlikely.

Could it have been pilot suicide? This is another possibility that has emerged. Mental health isn’t always taken seriously within particular professional fields (be it cultural reasons etc) and this can have grave consequences. I read another interesting article about pilot suicide here – but it seems odd that if the pilot wanted to commit suicide, why he would put in allll of that effort to conceal the plane and only then crash it. Another theory is that the plane was transporting something incredibly valuable. In the Polish media, I have heard of theories stating that they could have been transporting gold worth millions. It would have to have been something incredibly valuable to make the pilots essentially give up their own ‘safe’ lives back in Malaysia and go on the run. Also, if this was the case – then someone else besides the pilots themselves would have had to help get that cargo onto the plane. Smuggling routes and black markets are difficult to trace – but it is possible and I believe that this is where some of the investigation may be leading. If other individuals know the cause of this planes disappearance – then this will eventually come to light (if not now, in years to come).

I read a highly interesting blog post by Keith Ledgerwood where he theorises that MH370 not only used skilled manoeuvring by the pilots to fly around radars etc in order to avoid detection, but that the plane also followed another aircraft in its shadow to avoid detection (hence why they were travelling in well known flight corridors). Wouldn’t have the other plane noticed it was being followed? Not necessarily – especially if MH370’s basic radar equipment had been disabled. I also take into consideration that the plane didn’t make it’s final destination. I don’t think it’s crazy to suspect that during this highly risky trip that was extremely well thought out – that a mistake could have been made. After all, being under such unprecedented pressure and with adrenaline kicking, no theoretical training could have prepared the pilots for every scenario. Perhaps they flew to high for to long and everyone lost consciousness eventually (if the pressure in the cabin changed suddenly and drastically, oxygen masks would have been released, however planes only carry a certain amount of oxygen and it wouldn’t have lasted for hours. I believe I read that pilots have more oxygen stored in their cabin, but also, this isn’t a great amount which would have lasted for an hours) and thus crashed into the ocean? If they did land somewhere, I believe it may have been Turkmenistan, Mongolia or Kazakhstan. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are highly militarised and I doubt someone would not have noticed them by now.  Mountainous terrain would have also made it incredibly difficult to land etc. Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Kazakhstan have wide open plains, state control is not strong throughout the states and crime is prolific (especially in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan) so if they did manage to land somewhere unnoticed – that’s where I’d be beating.

Those are my thoughts and theories atm – feel free to tell me yours, I’d be very interested to know! This whole mystery is just incredible but also so sad. By some miracle, I really hope someone survived the disappearance/foul play! We can only hope and pray they solve this quickly.

Miss S.