Opinion guest column

There will be no war

How to act in the current “Cold War”

It is far too easy nowadays to become overwhelmed with all the strife and conflict worldwide. On all outlets of media, from CNN to Facebook, we find ourselves presented with disaster after disaster, crisis after crisis, war after war. And yet the last fifteen years have been some of the safest the Earth has ever seen.

The most relevant of the long line of threats to worldwide peace comes from a very familiar source: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more colloquially known as North Korea. In the recent months, DPRK has made some rather notable strides in their missile program — namely that it now actually exists.

In truth, much of the information comes from DPRK themselves, and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt as to what their true capabilities are. At worst, they now have a fully functioning intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload as far east as New York City (or as a worst, worst case scenario for many of you reading this, Cambridge, Massachusetts). At best, these are overexaggerated claims referring to an unrefined, unreliable, and imprecise program that can launch missiles an alarming distance but cannot deliver an extraordinary payload with great accuracy.

For our purposes, we will assume the worst: North Korea is fully capable of striking any major city in the United States with a nuclear payload in this hypothetical scenario. Kim Jong Un has successfully enhanced his position on the world stage by becoming a nuclear player. He has the power to unleash a level of devastation that has not been seen since 1945, if ever before. But will he?

Kim is fighting an uphill battle, talking himself and his regime up in a high-stakes game that he cannot afford to lose, even slightly. He walks a thin line: any sign of weakness could lead to political destruction from within, but a step too far in any direction could also spell disaster from his enemies — and defeat for Kim means losing his nation, his regime, and his entire way of life. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as we know it will be no more, his glorious “republic” squashed under the combined might of the United States and her allies. He will be captured or killed, his family’s legacy swept aside and forgotten, his name remembered only as a footnote in the long list of tyrants in history. Kim Jong Un does not want a war, because believe it or not, Kim Jong Un is actually somewhat rational. His nuclear strategy is so frightening because it is one with which we ourselves are all too familiar: deterrence.

During the Cold War, it was the fear of losing that outweighed the promise of winning and kept the world at a tentative state of relative peace. It was the concept of what the world would look like in a worst case scenario that kept the Cold War cold. It was the “what if” scenarios that made sure neither side provoked nor attacked the other to a deadly extent, and it is now in this “what if” that Kim seeks to preserve his regime. Kim has escalated the stakes so high that war seems even less desirable than it was previously.

And though we know what the outcome of such a war will be, neither the United States, Republic of Korea, Japan, nor any of their allies, wish for war. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is just 35 miles away from the demilitarized zone between the two clashing Koreas — well within range of DPRK’s conventional artillery, not to mention their missiles. As soon as a war breaks out, North Korea will unload everything in its arsenal; for them it will be, “use it or lose it,” and they will bring as much destruction as possible for the short remainder of the nation’s lifespan. In the first 72 hours of the conflict, the death toll will reach well into the millions, including the thousands of Americans, military or otherwise, living in South Korea right now. If America rushes in to defend her ally — which she will — the dangerous possibility of a strike on U.S. soil becomes real. In short time, Pyongyang is toppled, and the evil regime is no more. But at what cost? One of the most densely populated cities in the world is in flames. The entire Korean peninsula is a wasteland of desolate destruction. The death count is unprecedented. War has proven itself to be the wrong answer to this conundrum.

For the sake of taking a side, I will say that based on all evidence provided, there will be no war over Korea. There is just too much to lose and very little to gain on both sides. That said, however, wars seldom happen between two willing parties, and all it could take is a spark to light the entire situation alight; it will not take much to provoke the autocrat of a small nation with the world against him, especially when he has an itchy trigger finger and a, “use it or lose it,” mentality. The key word in all of this is “provoke.”  He is not actively searching for conflict, and rightly so. We as a nation should prepare ourselves for war, as we have been, but sincerely strive for (diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy) and expect peace in the region.

There will be no war. Not unless we consciously choose to provoke one, and we know far too well that there are safer and more reasonable alternatives to armed conflict.

Michael Hiebert is a member of the MIT Class of 2021.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of MIT’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.