Another month, another U.S.-Korean film co-production. Starring Liam Neeson as General Macarthur, it’s the Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite.
Gentlemen, start chewing your cigars.
But perhaps it’s time we started looking again at how bad the situation is: how close to war they are getting. This is an exceedingly dangerous year.
So far, Trump is very clear not to alienate Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing, preferring instead to use the bully pulpit of calculated ambiguity and rhetorical provocation than any serious commitment to full blown military action. In a taped interview in late April on CBS, President Trump was resolutely not talking about the possibility of military action, saying: “It is a chess game. I just don’t want people to know what my thinking is.”
So far, the leadership of North Korea are also bullying from the pulpit, but they are far less ambiguous. They are pretty consistent in their messaging that they view the U.S. military presence in their vicinity as a threat, which they want to completely destroy.
They are also clear about what they want to hit on the U.S. mainland.
So far, seems pretty much the same as the last five years or so. Well, not really. The North Korean missiles are getting better, going further, the tests happening more often.
But you may wonder: what is of risk to little old us at the bottom of the world? Answer: firstly, Korea is the 6th largest export destination for what we make and sell. That’s over $2 billion our exporters get, and it’s growing. And in imports, it’s where my Galaxy 8 comes from. More seriously, a big reason is that we would likely be drawn into it just as we were last time. And another is: nuclear war.
New Zealand governments tend to back military interventions only when they have a U.N. Security Council mandate. But when we back them, we usually send some of our troops to be in harms’ way. My uncle fought in the Korean War. He was a gunner. He never wanted to speak about it, and no one pushed him to.
But what is largely unspoken about the Korean War is itself unspeakable: nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is what all the sanctions are about, what all the missile testing is about. So here’s a little reminder of where this went last time.
The great tactical seaborn invasion of Incheon that Liam Neeson figures himself into, was the beginning of the provocation that brought China and Soviet Russia man to man and plane to plane with the U.N. coalition led by the United States.
After that it goes even darker. President Truman seriously considered using nuclear weapons in that war.
At a November 1950 press conference, he told reporters that he would take whatever steps were necessary to win in Korea, including the use of nuclear weapons. Those weapons, he added, would be controlled by military commanders in the field. In the following year he allowed nine nuclear bombs with fissile cores to be transferred into Air Force custody and transported to Okinawa. Further atomic-capable B-29s were sent to Okinawa. That is pretty close to nuclear war.
Armchair historians can argue whether the United States exercised considerable restraint in that war, whether the nuclear option was something to reasonably consider to turn the tide of a losing battle, or whether both sides carefully husbanded their strength and took some care moving up the escalatory ladder.
But you can say with some confidence that in the Korean War, nuclear escalation would have gone terribly for everyone involved. The United States would have caused dreadful pain to uncertain strategic advantage, potentially causing the Chinese and Russian Communist powers to escalate. The physical and human terrain of Korea would have endured awful suffering. The moral mandate of the U.N. resolutions authorising military intervention would have evaporated. And the world would have lost the nascent nuclear taboo, a taboo critical to the world surviving the escalation in nuclear bomb-making and bomb-testing capacity that continued into the 1980s.
In the washup, New Zealand did OK out of it. We got long term military security through the 1951 ANZUS Treaty which served its purpose during the Cold War, and a massive wool boom that got the economy through the remainder of the 1950s.
But what that history and near-history of the Korean War demonstrates is that even if it’s a pre-emptive strike to take out missile and nuclear capabilities, North Korea may feel it has to respond. This is the dilemma that strategists and policymakers face. It’s real, now.
Nor is some great U.N. coalition of forces a guarantee that they will prevail. If you want to see how very close the U.S. and its United Nations-mandated allies came to massive defeat, check out just one example at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
This is a dangerous year. It’s really easy to follow Australia and Britain and build a fortress of self-involvement around oneself. But world has a terrible reputation for getting into our faces when we don’t want it to. Diplomacy defies death, but it only takes one dumb thing to really set things off. It’s only in my parents’ generation that South Korean President Park was nearly assassinated, recorded here:
The last time we had a Prime Minister with the capacity to take a major international stand on anything, was Helen Clark, but there have been others. If we have forgotten as a country that we have demonstrated the capacity to stand up for the powerless and be good diplomats, we have forgotten one major thing that made the world look up here, not down. I would like the next government to remember that, in this exceedingly dangerous year.