The Korean Peninsula is Asia’s great melodrama. The spectacle of two rival, heavily armed Korean states eye-balling each other across the demilitarised zone (DMZ) has held the world’s attention as a set-piece flashpoint for seven decades, threatening as no other scenario can to trigger US military intervention on the Asian continent.
A second Korean War would likely draw in not just the original belligerents, including China and members of the United Nations Command (Australia included), but also Japan and perhaps Russia.
Seoul, we are frequently reminded, could be devastated under a rain of long-range artillery shells and rockets.
North Korea is the only country to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. War on the peninsula could trigger the first use of nuclear weapons in anger since the Second World War.
With about 1.5 million soldiers under arms on both sides of the DMZ, and more than 26,000 US military personnel in South Korea, a tense armistice is punctuated by occasional exchanges of fire on land and at sea.
Until recently, loudspeakers blasted propaganda and counter-propaganda across the DMZ in a literal manifestation of megaphone diplomacy, but the armistice has largely held. Drones infiltrate memory sticks containing South Korean television dramas, music and outside information into North Korea, while in the opposite direction North Korean defectors occasionally brave it across the minefields and razor-wire defences of the DMZ.
No armistice in cyberspace
In cyberspace — the latest frontier for inter-Korean confrontation and rivalry — there is no such armistice.
North of the 38th parallel, Pyongyang has conducted missile launches and nuclear explosions with startling regularity. In 2017 alone, North Korea carried out 23 ballistic missile flight tests, including three ICBM launches and one underground nuclear explosion of unprecedented yield, in all likelihood a thermonuclear device. Its rapid technical progress towards a nuclear-tipped ICBM has been breathtaking.
Each successive North Korean “provocation” elicits a South Korean and US counter-response. South Korea’s military has been preparing its own rapid-reaction precision missile strikes, part of a dramatically titled “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” initiative that includes a newly formed “decapitation unit”, aimed at the North Korean leadership.
The United States has participated in scaled-up exercises with its Korean ally, and flown long-range bombers over the peninsula in increasingly ritualistic demonstrations of assurance and resolve.
Japan and Hawaii on alert
South Korea’s public has grown inured to such cyclical tensions, having lived in North Korea’s shadow for 70 years.
However, the Korean melodrama has now moved beyond the confines of the peninsula. Japan has introduced civil defence drills against missile attack, as real North Korean projectiles fly over the Japanese archipelago.
Even Hawaii has been touched. In January, an emergency text alert sent in error, warning of an incoming missile attack, triggered panic.
The US and Japanese populations are far less used to dealing with North Korean threats. The rapid development of Pyongyang’s missile capabilities has brought new “audiences” within reach.
Even Australia has been threatened with “disaster” for supporting US efforts to pressure the regime.
Yet, in spite of Pyongyang’s cultivation of a permanent hair-trigger crisis, and the high-alert posture maintained by US and South Korean forces, the flashpoint of a second Korean War has never materialised.
Enter the ICBMs and Trump
Viewed from a longer perspective, the North Korean playbook repeats in cycles of provocation, crisis, engagement, negotiation, and breakdown.
The script developed under North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung (1948–1994), and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (1994–2011), is essentially unchanging. However, it has played out at a faster pace since Kim Jong-un took power.
Two developments in the current cycle have the potential to disrupt the familiar Korean Peninsula melodrama, fundamentally rewriting the script.
First, North Korea is on the cusp of acquiring an operational ICBM capability, giving it the ability to deliver nuclear warheads directly to the US mainland as only China and Russia can presently.
The second development is the entry of a new actor, US President Donald Trump, more given to hyperbole, bluster, and abrupt reversal than any of the previous external protagonists.
A game of nuclear ‘chicken’
One risk is that Mr Kim’s self-assured brand of North Korean brinksmanship and Mr Trump’s tempestuous occupancy of the Oval Office will combine to create a rhetorical echo chamber, which threatens to reduce the complex security challenges posed by North Korea’s arsenal to a game of nuclear “chicken”.
Mr Trump’s approach has been compared by former US Assistant Secretary of State and chief nuclear envoy Christopher Hill to trying to “out-North Korean the North Koreans”. Throughout 2017, Pyongyang and Washington appeared locked in a dangerous escalatory cycle, with successive North Korean nuclear tests triggering tougher rounds of sanctions and US-led counterpressure, including calls for preventive military strikes.
Since the beginning of 2018, the crisis dynamic has flipped towards engagement.
In February, Mr Kim sent senior regime representatives to attend the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and attended an inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom in April. He also travelled to Beijing in March for his first overseas visit as North Korea’s leader, receiving a ceremonial welcome from President Xi Jinping, despite China billing the visit as “unofficial”. A second visit to China followed within weeks.
This switchover, from reclusive militancy to outreach, should not surprise observers of Pyongyang’s past behaviour. It rather marks an intentional transition to the next act of a familiar play.
Despite the immediate focus on rapprochement with Seoul, drawing the United States into bilateral talks has always been Pyongyang’s big prize.
More surprising was Mr Trump’s impulsive decision to grant an unprecedented bilateral summit, set to take place in Singapore on Tuesday, June 12, on largely speculative terms.
Indeed, Mr Trump’s role in the North Korea drama is the most unpredictable element.