The great problem in knowing whether Korea is about to explode is in judging which words to take seriously and which to ignore. For years, leaders of the world’s only Communist family dynasty have threatened to drown South Korea, the United States and Japan in a lake of fire. Past US presidents have shrugged off these threats and worked behind the scenes with China and South Korea to find safe ways to tighten pressure on the regime.
But things have changed, and it’s now time for the world to pay closer attention. There are two important changes. First, US President Donald Trump is less willing than his predecessors to handle things quietly. Instead, Trump has approached North Korea with warships and threatened to “solve” North Korea, with or without Chinese help. He has also said he’d be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un. Depending on what happened in that hypothetical meeting, either a negotiated settlement or war might become more likely.
The second difference is much more important. In fairness to Trump, a more assertive response is warranted, because satellite imagery tells us that the DPRK has made substantial progress in recent years toward construction of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland—and on miniaturization of a nuclear warhead that the missile can carry. This is why former president Obama warned Trump that North Korea was likely to be his biggest foreign policy challenge. It’s one thing to negotiate with an erratic absolute dictator; it’s quite another when that dictator can test your defense systems by sending a nuclear-armed missile toward some of your largest cities. Would mutually assured destruction deter Kim Jong-un? We can’t know for sure until the moment of no return.
Trump’s options are no better than Obama’s. Sanctions won’t change minds in Pyongyang, because the leadership pays no political price for hardship imposed on the North Korean people, and because they help Kim’s government persuade them that outsiders want to destroy them. China, which fears that a Korean crisis will send sick and starving refugees streaming across the border, is unlikely to offer much help.
That said, there are plenty of cool heads around President Trump who will make clear that he can’t afford to launch an ultra-high-risk surprise strike unless and until it’s clear that every potential alternative has been exhausted. The president’s dramatic warnings are still directed mainly at China in hopes that President Xi Jinping will help dramatically increase pressure on Pyongyang. He also wants to reassure allies in South Korea and Japan that he understands the severity of the growing threat—though his recent comments about the need for South Korea to pay more for its defense and to renegotiate its trade agreement with the US won’t help. Trump may also be hoping that his tough talk will create doubts, perhaps dissension, within the North Korean leadership. But for now, the DPRK’s missile technology has not yet reached the danger zone, and Trump isn’t about to start a war.
Yet, short of open conflict, there is another important risk to consider. Imagine a best-case scenario. A coup inside North Korea leads to peaceful regime change. China steps in to ensure control of nuclear weapons and material, and Beijing agrees a plan to reunify Korea’s north and south. North Korean collapse would leave more than 25 million people without a country. Then there’s the question of who will pay to bring the Koreas back together. The evidence suggests Korea’s reunification will be far more expensive than Germany’s. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, East Germany’s population was one quarter that of West Germany’s, and its per capita income was about one third the West German total. Though separated by the Iron Curtain, trade ties between them were well-developed. By contrast, North Korea’s population is more than half that of South Korea, but its per capita income is less than 5 percent. The two countries have almost no commercial relationship.
To create anything close to parity of prosperity, reunified Korea will need tens of billions of dollars per year invested over several decades in infrastructure, education, and agriculture. And how difficult will it be for millions of profoundly disoriented North Koreans, plucked from the lifeboats of their isolated country, to find work in one of the world’s most technologically advanced economies and societies? What happens to those people if they can’t find work?
The world will need answers to these questions before the moment when Kim Jong-un can launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland. That day is now much closer than anyone outside North Korea would wish.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World.