Reports on North Korea conjure up horror stories of forced labor camps, a desire and capability to fire a barrage of artillery at Seoul at a moment’s notice, and nuclear bombs allegedly aimed at America’s west coast, South Korea, and Japan. Taken together, these factors incline many to believe the only way to deal with the Cold War relic that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is by launching an assault to destroy their nuclear capabilities, free those oppressed, and reunify the peninsula. While proponents of such ideas stand firm in their moral rationale, they ignore the destabilizing and debilitating impact such a conflict would have in both East Asia and the United States.
By destroying the North Korean state and invoking a mass war, the United States would run the risk of creating a refugee crisis of Syrian proportions, at a time when anti-immigrant sentiments are rising in America and Europe. And there is certainly no counting on Beijing to accept thousands, if not millions, of fleeing Koreans with open arms. Currently, China lacks the infrastructure and initiative to handle a rapid influx of Korean refugees, and their limited action in aiding the resettlement of Syrians suggests that the nation would not be willing to bear the full brunt of a mass exodus of North Koreans. In addition, measuring at 795 meters long, the Yalu River covers much of the China-North Korean border, posing a risk of drowning to the millions who will likely be forced out of a war torn Korea.
With experts projecting that China would increase border security in event of war, Beijing will most likely attempt to persuade South Korea to do the majority of the humanitarian work. But, hosting a population of just 50 million and garnering fears of economic downturn and cultural clashes, Seoul will likely also be unwilling to relocate millions of potential refugees. Expenses will be high and benefits will be unclear; the result of a war with North Korea, one supposedly born out of a want to liberate the people, will be the displacement and endangerment of millions. It is easy to talk about starting a conflict in the name of humanity, but it is irresponsible to do so without considering the tragic mark one would leave on the world.