Will a Korean conflict go nuclear?


A statue of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in the North Korean border town of Siniuju, across from China's northeastern city of Dandong.


Wang Zhao

SEOUL, South Korea — Well, we don’t really know the answer. Last time there was a Korean War from 1950 to 1953, some historians say it nearly did go nuclear — although there’s disagreement over the extent President Harry Truman was willing to consider the Bomb based on vague public statements.

Over the past month, I’ve been collecting some of the most insightful reporting that addresses the nuclear question and other ones. They range from diffident to downright alarming. Some favorites:

1. “Accidental” wars don’t happen; they’re almost always intentional. Over the past month, television pundits and military analysts have speculated that, should war break out on the Korean peninsula, it’ll probably be born out of a miscalculation or miscommunication.

But Robert Farley writes in The Diplomat that any talk of an “accidental” war is a fallacy, and that wars usually happen when governments want them to.

2. If Kim Jong Un took a lie detector test, he’d probably fail. The well-known historian Andrei Lankov, who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, writes in the International Herald Tribune that Pyongyang’s strategic calculus doesn’t amount to a “scorched earth” policy, as some would have you believe:

“In fact, there are no good reasons to think that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young dictator, would want to commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy.”

3. But if the Koreas go to war, it’ll probably go nuclear. “Do not press a desperate foe too hard,” Sun Tzu wrote in the ancient Chinese military classic, the "Art of War."

Imagine that Kim Jong Un and his elite commanders are sitting in their command room in the final hours of South Korean invasion. Facing an imminent capture and hanging by South Korean courts, would they push the red button out of desperation and take a city or two with them? It’s an incredibly unlikely scenario, but nonetheless terrifying.

4. Yes, a few Westerners have packed their bags and left South Korea. James Pearson at NKNews writes that, despite the indifference among most expatriates in Seoul, some have indeed fled. One English teacher in a southwestern province, he writes, surprised students when they found a sudden departure note. “My family members kept asking me to come back, they were desperate,” the young instructor wrote.