In a recent interview, Pope Francis claimed that a war in the Korean Peninsula would cause “a widespread war [that] would destroy – I would not say half of humanity – but a good part of humanity, and of culture, everything, everything.” The problem with the leader of an extremely popular religion (though no longer the most popular) creating a notion like this in the public consciousness is that, though it could be correct, it most likely isn’t.
Unfortunately for Pope Francis, it’s extremely unlikely that even a nuclear confrontation in the Korean Peninsula will go that poorly for everyone on the planet Earth. Even for denizens outside of North Korea, the likelihood that a confrontation would turn into anything more than a vaguely light-blue light-show somewhere over Pyongyang is extremely unlikely.
Let’s start with what we know about the North Korean situation directly.
Their army parades well, goose stepping in lockstep. They appeared to have produced several ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) out of absolutely nowhere, with nobody having any idea that they existed at all, specifically for the only publicised parade that the North Korean military has ever held in its existence on livestream Internet.
They held that parade with three fleets worth of great nations hanging around in viewing distance, and the entire world tuning in to watch. At the end of that parade, they had a missile explode prematurely during a test launch.
Yesterday at midday, yet another North Korean missile failed its test launch. At some point, /pol/ from 4chan.org, which is becoming a very steady, reliable font of crowd-sourced political information, reported that a North Korean submarine had been spotted off the coast of California. This, however, was one of those rare unsubstantiated moments where /pol/ was either wrong, or misled. While we know that the North Koreans have submarines, we also know that North Korea exists on a subsistence economy.
If it has massive sums of wealth to spend on ICBMs and stealth submarines and other things, you would expect a healthier, less famine-prone society, wouldn’t you? After all, it’s not an accident that the Americans were both the greatest economic and military superpower of the twentieth century. These things tend to go hand in hand.
Why would Kim-Jong Un want to feed his population? He wouldn’t. The problem here isn’t that the central government is insane in North Korea—even if it is. A highly productive nation would be creating surplus, and you’d eventually see skimming and hoarding from the farmers, or a proportional surplus in corruption and black market economy.
You don’t see that, though. Instead, despite being the same genetic stock, North Koreans are so undernourished that they’re literally, on average, four inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
That and there have been, supposedly, a series of famines which have struck the countryside, accounting for between one and two million deaths. When you think about how large a budget you need to develop nuclear weapons, delivery systems, rocket technology and all the trimmings for the nuclear gift package, it really doesn’t matter how well your infantry can march in a parade.
As far as we can tell, the North Korean national GDP is somewhere around twenty billion dollars American. Put in perspective, an old American-model attack submarine costs two point four billion dollars to build, before you think about development and armament and the dry-docks and maintenance facilities and so forth.
How many can they have? It would entirely, in this instance, depend on how much the Chinese and the USSR (while it was still operating) was willing to lend them. Since there were famines, it probably wasn’t very much.
So just given the picture of North Korea I have presented, it’s unlikely that their military is advanced or well-equipped. If the Chinese, as the learned reader might point out, have been helping them, then the Chinese who are now firmly against further North Korean action, have probably been forthcoming with those details to those aforementioned great nations in the area.
Especially to help out their new Trump-headed trade partners.
Now, the picture you should take away is this: North Korea could launch a nuclear missile at California, from California, and they might still miss. Even if they didn’t, there’s a solid chance the rocket blows up on the launch pad, or is intercepted by enemy anti-missile defenses. Particularly since the North Korean parade has alerted our American friends about what to look for.
This is all without counting those two failed missile tests, which indicate that the North Korean rocket technology is not as refined as a more professional military might like.
Now, let’s take the most unlikely possibility we can possibly take from all this. North Korea launches a missile at Seoul. That missile has a travel time of five and a fifth seconds. It hits Seoul and wipes it out. The moment a nuclear launch is noticed by the Americans (instantly) American rockets are already flying toward every North Korean silo in the country.
Why won’t this turn into an all-out nuclear war?
Allow me to quote Section 7 Article 51 of the UN Charter. “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
Who respects the UN? It’s a topic I’ll get into in another article, but basically everybody wants to. Moreso, Article 51 provides legal rights to the United States to prevent further aggressive action by the Pyongyang government through whatever means necessary until formal meetings can be called to assess the situation and recommend action.
Both the Russians and Chinese are sticklers for UN law at the moment, and would have a very hard time contesting a clear-cut violation of Section 7.
In other words, Pope Francis, even if North Korea launches an aggressive strike, it will have incurred the wrath of every single nation in the UN as a united front, and will suffer terribly. Strategic targets have already been picked out, suppression is already working, and missile defenses have already been deployed in South Korea.
The only thing that could start a nuclear war is if, for some strange reason, the United States isn’t just grandstanding and is actually preparing to pre-emptively attack the North Korean mainland. Which, for all the reasons I just mentioned, would key a united front to strike against the United States.
That could be problematic, but it also seems unreasonable. How much is there to gain, for President Trump and his institutions? In order to avoid a deadly counter-attack, he would need clear-cut evidence that the North Koreans had an attack in progress, or had intent to launch a strike.
Even then, if we’re just asking my opinion, Trump’s current foreign affairs modus operandi hints that the very first thing he would do is provide, if possible, China a way and a reason to intervene forcefully.
After all, the Chinese just rolled their first domestically built aircraft carrier into the Indian Ocean. It’s a fair bet they’re interested in asserting their dominance of their own naval domain.
So no, Pope Francis. Even a weaponised strike is extremely unlikely to destroy the world as we know it. It is far more likely that such a strike would lead to North Korea abruptly not being a threat anymore.