fb-pixel Skip to main content
Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Are we on the brink of a second Korean War?

What military experts say appears to be a North Korean KN-08 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday.Wong Maye-E/AP

Brinkmanship is back — and the world is back on the brink of war.

In the 1950s, the word came to be associated with John Foster Dulles, secretary of state for President Dwight Eisenhower.. But brinkmanship fell into disrepute in the wake of the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises under Eisenhower’s successor. As far as John F. Kennedy was concerned, in those two crises the United States and the Soviet Union had come far too close to jumping over the brink into nuclear Armageddon.

Now we have come full circle. One of Eisenhower’s first steps as president was to end the Korean War. More than 60 years have passed and now President Donald Trump’s revival of brinkmanship has summoned up the specter of Korean War II.


As we have already seen in both Syria and Afghanistan, President Trump relishes shows of military strength. However, his use of US air power has primarily been intended to send a signal to Beijing.

“I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will!”

The United States has deployed the USS Carl Vinson strike group to Korean waters. In response, Han Song Ryol, the North Korean vice-minister of foreign affairs, said on Friday: “We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a US pre-emptive strike.”

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said last week that the situation is on a “knife edge” and that a “storm [was] about to break.”

So are we on the brink of the Second Korean War, if not World War III? I doubt it. Saturday was the Day of the Sun, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s largest national holiday. In recent weeks, there was a great deal of speculation that the Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, would use the opportunity to test or at least display some new piece of nuclear hardware. What we got were six KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and what looked like a new intercontinental ballistic missile, accompanied with the usual bellicose rhetoric (“If the United States wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with [an] annihilating strike.”) Sunday’s missile test was a fail.


North Korea has certainly made progress with its nuclear program. However, to pose a meaningful threat, it would have to develop a warhead small enough to fit on an ICBM. From what I can gather from the experts, it is not there yet. At this point, the worst the North Koreans could do in terms of nuclear war would be to use a drone, armed with enriched uranium, as a “dirty bomb.”

As for conventional weapons, it is often said that Seoul has more enemy artillery focused on it than any other city in the world. However, of the tens of thousands of artillery and mortar pieces that North Korea claims to have, only a couple have the range to reach Seoul. Those are the M-1978 KOKSAN 170mm self-propelled gun and the MRL240 M-1985 rocket artillery system.

North Korea’s artillery looks even less impressive on the basis of its recent performance. In November 2010, the Korean People’s Army launched over 100 heavy artillery shells on the (uninhabited) South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. More than 25 percent of the shells failed to detonate.


On the other side, the South Koreans and Americans have vastly superior satellite reconnaissance assets, allowing their forces rapidly to target and destroy North Korea’s military forces.

Is any of this actually going to happen? Probably not, unless Kim Jong-un has wholly ceased to be a rational actor. Both the Chinese and the Russians are now stepping in, urging all parties to avoid hostilities and return to the negotiation table. On balance, I think the Trump administration will be content to present a resumption of multiparty talks as a victory achieved by the president’s brinkmanship. How much will really have been achieved will of course depend on the outcome of any such talks.

However, I would not wholly rule out US action against North Korea. Defense Secretary James Mattis is an experienced military planner who will have carefully weighed up the potential collateral damage in the event of American strikes against North Korean military targets. He will know better than anyone the military weakness of Pyongyang.

Remember: Brinkmanship is only effective if your adversaries believe that you are more prepared to go over the brink than they are. Nor should the domestic political benefits of successful brinkmanship be forgotten.

Am I surprised that we are back on the brink, after all these years? No. At the beginning of February, ahead of a conference in Arizona, I was asked to make a five-year prediction. This was what I came up with: “By 2022 the Second Korean War will have ended in a stalemate. (Thirteen years later a comedy series about the war will be launched on Alibaba’s Netflix platform.)”


Because I regard predictions over any timeframe longer than six months as little better than astrology, I was being facetious. But suddenly that prediction looks a little too close for comfort.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.