Will the Cold War go hot?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a statement in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's speech to the United Nations, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Picture: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the world assumed that the Cold War had finally ended.

The celebrations that followed, the sense of freedom from the threat of nuclear annihilation was like a breath of fresh air for the generations that had lived with the prospect of the super powers deciding to launch their nuclear arsenals and end the world.

But the world forgot about the brooding presence of Kim Il-sung, unrepentant after the Korean War that did not end when the armistice was signed on Monday July 27 1953, and the Korean Peninsula remained divided at the 38th Parallel.

Twenty eight years later, the Kim dynasty in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in its third generation, and the present incumbent, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, has continued the work of his ancestors, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and made the Hermit Kingdom – as North Korea is now known – into a nuclear power.

The enduring belligerence of three generations of the Kim dynasty has thus far been contained by the canny incumbents in the Oval Office since the uneasy truce was signed, and America settled in for the long haul to protect its ally, South Korea, with a permanent presence of about 100 000 troops just south of the Demilitarised Zone.

But that all changed on Friday January 20, when a mercurial, sabre-rattling narcissist took the chair in the Oval Office, and his itchy finger hovered over the proverbial big red button of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

The Cold War that never ended now promises to become a hot war, and the world must once more contemplate the prospect of a nuclear holocaust.

With each fresh provocation by North Korea – a number of test nuclear detonations and lobbing of rockets in the direction of Japan and over Guam, an American territory – the rhetoric between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has escalated to the point where a nuclear conflict appears inevitable.

The ever-ineffectual United Nations sanctions initiative has foundered: the Hermit Kingdom has responded by saying “we will eat grass if we have to”.

Mr Trump’s recent threat in his UN address to the General Assembly notwithstanding, it is unlikely that he will launch a pre-emptive strike, despite having the constitutional authority to do so.

Although he does not have to act on the advice of his secretary of state and the chairman of the joint chiefs, their counsel would probably stay Mr Trump’s hand, but if Kim launches first, either at Guam or the American western seaboard – which the experts say Kim can now do, and possibly with a hydrogen bomb – retaliation is inevitable.

In theory, America could knock the missile out of the sky before it strikes its target, using the sea-based Aegis or land-based Patriot anti-missile systems, but what if they fail?

Rather than an all-out retaliation, America is likely to engage in a surgical strike, targeting Pyong Yang and North Korea’s nuclear manufacturing facilities, probably with low-yield air-delivered nuclear devices, to limit the damage arc and the extent of nuclear fallout which will inevitably impact its allies, South Korea and Japan.

What happens next is the big question.

China and Russia, long time allies of North Korea, both have significant nuclear arsenals, and the prospect of an all-out nuclear exchange looms, but it is unlikely. Neither country is likely to risk annihilation to support a country which has been a thorn in the side since the armistice was signed.

The military doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is as relevant today as it was during the decades of the Cold War.

America, Russia and China between them have enough nuclear weapons to end the world as we know it today, and all three have far too much to lose to engage in global thermo-nuclear war.

The alternative to a retaliatory nuclear strike by America, is a ground war, but Mr Trump will require Congressional approval in terms of the War Powers Act, and in any case, the logistics of mounting a military campaign against a country halfway around the world, which now boasts a million man standing army, would take weeks to adequately support its military presence in South Korea, which would be easily overwhelmed if North Korea marches south.

The weight of history in this theatre will also inform Mr Trump’s deliberations – America won neither of the wars it fought in South East Asia, and it has yet to convincingly win any of the wars it is fighting in the Middle East.

The only hope we have, is that the powers which can destroy the world choose not to do so, and put all their efforts into seeking a diplomatic solution to the greatest threat the world has faced in decades.