Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency: the Marxist voice of labour and youth.

Tensions over North Korea continue to simmer as Donald Trump adopts a more bellicose and belligerent stance. This imperialist sabre-rattling is a threat to everyone, raising fears of a Third World War. With a maverick in the White House, far-right demagogues on the rise, and the world economy in crisis, it is clear that we are in an epoch of profound instability.

Tensions over North Korea continue to simmer. Donald Trump’s recent bombing of Syria had already put the world on edge. The dispatch by the United States of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, as well as guided missile destroyers, to waters off the Korean peninsula has set nerves jangling. This imperialist sabre-rattling is a threat to everyone, as the US military boasts of dropping the biggest non-nuclear bomb in history on Afghanistan.

The threats are being ratcheted up. “The shield stands guard and the sword stands ready”, boasts US Vice President Mike Pence.

Any talk of diplomacy is always a smokescreen. “The situation was on a knife edge”, warned the Chinese foreign minister recently. More seriously, the Chinese have stated that a “storm is about to break”, as North Korea publicly displayed its new long-range and submarine-based missiles.

Trump, the US Commander In Chief, raised eyebrows in a TV interview when, after boasting about “the most beautiful chocolate cake” that he and the Chinese leader were eating, he alarmingly named Iraq as the target for his cruise missile attack instead of Syria. He was corrected by the interviewer. Similarly, the US “armada” which Trump boasted had been sent to the Korean peninsula was in fact steaming in the opposite direction, heading for the Indian Ocean instead of the Western Pacific. In volatile times, such errors and confusion hardly instill confidence in the US military and its leaders.

The Metro newspaper in London has been full of letters condemning Trump and raising fears of a possible Third World War. This situation is the most unstable for decades.

Some commentators have drawn parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where the threat of Soviet missiles being stationed in Cuba provoked the United States and heightened the threat of a nuclear war between the superpowers.

As at the time of the Cold War, however, a Third World War today is ruled out precisely due to the presence of nuclear weapons on all sides. The threat of mutually assured destruction means that the major powers - and smaller nations possessing nuclear arms - will not go to war with each other. In this respect, Trump's bellicose and belligerent rhetoric over North Korea is all bluster. Nevertheless, the rising geopolitical tensions are a reflection of the turbulence and instability that exist on a world scale.

North Korea

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” the North Koreans drew the conclusion that they needed nuclear weapons to defend themselves and prevent foreign intervention. “If the US wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strike,” said a key spokesman for the North Korean regime.

Trump has already warned China that, if they don’t force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme, the United States will act alone. Now the US President seems determined to flex his military muscle. He is said to be pursuing a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” According to Mike Pence, “We’ve got options, we’ve got a range of options both militarily, diplomatic and others, so we have a wide range of tools at our disposal for the president should he choose to use them.” This followed US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s, threat that the era of American “strategic patience” with North Korea was over. Again he also made a point of emphasising that America was considering all options, including military strikes.

In Trump’s hands, a man who speaks admiringly of Eisenhower and Truman for having the “guts” to drop a nuclear bomb, this could lead to a disaster. That is why the ruling class are determined to keep a tight rein on him.

But this White House sabre-rattling is all bluff. They are well aware that North Korea is a very unstable Stalinist state, ruled by a dictator and armed with nuclear weapons. As opposed to Syria, the US cannot use missiles against North Korea for fear of deadly retaliation. If attacked, North Korea could easily dispatch missiles with nuclear bombs to Tokyo and South Korea, destroying US military bases in the area. The North Korean nuclear and missile programmes are widely dispersed and hidden underground or underwater. It would be extremely unlikely that their whole arsenal could be destroyed in a single wave of strikes, which would immediately raise the prospect of nuclear retaliation by the North.

The US would need to take account of this reality. North Korea is certainly not comparable to Syria, which was more or less defenceless to US aggression. Syria has fallen apart and is not capable of fighting back. North Korea is totally different. Even a so-called surgical strike by the US administration would bring disastrous consequences, not least for its allies.

Petrol on the flames

With maverick Trump in the White House, wild swings in foreign policy are inevitable. With little thought out strategy, he is like a bull in a china shop. He has already alienated the Europeans by threatening to undermine NATO. He has declared “America First”, threatening a new period of protectionism. He has openly clashed with both the CIA and US security services. He has turned the establishment Republican Party upside down. In an already very unstable situation in world relations, his actions just pour petrol onto the flames.

Once again, these events underline the fact that we live in an epoch of profound instability, upheavals and military conflict, which threatens the very existence of humankind. Only the elimination of the capitalist system can eradicate this menace and lay the basis for peace and the cooperation between peoples. The choice we face is between socialism and barbarism, or more probably; between socialism and possible annihilation.