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North Korea's Successful Defiance Heralds the End of the Post-Cold War World Order

Why Aggressive Posturing, Sanctions and Rhetoric are the Only Options Left to the United States on the Korean Peninsula

September 24th - 2017

On September 23rd 2017, just four days after U.S. President Trump threatened to "completely destroy" North Korea in a speech at the United Nations, the U.S. Air Force flew F-15 fighters and and nuclear capable B-1B bombers in a show of force off the country's coast. An analysis of the United States' strategic position with regards to the Korean Peninsula however indicates that rhetoric and posturing will, alongside more stringent means of economic warfare, be increasingly resorted to in the coming months due to its lack of any viable alternatives. North Korea's artillery, nuclear weapons, missiles, manpower, tunnel networks, special forces, air defences, and perhaps most decisively its protection under highly sophisticated Russian and Chinese air defence systems deployed to the border - are all among the most prominent factors which make military action against the state entirely unfeasible. On the other hand however President Trump has pledged to prevent North Korea from gaining the nuclear parity with the United States that it has for so long sought - and though much of his credibility particularly among his support base rests on his ability to fulfil this promise, he is in reality near powerless to stop North Korea. The result is that the United States can neither follow through on its threats to carry out military action - nor can it be seen to back down to a small 'rogue state.'

The post-Cold War world order left the United States, as the world's sole and unchallenged superpower, with the capability to intervene militarily almost anywhere in the world to instigate regime change - as demonstrated in Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. The first major challenge to this world order was in 2013 when the US was deterred from launching airstrikes to topple the Syrian government - though this deterrence came not from Syria's own relatively meagre military capabilities but rather from those of Russian military facilities and Naval assets stationed in the country. North Korea today however represents something entirely different - a small state which has almost singlehandedly stood up to the United States and undermined the threat of its military by acquiring its own potent deterrence capabilities, making U.S. military action against it impossible. This is wholly unprecedented not just since the 1990s, but even in the Cold War era when it was the protection of superpowers that deterred the U.S. and its Western partners from launching military action against small states, not the military capabilities of small states themselves. What North Korea demonstrates is that if a state of just 24 million facing decades of harsh economic sanctions can stand up to the world's leading superpower and prevail - the prevalence of the hegemonic position of the United States could be brought to serious question globally.

The United States cannot be seen to back down, nor can it attack or use military force - leaving only a middle road involving more sanctions, ever greater posturing and even threats of annihilation as made by President Trump. What can be expected in future are further threats, further sanctions and more B-1B bombers flying near or even testing the boundaries of North Korean airspace. The United States cannot and will not attack North Korea however, and should the be forced to back down it will be done gradually and using rhetoric and threats to disguise their position of weakness as one of strength. Ultimately, with Pentagon officials now admitting that they assume North Korea has the capacity to strike the United States mainland with nuclear tipped ICBMs, and with Pyongyang's military modernisation program making it stronger than ever before should its armed forces need to fight a conventional war. North Korea has gained a limited but sufficient nuclear parity, and its deterrent capabilities will only strengthen with time. The attack Pyongyang had anticipated and prepared for for over 25 years since the end of the Cold War appears to have been averted. North Korea's dedication to defending itself and acquiring the means to deter the U.S. from launching another Korean War has left America in a position of weakness with few strategic options available, ruling out the potential for military action on the peninsula.

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