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Lessons from the nuclear brinkmanship: From North Korea to the Gulf

The Gulf states hope that the US deals with Iran as resolutely as it has done with North Korea if Tehran attempts to intimidate its neighbours in the future

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In a week, both ends of Asia faced the prospect of a nuclear fallout. In the Korean Peninsula, there was a face-off over the bombastic and irresponsible warnings by the thuggish North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the 30-something new leader of the impoverished communist state. He threatened to launch nuclear strikes on the US, South Korea and Japan.

Since he has few atomic bombs, he mistakenly presumed that his benefactors, the Chinese and the Russians would give him the nod to up the ante against the US.

On the other side of Asia and closer to home, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in Iran killed 40 people and injured about 800. Worse, the epicentre was close to the Bushehr nuclear plant.

The reverberations of the earthquake were felt in four Gulf Cooperation Council capitals, evoking all kinds of fears about the fallout of nuclear radiation from the obsolete Russian-built Iranian nuclear plant. In the eventuality of such a fallout, the resultant radiation could contaminate the air and water of the Gulf, thus bringing to a screeching halt our well-being and livelihood. Although Iranian officials claim that the Bushehr nuclear plant has not been affected and is working normally, fears persisted.

What makes the Korean nuclear charade scary are the unknown factors and information associated with the irrational decision-making of its young dictator. Alex Pareen in his article Pretending to know about North Korea, argues that the US Defence Intelligence Agency says North Korea has “low reliability missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. But that is not the consensus view of the intelligence community, according to other sources. Officially, the US does not believe that North Korea could launch a nuclear armed missile. But, you never know! No one knows what North Korea is thinking and what it is capable of. That lack of knowledge does not stop our intrepid news-content creators, though!”

Therefore, the unknown factor is a major variable influencing our reaction, whether it is North Korea or Iran. We are dealing with two systems president George W. Bush labelled along with Iraq as an “axis of evil”. Both are pariah states in strategic regions with a combustible mix that could ignite more than regional war.

It is a known fact that nuclear weapons are not to be used offensively. Not a single nuclear power has ever threatened to deploy its nuclear arsenal. A nuclear arsenal is a deterrent; its objective is to intimidate, coerce and extract concessions.

Therefore when the flamboyant new leader of the impoverished and secretive North Korean state, which has transformed its leadership into a cult and cut off its people from the rest of the world, threatens to launch nuclear attacks on the US and its regional allies, everyone took notice of his sabre-rattling rhetoric. No one underplayed the threat from this small, but noisy and unpredictable country.

The Americans rushed their Stealth bombers, their advanced $1 billion THAAD missile defence systems to US territory in Guam in the Pacific Ocean and dispatched US Secretary of State John Kerry from the Middle East to the Far East with tough words and a stern warning for Pyongyang. The American leadership wasted no time in sending clarion warnings to North Korea, asking its leadership to stop playing with fire.

For us in the GCC states, what is going on in the Korean Peninsula is both relevant and poignant. And Iran is right in our midst. The US is our ally and the guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf region as it is in the Far East.

At a time when relations between the GCC states and the US need to be on an equal footing, the GCC states need to be reassured by the US of its resolve and determination to defend its allies.

The GCC leadership, analysts and even laymen are following closely how the US and its allies are dealing with the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. Especially how the US has been handling the Korean nuclear crisis, reading in it clues for future US reaction against a nuclear Iran employing its nuclear arsenal to extract concessions from one of the GCC states, or from the GCC collectively.

I think the leaders of the region are following with great interest and keen observations the development in North Korea and how the US is pivoting towards Asia — retreating and drawing down from the region, undergoing budget cuts and sequestration, endeavouring to become independent of dependence on energy resources from the Gulf within a few years — and how it is handling the Korean crisis. More importantly, if the circumstances arise, will the US response and stern dealing with North Korea be repeated vis-a-vis Iran?!

As we speak the nuclear endless rounds between Iran and P5+1 countries continue to grind on without any substantial breakthrough, while Iran continues to buy time, enrich uranium, inching ever closely towards its nuclear goal. Everyone in the region was looking for clues, signals, assurances from the US against the aggressor North Koreans, and assurances made to the US allies — South Korea and Japan. And how such a scenario could lend itself with a nuclear emboldened, determined Iran employing its nuclear arsenal to extract concessions from the GCC states and how would the US react in a meaningful way to contain Iran and reassure its worried allies in the Arabian Gulf.

From what has unfolded thus far, the US reaction has been reassuring and steadfast. Kerry was blunt and firm in his warning to the North Korean leadership from Seoul: ”The rhetoric that we are hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard ... The United States “will, if needed, defend our allies and defend ourselves”.

Such a strong position from the heart of the crisis resonated well in our region.

All of us in the Gulf would hope for the same firm and resolute US reaction we have been witnessing against the nuclear escalation by Kim Jong-un, if the culprit is Iran in the future. Especially, if Iran attempts to fish in muddy waters and meddle in our affairs to extract concessions from us, on basis of future nuclear capability. But our solemn hope is not to face such a prospect down the road because I am not sure who will blink first.


Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at