By Brandon Humber
Following threats of a nuclear attack against the United States, North Korea has moved missiles with considerable range to the country’s east coast.
The U.S. has deployed its missile defense shield to its protectorate island of Guam from Kim Jong-un, the third generation of North Korea’s Kim family rulers, who seems bent on destruction.
Andre Schmid, Director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Korea, said despite the escalation, he thinks tensions will fall short of full-scale war.
“If the question is ‘is there a war about to start?’ I’m going to guess ‘no.’,” Schmid said.
“There’s posturing. The posturing is serious. And, the real question is in dealing with that posturing whether any mistakes will be made,” he said.
Schmid said the real threat is to South Korea.
“I’m not privy to the intelligence estimates that are going on, but I think from what has been released publicly, they don’t have the capability to reach Canada or the United States mainland,” he said.
“North Korea has huge numbers of artillery pieces along the demilitarized zone and for South Koreans, those are as worrisome as any claim about nuclear weapons.”
Don Rickerd, an associate member at the Centre for the Study of Korea and professor in York University’s department of Asian business and management program, said North Korea’s possible targets lie in its immediate vicinity.
“At this stage they couldn’t reach the continental United States, but they could do a lot of other damage, there are American bases in South Korea that are readily targeted, there are American bases in Japan and Guam that could be attacked,” Rickerd said.
Rickerd said he doubts Kim Jong-un would actually launch an attack against an American target.
“It’s very hard to think that the North Koreans would bring death and destruction down upon themselves, as would undoubtedly occur if any American was killed,” he said.
A tumultuous past
Rickerd said the current hostilities were not simply brought about by recent UN sanctions against North Korea.
He said since the truce ending the Korean War in 1953, there have been occasional standoffs between North Korea and the South and its allies.
“There have been quite a number of border skirmishes along the demilitarized zone and more recently there has been a rapid escalation that goes back to the nuclear tests that North Korea has been undertaking.”
In 2010, North Korea bombed the South Korean island of Yeonpang, which killed four of the country’s citizens, but war was avoided at that time.
Tensions are the highest they have been since 1994 when North Korea announced it planned on withdrawing from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
“At the last minute Jimmy Carter, the former president, flew to Pyongyang and worked out a so-called agreed framework that governed for a better part of a decade to stop the nuclear development,” Rickerd said.
“But short of an intervention like that, it’s going to be dependent on both sides to calm down and realize the destruction would be just terrible.”
Schmid said Canada has all but divorced itself from the situation entirely, which hasn’t helped.
“I think Canada has completely abandoned any involvement, so we have no blame for it, but we certainly haven’t done anything to try to be involved,” Schmid said.
“Canada set up diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001 and has subsequently done nothing with that relationship,” he said.
He said Canada often boasts being one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with China, but that tradition has not been honored with North Korea.
The Park factor
Another variable in the current conflict is South Korea’s recently elected President Park Geun-hye, the country’s first woman president who Schmid said is trying to live up to her fathers’ legacy.
“The way she presented herself in the election, the way she has been presented publicly, is as the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strong man, and now the strong daughter,” Schmid said.
“When North Korean shelled Yeonpyeong Island a couple of years back, the then-government of South Korea was furiously criticized by certain segments of South Korea, largely the conservative part of the political spectrum, for having not responded,” he said.
“I think that’s one of the new factors in these calculations, because if something happens and North Korea were to shell an island again, you could be sure that South Korea will respond militarily, and that’s where the danger point is.”
Rickerd said with the escalation of tempers between nations, it’s difficult to find a peaceful resolution.
“It’s extremely difficult to back down once you put forth these extreme positions and on the other side, we’re drawing lines in the sand and it makes negotiations very difficult,” Rickerd said.
“So it’s to be hoped that both sides will keep their fingers off the triggers and that it will resolve itself.”