I am not an authority on Asia and have never studied any Asian language. I am however something of an authority on the history of international politics and I am just finishing a book dealing with, among other things, the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. The events taking place on the Korean peninsula are quite reminiscent, in certain respects, of the events of the second half of that earlier fateful year, and developments in the last week have left me with only two possible conclusions. On the one hand, I think there is a genuine possibility of around 50% that war will break out in the Korean peninsula within somewhere between a few days and a few weeks. If it does it will probably not last long, but it could easily trigger conflicts in other parts of the world. On the other hand, if it does not, we have entered into a new era of postmodern international politics among states, one that is likely to cause extreme instability.
In an attempt to begin at the beginning, I shall go back to Japanese policy during the 1930s, which culminated in the Japanese attack on the US and Britain on December 8 (Tokyo time) 1941. When the United States opened sustained western contact with the Japanese in the 1850s, Japan faced a choice. The government that took power after the Meiji restoration of 1867 decided on the one hand to integrate western models with Japanese traditions, gradually creating a popular democracy and drawing upon European military and naval expertise to modernize its forces, but on the other hand to avoid a direct confrontation with the much stronger western powers. In 1895, after winning a war against China, Tokyo allowed a coalition of Russia, Germany and France to force it to give up many of its gains. The Japanese government then concluded an alliance with the British and carefully prepared their next war, against Russia (whose own imperialism in Korea did much to trigger the conflict), which ended by establishing the Japanese firmly on the Asian mainland in Manchuria and Korea. When the First World War broke out the Japanese insisted on implementing their alliance with the British, declared war on Germany, and occupied some German island possessions in the southwest Pacific, as well as the German sphere of influence in Shantung province in China. But after the war they once again allowed the United States and the other western powers to insist upon their withdrawal from China. They also accepted limitations on the size and number of their battleships in the Washington Treaties of 1922 and committed themselves to maintain the territorial integrity of China.
Younger officers in the Japanese Army played a critical role in turning Tokyo away from this path, starting the occupation and annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the much larger war against China in 1937. By the late thirties a consensus had emerged among most of the Japanese leadership that Tokyo had to assume a dominant role in Asia and exclude the influence of the western powers, including the US (which still ruled the Philippines), the British (who ruled Malaya and Burma), the Dutch (rulers of what is now Indonesia), and the French, who controlled Indochina. When the European War broke out in 1939 and the Germans scored impressive victories over Holland and France in 1940--and seemed to be on the point of doing the same to the British--the Japanese decided that their moment had come. In the summer of 1940 their government decided on a "southward advance" into Indochina, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. In July 1941, after the world crisis escalated yet again when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union--whose Far Eastern territories the Japanese also coveted--the Cabinet decided to pursue the southern advance even at the risk of war with the United States and Britain. Two months later they scheduled the war for the first week of December. Their goal, which Japanese leaders stated in public again and again, was to make Japan the arbiter of the destinies of East Asia, excluding the influence of the west. And what is both striking and chilling, reading the historical record, is how hard it was for many westerners, from Winston Churchill to several key officials in Washington to believe that the Japanese were serious. Both Churchill and a few Americans--although not, I am now convinced, President Roosevelt--thought that stationing some western warships in the Far East would suffice to deter the Japanese, whereas in fact it both enraged them and provided them with targets of opportunity. For a year the Japanese were spectacularly successful, and for another year--1943--they pretty much held their own. In 1944 enormously superior American resources became available, and within a little more than a year they had been totally defeated.
The nations of Europe--including, I am inclined to believe now, the USSR--emerged from the Second World War with a profound skepticism about war as an instrument of national policy. With the exception of Japan, however, the nations of Asia did not. Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War by 1949 and was planning the invasion of Taiwan when the Korean War broke out. He intervened in that war about five months later, initially dealing a heavy blow to the American-led forces and eventually forcing a stalemate. The South Korean president Syngman Rhee was very unhappy when the US insisted upon an armistice in 1953. Mao attacked India in 1962, withdrawing after teaching the Indians a lesson. India and Pakistan fought a series of wars from the 1940s into the 1970s. Mao encouraged Ho Chi Minh (who did not need much encouragement) to escalate the Vietnam War in the mid 1960s and take on the United States, and he would have intervened in that war himself if the US had invaded the North. The Chinese attacked Vietnam in 1979, after the Vietnamese Communist regime had intervened to remove the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And in the last two decades, while new generations of Europeans have entirely renounced nationalism--certainly in western Europe--national antagonisms among Asian nations have become more intense, even as they all became more integrated into the global economy. And critically, when Communism collapsed in Europe and Germany was reunited, no major effort to reunify Korea took place. South Korea was not interested. Now North Kora is led by the third member of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, born in 1983, thirty years after the end of the Korean War. No major Asian leader of the twentieth century, from Chiang Kai-Shek to Mao to Kim Il-Sun to Rhee to Ngo Dinh Diem to Ho Chi Minh, ever seemed to think that any western leader had anything of importance to tell him, and he is clearly no exception. He is now posing a direct challenge to international order.
Now on the one hand, I have thought for twenty years there is relatively little to fear militarily from North Korea. In the late 1990s I had a brief conversation with a retired naval officer who had had many dealings with Soviets and Chinese, and who had just visited North Korea. He was appalled by its primitive state and absolutely convinced that it could not fight a major war, the resources for which were almost totally lacking. A South Korean officer I met later said more or less the same thing: North Korea, he said, could not fight for more than a few weeks. That, of course, was before the North had tested nuclear weapons.
But on the other hand, the steps that Kim Jong-un has taken in the last few weeks would in any other era have inevitably meant war. To begin with, he denounced the armistice with South Korea and the United States, the international agreement that has kept the peace for 60 years, arrogating himself the right to attack at any time. He has now advised foreign diplomats to leave his country, and he has announced that he is ready for war. He most surely cannot, as he claims, hit the US with nuclear weapons, and that absurd claim holds out the hope that he doesn't mean any of it. But like the Egyptians in 1967--who denounced important provisions of the 1957 armistice agreement with Israel--he may have gone too far to back down. In the past North Korea has used threats to get sanctions lifted, but it's quite unlikely that there is going to be any move to do so from the American side this time. Washington seems to be convinced that we will find a way out of this mess peacefully, and expresses the hope that China will restrain North Korea. They may not however be able to do so.
Indeed, I am sad and angry to note that the whole American policy towards East Asia now seems based more on possible wars than on setting up a stable structure of peace. Neither the US nor the South Koreans, as far as I know, have a serious proposal for the reunification of Korea on the table. Worse, the American military seems much more interested in planning for a possible war with China than our civilian leaders are in solving outstanding issues with the Chinese. Although anarchy threatens a large part of the world, there is no real reason why the great powers, in Asia as in Europe, should not revive the Wilsonian vision of a world rule dby law--the vision for which we fought both world wars in the twentieth century. But I see no sustained effort to do so.
If Kim attacks South Korea conventionally, the consequences will probably be good, involving the almost immediate collapse of his regime and the reunification of Korea. But if he actually drops a nuclear weapon, the consequences will be catastrophic around the world. If a rogue state has made the neocon vision come true, the pressure for military action to make sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon will become irresistible. Another legacy of the George W. Bush Administration, the idea of the United States as a one-man enforcer of nuclear non-proliferation, cold easily become orthodoxy with horrifying consequences.
I think regular readers will agree that I don't normally sound loud alarms on the international scene. The great problems of our current crisis are more domestic than international, in my opinion. But history tells me that we cannot afford to assume that Kim Jong-un does not mean what he is saying. And if it turns out that he does not, I hope John Kerry--a veteran of an Asian war--will take the initiative in proposing both the reunification of South Korea and the reaffirmation of a stable international order in East Asia. That region is not yet in automatic equilibrium by any means.