It’s Day 86 of the president’s first term, and two nuclear powers would appear to be on the edge of war. The extraordinary thing about it is that nobody seems much bothered. There’s no panic buying in the Seoul supermarkets, no nose to tail traffic jams as the 10 million inhabitants try to head out. One can only imagine they are so used to the intermittent heightening of tensions, the rhetoric and the brinkmanship, that they have become rather blasé. Certainly the pundits in the British Sunday broadsheets, while recognising a crisis might develop, still think the threats and counter-threats are mostly hot air. And yet, if we are to take the statements of the leaders of the two powers in question at face value, things are looking bleak. It is evident that the president wants to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He would rather China do this work on his behalf but has stated that if China does not, he will “take care of it.” A pre-emptive strike to disable the North Korean nuclear programme has been mooted. The fact that North Korea’s ballistic missile test failed today, might persuade the US that this is the time to strike, while the opposition appears powerless to reply. The opposition could effectively be neutralised. But North Korea has stated that any such strike would inevitably result in retaliation. This would presumably start the second Korean War.
There is every reason to suppose that the president is not bluffing. In the course of the last week he has ordered the firing of fifty nine cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people, and he has deployed an 11 ton “Moab” (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) against an ISIS underground installation in Afghanistan. Meanwhile a US Navy “Armada” is heading for the Korean Peninsula. (Armada could be an ironic choice of word considering that in the sixteenth century part of the Spanish Armada foundered off Lewis; might the president have Spanish ancestry?)
Why doesn’t the president want North Korea to have deliverable nuclear weapons? After all, if they are good enough for the US, and the UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel, why not North Korea? The British Government is always extolling the virtues of an independent nuclear deterrent. This is why Trident is due for an upgrade. Trident submarines can travel anywhere, anytime, and therefore obliterate any target across the entire planet. This system is allegedly keeping the peace. There are thousands of nuclear bombs in existence and only about 200 sovereign states. Why not get the United Nations to divvy them up and arm everybody to the teeth? I imagine the answer to this would be that, while there might be a debate to be had between proponents of unilateral and multilateral nuclear disarmament, most countries wish to strive for a world free of nuclear weapons. That is a long term aim, but in the meantime the world is a dangerous place. There are, if you will, some bad dudes out there.
I dare say that in this context the president regards the US as the goodies and North Koreans, particularly if they continue on their current trajectory, as the baddies. The West tends to regard, and depict, North Korea as a repressed and secretive nation run by a bunch of utter nutters. Certainly the intensity of the enthusiasm of their TV newscasters, and the synchronised and prolonged applause of serried ranks of military in uniform may not be to our taste. On the other hand the Pyongyang subway stations look rather grand, the vehicles freshly painted and spotlessly clean, and the people – well, much like any other people across the world. I imagine that the North Korean government, aware of the approaching Armada and aware that a pre-emptive strike is being mooted, might well be feeling very nervous.
I for one am feeling very nervous and I’m 6,000 miles away. I can’t remember when the world situation last felt this jittery. It might have been 1961. We seem to be heading with astonishing rapidity towards a cliff edge. Brinkmanship is all about Game Theory. What’s the other guy gonna do? The trouble is that in making such predictions, in playing out these war games, you have to believe that the players in the game are playing by certain rules and making decisions along rational lines. You imagine the players have a game plan, a strategy, and they are each methodically developing their position as chess players do. But this is not like a conventional game of chess. This is more like speed chess. You set the chess clocks to two and a half minutes to midnight and then you move so fast you haven’t time to think. Anything might happen. You make it up as you go along and you shoot from the hip. Before you know it the board is laid waste, both sides obliterate one another, and if there is any victory to be won it is a Pyrrhic one. It’s like Ozymandias. “Nothing beside remains.”