North Korea declares ‘state of war’ with South

Face off: South Korean troops gaze across one of the world’s most tense borders © Getty Images

As communist dictator Kim Jong-un makes increasingly aggressive threats towards capitalist South Korea, American stealth planes have been deployed. Is this only posturing? Or is it war?

On the bustling streets of Seoul, the shoppers and workers go about their business as usual. South Korea’s wealthy and sophisticated capital shows few immediate signs of anxiety.

But beneath the calm surface, the country is gripped by tension. Newspaper headlines warn of nuclear strikes and ‘all-out war’, while the new president speaks with uncompromising defiance. Behind the rising alarm is a series of threats from the country’s repressive, militaristic and highly secretive neighbour, the communist state of North Korea.

In December, North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un oversaw a long-range rocket launch widely believed to be part of an illegal programme to develop nuclear weapons. Ever since then the ‘hermit state’ has been making increasingly aggressive threats. Last week, a telephone hotline that provided the only direct communication between the nations was cut. Then, on Saturday, the North Korean military announced that it was entering a ‘state of war’ with the South.

Technically there is nothing new about this: the two Koreas have never officially made peace since the bloody Korean War of 1950-53, which resulted in the division of a culturally and historically unified peninsula between a capitalist South and a communist North. Each country’s government still refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the other.

But despite a constant exchange of belligerent rhetoric, it is over a half a century since serious conflict has erupted. Why? Because if it did, the resulting destruction would be too horrific for either country to accept. North Korea could instantly rain 500,000 artillery rounds upon the South, while South Korea, helped by its allies in America, could carry out a merciless airforce bombing campaign in retaliation. Even nuclear war is a possibility.

So South Koreans have become used to occasionally escalating levels of threat, assuming that the North is simply grandstanding in a bid for attention or diplomatic advantage. But this time, with insecure new leaders in both countries looking to cement their authority, some fear that the rhetoric is not so empty.

War games

We’ve been here before, say many international observers: North Korea’s leaders threaten to engulf the capitalist world in flames, a few weeks of tension ensue and then it turns out that it was all a big bluff. All this puffed-up aggression is nothing more than a tiresome political game.

But others are less blasé. Even if this is just posturing, they say, Kim Jong-un is playing a dangerous game. All it takes is for one of the leaders to up the ante or call the other’s bluff and the divided peninsula could erupt in flames. The line between diplomacy and armageddon is thin and treacherous: even World War One was started almost by mistake.

You Decide

  1. Do you think nuclear war a genuine threat in today’s world?
  2. Some people see North Korea’s leaders as crazy and delusional. Others think they are coldly rational and will simply do anything to cling to power. Which do you think is more scary?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are the leader of South Korea. Write a speech responding to North Korea’s threats. Do you try to calm the situation or do you make it clear that no aggression will be tolerated?
  2. Do some research and write a 500 word description of how Korea came to be divided into two hostile countries.

Some People Say...

“For politicians, war is nothing but a game.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So are we on the brink of nuclear war?
It’s unlikely. North Korea’s rulers are extremely unscrupulous and highly militaristic; but although they are often thought of as ‘crazy’, their actions usually have some rational motivation. This could, for instance, be an attempt by the 28-year-old Kim Jong-un to establish himself internally as a strong leader. It could also be a ploy to force negotiations and pressurise the West to lift sanctions that are harming the North Korean economy.
So nothing to worry about then?
Not so fast: all-out war is still unlikely, but few people fully understand the motivations that lie behind North Korea’s actions. And with its nuclear capacity more dangerous than ever before, it would be foolish to disregard the threat that this rogue state poses.

Word Watch

Kim Jong-un
North Korea’s third successive dictator from the Kim dynasty, who rule with a mixture of brutal force and total control of the media. They present themselves as godlike figures who have saved the country from annihilation by the capitalist powers.
Long-range rocket
The rocket launched in December carried a satellite rather than a nuclear warhead, and experts say that North Korea is not yet capable of firing missiles at long range. But within five years North Korea could be capable of launching nuclear strikes on the USA.
Hermit state
A country that cuts itself off entirely from outside influence. North Korea has no trade or communication with the outside world, and travel into and out of the country is almost totally restricted.
Korean War
During the Second World War, Korea was occupied by Japan. But as Japan’s empire crumbled in 1945-6, the region was divided between the USA and the Soviet Union. The two ideologically opposed powers could not agree terms for a reunion, and in 1950 war broke out. Three million Koreans were killed, but after three years of fighting the borders were essentially unchanged.
Insecure new leaders
Kim has to establish himself as head of a powerful military elite, while South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye has come under heavy criticism since her election in February.

Subjects

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