Small countries can cause big problems.
There are few left living today who remember World War I, but it leaves an indelebile stain in our history books. It was the first global war and estimates place the body count at over 40 million. The events that brought about the horror of trench warfare and gas attacks are well documented and involve all of the world’s “Great Powers” at the time. Several of them no longer exist at all, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and some still exist but are no longer Great Powers. Regardless of how World War I redrew the world’s political boundaries, the trenches of Europe and the Middle East swallowed an entire generation of young men and led directly to The Great War’s bigger, meaner older brother – the Second World War.
The catalyst for the war is generally recognized as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg in Sarajevo. While these names sound strange to us today, Ferdinand was next in line for the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which covered most of Eastern Central Europe at the time. He was murdered by a Serb named Gavrilo Princip who was part of a pan-Slavic movement that preached unification of all Yugoslavs in a nation independent of Austro-Hungary. Following the assassination the Austro-Hungarians delivered an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia that basically put Austro-Hungary in charge of The Kingdom of Serbia for the purposes of eliminating anti-Austro-Hungarian sentiment and rooting out the political opposition that had planned and carried out the attack
While the Sarajevo Outrage, as the assassination was called, supplied the catalyst, conditions were ripe for war. European imperialism was making a resurgence and the traditional powers were growing overly bureaucratic, top heavy, and were becoming increasingly saddled with debt. They had been building their armies for years and the Balkan Peninsula had already been a flashpoint for decades. It is surprising how many conflicts originate on the geographical confines of peninsulas with their limited space and valuable ports. So, when the engine got started in Sarajevo, there was ample fuel and nationalistic pride to keep it running for years.
Jump forward a hundred years and the situations are chillingly similar. North Korea occupies the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and provides a buffer between Communist China and the Capitalist West in the form of the Republic of Korea. China, the dominant power in Asia for 3,000 years has, for the last 100 years, been quiescent as a result of Ming Dynasty abuses that opened the gates first to European, and then to Japanese imperialism. They are only now recovering from World War II in which deaths were as high as 20 million along with the utter destruction of their economy. They are flexing their muscle at the exact time that the West is weakening from its own towering bureaucracy, debt, and bumbling governments. And of course Japan, always a player in the Far East, has been seeking to secure resources and reacquire traditionally Japanese islands lost at the end of World War II.
And then there’s Kim Jong-un sitting in the middle of it all, just like the Kingdom of Serbia, calling for unification of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what they want, after all. Just like the Serbs. Not world hegemony under the Kims. They want Korean Unification as an independent state. Everything they have done since being rid of Japan’s colonization in 1945 has been geared towards Korean unification. The Serbs didn’t want to control Europe, they wanted their homeland the way they wanted it.
North Korean missiles are not the danger. The Unha-3, which carried their Kwangmyongsong-3 into orbit late last year, is basically just 4 Scuds strapped together with another Scud, or an equally inaccurate missile, stuck on top of that. The primitive actuator technology and low-grade IMU ensure that targeting accuracy after an intercontinental flight will be on the order of 40 or 50 miles at best. Whatever target they are aiming for would likely remain unaffected. Even a city would be tough for them to hit. A terror weapon, but one they would use only once, and which would likely be intercepted by America’s missile defense system.
North Korean nukes are not the danger. Their weapons are probably of a Fat Man-implosion or Little Boy-gun design which means they are large, heavy, and low yield. The mass of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite they orbited is on the order of a few hundred pounds. Their nukes are probably ten times heavier, at a minimum – if they even have them which my analysis leans against. North Korea cannot shoot a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States, and probably not even Japan, with any reasonable success. And if they did, they know that they would cease to exist. Fanatical yes, stupid, no.
The danger in North Korea is Gavrilo Princip. Our armies are arrayed and ready to fight. The tanks are in place. The aircraft are armed and in the air. The artillery already pointed. The missiles targeted. The ships stationed. A West weakened by corruption and inefficiency. A Russia seeking to reassert itself and reclaim some of its former glory. A China emerging from a century of irrelevance. A Japan hoping to rise above its defeat in World War II. A very fragile ‘peace’ held together by the world’s lone remaining Super Power. A status now nearly as fragile as the peace which it seeks to sustain. You never know when or where Gavrilo will emerge. And unfortunately, we are making all the same mistakes that the Habsburg’s did a hundred years ago, starting with lampooning the North Koreans in our media, for the fate of man is always the same: those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
John Brewer is a physicist, rocket scientist, and expert on nuclear weapons and North Korea. He is author of the North Korean nuclear suspense novel The Silla Project, finalist for the 2013 Eric Hoffer Awards, Montaigne Medal.