North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has threatened the democratic south of the peninsula with “annihilation”. On the anniversary of the armistice between the two warring factions 69 years ago, Kim claimed that Seoul was preparing for a war against the North.

“Our military is ready to respond to any challenge. We are able to use our nuclear deterrent in a targeted and effective manner,” the dictator said. For some time now, the Stone Age dictatorship has been successfully testing hypersonic missiles, which may have led to Kim’s rhetorical upper hand.

With these missiles, Pyongyang could reach any target in the United States. Addressing the United States, Kim also said that it was “demonizing” North Korea and cornering it through joint military exercises with South Korea. Kim, who lets his subordinates starve and freeze so that he can maintain his armaments industry, is trying with this latest twist to stage himself as a friend of the People’s Republic in the slipstream of the Ukraine war and the threat that Beijing poses to Taiwan.

The common rationale of the dictators Xi and Kim may be to keep the US busy on as many fronts as possible, thereby weakening it.

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Kim’s saber-rattling has led to the current escalation with South Korea: through his constant threats to Seoul and Washington, the South Koreans have developed a mechanism that is designed to detect rocket attacks from the north at an early stage and respond with a rocket attack from the south. Yoon Suk-yeol, who was elected president a few months ago, has set himself the task of completing this mechanism and using it in the event of an attack.

The United States is South Korea’s closest ally, and a US Army contingent has been in the country since South-North hostilities ended in 1953. Washington is also a partner with Japan and Taiwan. In addition to the North Korean threat, the United States’ three allies are increasingly challenged by an aggressive and war-ready China.

It is the close connection between these two dictatorships that has existed since the Korean War that makes the mixture on the Korean peninsula so explosive. Up until a few years ago, there was still hope that Beijing would be able and willing to blow Pyongyang back at any time and thus prevent an armed conflict at the last minute.

In the meantime, however, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has become so radicalized and massively restricted freedoms in his country that critics on the Chinese Internet only call the People’s Republic “West Korea”. President Xi would like to be proclaimed president again in the fall and thus open up the possibility of lifelong rule.

But this step is endangered: China’s economy is weakening, youth unemployment is higher than it has been for a long time. The real estate and banking sectors are in trouble. Many of the loans that China made as part of the New Silk Road are no longer being repaid.

The middle class is rebelling and demonstrating publicly. Xi must strike a salvation, one that will silence critics at home. A war would be just right for him. Relaxation, moderation, Xi Jinping has little interest in either at the moment.

The US must now run through a concrete, potential second war scenario in the region. The first: China’s state media are blatantly demanding that the US military plane scheduled to take Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August be shot down. Such a terrorist attack on a senior US politician would inevitably escalate into a war with the United States.

In the second scenario, should Kim Jong Un carry out his threat, the United States would have to engage in the war alongside South Korea. Beijing’s advantage in this war would be that it would not have to immediately become a party.

Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.