If the United States attacks North Korea for whatever reason, the result may be a global economic and humanitarian crisis like the world has never seen. While the military and diplomatic experts remind us of the risks and massive loss of civilian and military life, the aftermath of such a conflict will leave East Asia in an economic and humanitarian crisis that will most likely spread to Asia, Europe and North America. Even if America “wins” a conventional conflict, we will lose as the global and American economy goes into a downward tail spin.
East Asian economies including China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan make up about 30 percent of world trade, and these economies are closely tied to one another as much as they are to the global economy. According to the World Trade Organization, East Asian economies make up over 25 percent of China’s trade; for Japan it is over 30 percent of total trade and about 30 percent of South Korean trade. Conventional war on the Korean peninsula could result in millions of deaths as well as the economic collapse of South Korea (a nuclear exchange on the peninsula would of course be more severe). This will have an immediate influence on the economies of China, Taiwan and Japan, with severe financial crisis and possible economic depression. The European and especially American economies will also face economic crisis possibly the likes we have not confronted since the 1930s.
In addition to the economic disaster, the East Asian humanitarian emergency will dwarf the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe. Before the civil war, Syria had a population of 21 million. South Korea had 51 million with another 26 million in the North. Total war will create millions of refugees seeking immediate help from China, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, Philippines. Given the 880 mile long direct boarder, China will get the brunt of refugees from the North as well as South refugees to China’s eastern port cities. The massive influx of refugees may threaten social stability in Northeast China. Combined with the possible economic crisis, China’s economy and political system will be stretched to the brink.
While some Americans view an economically and militarily strong China as a threat to the U.S., the greatest threat to America is an economically weak and unstable China. In January 2016, the Shanghai stock market went into a steep decline. Although the stock market recovered after government intervention, it had global repercussions. China sneezed and the global markets caught a cold. What happens if China gets pneumonia? No country will be immune.
There is no easy answer to resolving the current tensions on the Korean peninsula, and allowing the North Koreans to continue their nuclear program unabated is not a good option. However, forcing Kim Jong Un into a corner and countering irrational threats with similar language will only narrow available options. At this stage, we need to be looking for a wider range of options with China, Japan and South Korea in order to avoid a global economic and humanitarian crisis like the world has never seen.