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North Korea. Antonio Fiori (University of Bologna): “It’s a tense situation, and Trump hasn’t realized it”

Eleven missile launches from North Korea in 2017, with increasingly longer ranges and ever-sophisticated technology. Is there a concrete risk of a nuclear war? What is making Kim Jong-un nervous? We asked these questions to Antonio Fiori, Professor of East-Asia International Relations at the University of Bologna, currently in Seoul

“It’s hard to understand, but there is growing concern over what could happen. It’s a tense situation.” This is the climate in Seoul after the latest missile launch – the eleventh in 2017 – from North Korea on the same day marking Independence Day celebrations (July 4). Antonio Fiori, Professor of International Relations in East Asia at the University of Bologna, spoke to SIR about how South Korea is coping with Pyongyang’s provocations. Professor Fiori is currently in South Korea’s capital city to attend several courses, and has collected first-hand impressions of the situation on the ground. “Notwithstanding widespread appreciation for President-elect Moon Jaen-in – the Professor said – and of his many efforts, it is feared that the US may decide to intervene autonomously with a worrying and dangerous move.”

Kim Jong-un’s nuclear provocations are nothing new, unfortunately. What has changed to the extent of increasing the tension in the area?
The repeated missile-launches at an extremely alarming pace represent a change in Pyongyang’s aggressiveness. Also the technology has changed, with sdevelopments widely feared for years. Also the US confirmed that North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, which caused great alarm, for if North Korea manages to mount a nuclear warhead on this kind of missile the situation could be much harder to control.

Is it really possible?
I would be cautious to this regard. It’s true that the missile flew to about 930 kilometers, and it was celebrated by North Korea as a great success. However, 930 kilometres are still far from the almost 7 thousand to reach the United States- provided that North Korea intends strike against it, which I personally continue seeing as an unlikely event.

Why is it unlikely?

Because if North Korea threatens the United States with an intercontinental missile, shortly after the Country would be doomed to disappearing from the world map.

A dozens of missiles were fired in 2017. We are clearly facing an intensification of the nuclear threat. What is North Korea increasingly nervous about?
I don’t think that North Korea’s regime is nervous about something in particular, as I don’t believe the story whereby the US are considering an attack against the dictator’s life. I am more prone to believe that it is a show of force, against the backdrop of a confusing situation characterising the area. Historically, North-Koreans have shown to be extremely capable of wedging themselves through the folds of confusion. In my view the greatest danger in Asia is not North Korea but the fact that the US and Trump’s administration fail to understand that they shouldn’t take things too far with China by putting the blame on them.

To what extent is Trump’s temperament influential? Immediately after the latest launch the US President referred to the North-Korean dictator on Twitter: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” In your view, what could have been the reactions to his words?
On Kim, none at all. I don’t think he pays heed to Trump’s declarations, or else, he might have reacted with a smile on his face, because if Trump reacts, it’s evident that his goal has been partially reached, namely:

To frighten a much greater and powerful opponent.

But I find it rather disgraceful for Trump to react with such a tweet to a destabilizing episode like the launch of a missile, which could signal a new technological development by North Korean, achieved on its own. I consider it thoughtless, indicative of a person that failed to envisage the risks and failed to understand the direction of ongoing political developments in Asia.

Are we facing the concrete risk of a nuclear war?
Nobody can rule it out. The risk does exist indeed. But it’s been this way for many years. It’s perceivable. The US normally don’t move all their armament currently stationed near the Korean peninsula without a reason or unless there is a concrete purpose. Not only do they have many soldiers stationed in Seoul and others arriving. Not only many of their ships were sent to that region – as far as we know also the Navy Seals, specialised in operations behind enemy lines. If a conflict broke out, the US are fully aware that in order to succeed the first thing to do is to remove the Kim dynasty.

Do you think that Pope Francis’ voice could knock on Kim’s heart?
No. This is something I deem impossible. But I think that Kim is not at all stupid, so he could at least acknowledge the fact that the Holy Father may be expressing the hope that some form of reconciliation will take place between the two Countries. But this doesn’t mean that Kim would follow that advice. It would be utter utopia.

Why do you think that North Korea follows or listen to what Pope Francis says?
They are extremely informed about international dynamics. As I said, Kim will not be stirred by the Pope’s words, but those words will arrive, and it could be a positive fact. It certainly would do no harm.

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