EVEN as terrorism in Marawi continues to hog national attention, our leaders and policymakers should keep tabs on regional security issues and their impact domestically. If anything, reports of foreign fundamentalists joining local terrorists underscore the overlap between problems here at home and those from abroad.
As far as regional threats come, none loom larger than North Korea. That small pariah state represents the proverbial Achilles heel to the Asian century. The economic gains of Asia, including that of Southeast Asia and the Philippines, in the past few decades could be lost if tension in the Korean peninsula erupts into war or even if it just continues to fester. Granted, North Korea’s threats in the past have been more bluster than real. But two particular advances under the present regime in Pyongyang should worry the world – its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and its nuclear weapons program.
In the six years that Kim Jong-un has been in power, North Korea has conducted at least twice as many missile tests as it did during the time of his father who was president from 1994 to 2011. To analysts and ordinary observers alike, that is a remarkable yet disconcerting feat. Worse, the rapid advances in missile technology has been running in parallel with its program to develop—and miniaturize–nuclear weapons. Reports have it that North Korea can fit 10 to 16 bombs into a warhead.
As worrisome as the claim that North Korea’s KN-08 missile could reach the US East Coast, the danger centers from within the Korean peninsula itself. Some 24 million people live in metropolitan Seoul, which is located just over 64 kilometers south of the armistice line. Millions will die if war breaks out, not just from nuclear attacks but also from conventional arsenal and the North’s biological weapons.
The economic cost, according to reports, could reach $1 trillion. Imagine the roads, bridges, and other infrastructure that could be built across this region. Imagine the trillions of dollars more that would be rechanneled from development efforts across Asia to help survivors and others if war happens.
Even the mere threat of war could hasten an arms race in Asia. That, too, threatens to divert resources that would otherwise be spent on economic development.
Interests at stake
Trouble in the Korean peninsula could also impact China, which borders North Korea. That in turn would trigger problems in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. China is Asean’s largest trading partner. And Asean is a major destination for Chinese firms operating abroad, with two-way investments topping $160 billion as of last year. In short, a war in Korea would bear a heavy cost for everyone in this region.
Naturally, China is not standing by idly, and neither should the Philippines and the rest of Asean. Although Chinese experts that we have talked to assert that Beijing has less influence over Pyongyang these days, China remains in the best position to make a difference. China accounts for 80 percent to 85 percent of North Korea’s trade. And so, China’s enforcement of UN sanctions will have a deeper impact on North Korea.
Earlier this year, China stopped importing coal from North Korea in compliance with a UN Security Council resolution passed late last year. North Korea, however, claims that the ban would have little impact on its economy. Clearly, more has to be done to avert catastrophe. It is also clear that no matter how diminished its influence over Pyongyang may be, China remains as the country best poised to take meaningful action.
As tensions rise further, more and more Chinese view North Korea as a liability, according to news reports. Those concerns should be echoed from Manila and elsewhere around the world. Every country’s interest is at stake. Fighting in the Korean peninsula will have far graver consequences than any local skirmish can generate.