Who’s Responsible for a Nuclear Korean War?

Who’s Responsible for a Nuclear Korean War?
Scene from the award-losing documentary, The Nuclear Button: How Trump and Kim Blustered to the Brink of War

I spent most of my early career working on Korean security issues. Of late, I’ve spoken and written very little about North Korea. There are more pressing things going on in the world, of course, but also people don’t want to hear about Korea shit. And when I say “people,” I don’t mean the general public, although since the fabulist Trump-Kim summits the public has really tuned out.

By “people,” I mean the policy elites (government officials and pundits) who steward the dumpster fire known as North Korea policy. They don’t want to hear anything that might disrupt an absurdly dangerous status quo. They are fully aware of what the United States needs to do to stabilize the situation but refuse to do it out of a deep, deep conservatism (in the nonpartisan sense).

For a year now, North Korea has been on a missile testing spree, reaching a crescendo a couple weeks ago when it tested 23 missiles in one day. This is not at all surprising, and I predicted this would occur (tbf, most Korea watchers saw this coming). Why? Too many reasons—Kim Jong Un feels betrayed by Trump’s false promises, he’s been spurned by an obstinate Biden administration, sanctions have only increased and its strategic culture is literally pressure for pressure, and the conservative South Korean presidency has taken a hawkish posture toward Pyongyang.

In a context of ongoing rivalry and extreme domestic economic hardship, Kim has no reason to restrain the signals he sends to the outside world as he builds out the survivability, range, and precision of his nuclear arsenal. Which is also why there will be another nuclear test quite soon. Also, South Korea is openly advertising its plans to assassinate Kim Jong Un. No cap.

The sanest of my Korea watcher friends are doing noble work warning that the Korea situation is ripe with avoidable risks of nuclear war that we’re actively courting rather than reducing. But there’s literally nothing new in it. Serious danger? Yep. Growing danger? Yep. But it’s the same trajectory since 2013 or so. Most of us have been making some version of the exact same argument (manage the damn nuclear risk and here’s how!) for years.

In 2018, I published what might be the most hastily written university press book in history, about the North Korean nuclear crisis. I also made an even hastier documentary about the crisis. Because I spent my life working these issues, it holds up remarkably well. The book (and doc) concluded with a note of reluctant pessimism about the summits and the trajectory of Washington’s North Korea policy. Time has proven me correct, unfortunately, but in that moment, it was incredibly contrarian.

I’m bringing up this recent history because it was then that I laid out the three pathways to war in Korea. What are they?

We’ve had five years to shut down these pathways to war and we haven’t. In every measurable way, we’ve made nuclear stability in Korea worse. And we’re the great power! We’re the one in a position to be a first-mover in the name of diplomacy and stability.

If nuclear war happens, we have foreknowledge about how it will! North Korea will be the one to press the "nuclear button" first, but it will be in response to a situation that we actively constructed. We, in short, will be culpable. Politicians would obviously blame North Korea, maybe a few scholars would blame South Korea. But we have a chance to do something now to foreclose on a grim future and we’re big fat not.