New Delhi: Dictators often contain forces that might be too dangerous to let escape. Odious as dictators may be, this fact must always be taken into consideration before the so-called forces of good set out to neutralize him. Outwardly, the late Saddam Hussain and the much alive Kim Jong-un may be very unlike one another. But they are similar in a fundamental way. If the destruction of Saddam released the atavistic forces of medieval Islamism which have needed vast and urgent Great Power interventions to preserve the balance and the status quo in the Middle East, any move to topple Kim could unleash Korean nationalism of a manner never encountered. Whether or not it succeeds in deposing the North Korean dictator, it will set off tremors that could bring down the Westernized nation of South Korea. The original objective of the North’s invasion of the South which triggered off the Korean War could well be met in that event fifty-four years too soon.

Korean nationalism is scarcely a fashionable subject and most strategists would even discount its existence. They would hesitate to admit that Korean nationalism provides at least some glue to keeping North Korea intact despite the exertion of enormous international pressures against it for decades. Their alternative explanation of total dictatorial control of the Kim dynasty while superficially plausible fails to entirely satisfy. There is simply more to North Korea’s sovereign coherence than brutal dictatorship, isolation from the world, the reign of terror, censorship, and all the other glib Western excuses trotted out.

Nationalism also thrives and prospers on a sense of injured pride, on civilizational persecution, on a feeling of being historically wronged, on a fierce attachment to one’s culture and traditions, and, lastly and importantly, on an apprehension of and suspicious disposition towards modernity. The great Sunni anger and sulking after Saddam’s deposition that provided the impetus for first Al-Qaeda and then Islamic State terrorism incorporates all the tragic facets of nationalism described above. In limited ways it also applies to Korean nationalism.

Korean nationalism is often directly provoked by memories of Japan’s brutal colonization of the peninsula from when it became Asia’s first Great Power after the Meiji Restoration till up to its capitulation in World War II. The Japanese leadership is essentially unapologetic about its horrific imperial past and the Japanese as a people are no better. The few thousand Koreans settled in Japan for over four generations face discrimination and bigotry and cannot hope for assimilation in Japanese society. The Koreans of Japan live closely knit amongst themselves, send their children to Korean schools where the Kim dynasty is revered, and they display fierce loyalty for all things Korean. If Japan, thrust ahead by a new wave of chauvinism and militarism, pushes to become a nuclear power, it will rekindle all the old fears in the two Koreas, and ignite anti-Japanese Korean nationalism.

The US Pentagon has informed Congress that only a ground invasion of North Korea has any chance of netting its nuclear weapons and launchers. If the first Korean War ended in stalemate, the second will certainly terminate in a nuclear catastrophe, producing millions of casualties in the Korean peninsula and in Japan. Even China will suffer horrible effects of the war. This is assuming China sides with the invaders in a grotesque display of pragmatism. However, this is highly unlikely. The factors that thrust China into the 1950 Korean War in aid of the North would bring it back again in defence of Kim. If the United States deploys Japanese troops, it will be the final red rag. All of Korea, the North and the South together, will rise up in explosive nationalism, and expel the invading forces. The Korean War would have finally been settled in favour of the North.

Sometimes, however intolerable the extant situation appears, the alternatives are often worse. The last thing the international community desires is a collapse of South Korea and the extension of Kim’s rule throughout the peninsula. In can happen. Once the genie of nationalism escapes, it can wrought awful transformations. To learn from the disaster of deposing Saddam Hussain, Kim Jong-un is less dangerous in possession of his own deterrent. The manifold burdens of possessing nuclear weapons will mellow him. In time, North Korea could also be hoped to become a normal state. The Marshall Plan was the last time American policymakers showed sagacity in the Cold War. Containment failed to live up to the gentler expectations of its brilliant creator, George F. Kennan. The North Korean crisis needs diplomacy and patience. It does not need Donald Trump.