Red alert: North Korean missile crisis

Will Hodges considers the rising tensions and asks if North Korea is really a nuclear threat...

In the red corner, a tiny, impoverished country of 25 million people and a GDP of just $40 billion (£27 billion). In the blue, the world's richest country boasting a population of over 300 million and the largest military force on earth.

On paper, the David versus Goliath match-up between North Korea and the US looks too far-fetched to be true. Yet Washington, and much of the international community, is on high alert after the escalation of tensions between the two governments led North Korea to threaten a nuclear strike on the US territories of Guam and Hawaii.

Enemy of the States

In February 2013,****a third nuclear test by North Korean officials since 2006 led the United Nations to tighten its sanctions on the rogue state. Meanwhile, the US and South Korea began joint military exercises in response to North Korea's movements.

In retaliation, North Korea has threatened to use nuclear weapons, and said it would restart the reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. As the tensions continued into April, a spokesperson from the North Korean capital Pyongyang urged all foreigners based in South Korea to leave the country, hinting that an attack on its neighbour was imminent.

The situation marks a considerable setback after several years of negotiations between North Korea and the international community. When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, as North Korea's leader in December 2011, he quickly issued a sign of defiance with an unsuccessful rocket launch in April 2012. This led to a breakdown in the country's relations with South Korea, the US and their international allies.

The background

The current tension between North Korea and the US can be traced back to the 1950s and the early years of the cold war. Having been occupied by Japan during the second world war, Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945, but placed under the administration of the capitalist US in the south and and the communist Soviet Union in the north. By the early 1950s, Soviet influence in the north had created a highly militaristic communist state.

Backed by the Soviet Union and China, North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950, which had recently declared itself an independent state. The US, fearful of the spread of communism across southeast Asia, soon intervened, sparking a three-year conflict that ended with an armistice and fragile peace agreement in 1953.

North and South Korea have had an uneasy truce ever since, with the diverging economic fortunes of the two states providing a continued source of tension. While South Korea embraced capitalism and underwent a rapid industrial development following an export-led economic model, North Korea struggled under the communist ideology of its leader Kim Il-sung, which brought extreme poverty and even famine to its then-15 million inhabitants.

Faced with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1989, and waning support from China, North Korea has come to rely increasingly on its nuclear weapons programme to guarantee its existence as an independent state. But its continued violation of international nuclear agreements has created a hostile relationship with the international community. Tensions with the US have come to a head on a number of occasions, with President Bill Clinton reportedly only hours from declaring war on Pyongyang in 1994.

Taking sides

While the international community has condemned North Korea's nuclear programme, the country's relationship with China has raised concern. Relations between the two countries have strengthened after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left China as the leading provider of aid to the impoverished state. China is also by far North Korea's largest trading partner, receiving 70 per cent of its exports - equivalent to more than £1 billion a year.

The escalation to full-scale conflict between the US and North Korea would place China in a difficult position. However, it has been reported that relations between the two communist states have cooled considerably since Kim Jong-un came to power. Chinese diplomats have already spoken out in favour of the UN sanctions against North Korea, and there are suggestions that Beijing would reduce its aid packages to the country should the sanctions fail to have an effect.

China's standoffish approach to its erstwhile ally has done much to quell fears of a dispute with the US, but China has some way to go to convince the world that it would openly support the US should a war between Washington and Pyongyang erupt.

Is the US really at risk?

It's strongly suspected that North Korea is harbouring nuclear weapons, following reports by Pyongyang of successful nuclear tests by the government in 2006, 2009 and, most recently in 2013. But whether the country has the means to launch an attack on US soil is less clear. The failure of its recent rocket launch suggests that the country is not yet capable of utilising its nuclear armoury against long-distance targets, although it's thought to be edging closer to being able to do so.

Tests carried out by South Korea on fragments of a rocket launched in December 2012 indicate that a North Korean missile could potentially have a range of more than 10,000km, which would place several west coast US cities in striking distance. At present, it's not believed that North Korea has been able to develop the guidance system needed to make a US attack possible.

Relying on the inadequacy of North Korean military technology alone is unlikely to be enough to assuage the fear of the country's two main targets, the US and South Korea. Both have been taking precautions against a possible attack and undertaking joint military exercises, while in April the South Korean Navy deployed warships off North Korea's east coast to track possible missiles. Shortly after, the US confirmed it would deploy anti-missile devices on the Pacific island of Guam which hosts a US military base.

Small it may be, but North Korea is certainly making people sit up and take notice.