How serious is the North Korean threat

The threat posed by the Korean peninsula is worrying. For many months, North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un has been demonstrating to the world that his nuclear weapons and missile launch programs pose a serious threat. American intelligence agencies agree that Pyongyang will be able to attack targets in the United States by the end of 2018 at the latest. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that "Europe has also moved within the range of North Korean missiles and NATO member states are already in danger". The test of an ICBM on November 29 suggests that the fear is justified.

President Donald Trump's administration has adopted a "maximum pressure" strategy for North Korea. Kim's regime is to be pushed to the negotiating table through strict international sanctions in order to talk about complete nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang has so far firmly rejected this path. The Trump administration has repeatedly stated that maximum pressure is the last resort of American diplomacy. Many influential members of the US government, however, do not believe that Kim's regime will be impressed by America's nuclear deterrence policies. Since a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable, the only last option left is conflict.

In a personal interview, a South Korean three-star general estimated the likelihood of war breaking out at 50 percent. American foreign and security politicians are also alarmed. James Stavridis, four-star retired admiral and former supreme commander of the Allied powers of Europe, puts the probability of a war breaking out at 20 to 30 percent - with a ten percent probability that a nuclear war will occur. Former CIA director John Brennan assumes a 20 to 25 percent risk of war. And according to Richard Haass, president of the American think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, "the likelihood of war breaking out is far higher than is generally assumed".

In the event of a nuclear war, the number of victims would be incredible - according to some studies in the millions. Even if the war were not nuclear, enormous casualties could be expected: around 20,000 to 30,000 per day in South Korea alone in the early stages of the war, and hundreds of thousands more if the war were to drag on for a longer period of time. These calculations assume that the conflict will remain confined to Korean territory. If it were to spread, the consequences would be catastrophic.

A war on the Korean peninsula could escalate into world war

North Korea is also a threat to Europe and the Europeans. Pyongyang has already threatened Australia as an ally with attacks, and the same thing could happen to Europe one day. There are at least 20,000 EU citizens living in South Korea and even more in Japan. These people, too, would be in mortal danger in the event of a Korean War. An outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula could spread like a wildfire into a regional or even global war, especially if China becomes involved or the US requests military support from NATO allies. Such a development would have devastating consequences for international security and economy - Europe included.

In addition, as a weapon supplier, North Korea has close ties to dangerous regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a risk that North Korea could sell nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to these regimes and possibly also to terrorist groups. In this case, a nuclear arms race would quickly become more likely in the neighboring countries of Europe, and so would the danger of nuclear terrorist attacks in Europe.

In the face of these harrowing scenarios, Europe should act with determination. In the first step, an alert should be triggered within the EU. Diplomatically influential states such as Germany, France, Great Britain, Sweden and Switzerland should endeavor to bring North Korea, the USA, South Korea and China to the negotiating table. The recent rapprochement between North and South Korea is an encouraging sign that this can happen. The primary goal of diplomacy should be to get Pyongyang and Washington to balance their terms for talks. Washington calls for nuclear disarmament as the ultimate goal; Pyongyang rejects this.

Now the square of the circle is improbable. But if diplomacy fails, Europe must work out plans for a future with a nuclear North Korea. This means that national defense strategies and security regulations must be reviewed in the light of the new nuclear threat. It also means that efforts must be made to prevent the US from launching preemptive attacks on North Korean targets.

It also means, however, that in return for Americans' reluctance, Europe must do its best to help the US and the international community keep North Korea in check through deterrence and containment. Europe is already playing an important role when it comes to sanctions, the isolation of North Korea and cooperation with Japan. In addition, Europe should participate in a large number of other measures. For example, additional sanctions against institutions involved in North Korean monetary transactions, cooperation with the USA and its allies in the surveillance of North Korea by the secret service, a ban and sabotage of the North Korean supply chains of nuclear weapons, educational work about the Kim regime, and cyber espionage are conceivable North Korean nuclear facilities, punishing China for non-compliance with international sanctions against North Korea, participating in a naval blockade and in an absolute maritime embargo against North Korea, and ensuring military support to South Korea in the event of an attack.

The ultimate goal would be to force the Kim regime to negotiate through continuous pressure, even if the road to get there is rocky and fraught with dangers. Unfortunately, doing nothing is not an option.