North Korea makes the international news far more often than other countries of its size. Its leader is a young, overweight guy with a funny haircut, and there are regularly big parades in the capital city featuring gaudy propaganda images and goose-stepping soldiers. But despite being a poor, inward-looking country, the North is a subject of major concern and fascination due to its growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.
North Korea isn’t the only repressive authoritarian country in the world — think Eritrea or Turkmenistan — but it’s the only one that creates jitters in major capitals. Not only does North Korea deny its own citizens basic civil and political rights, it is currently working to develop a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead and allow it to strike anywhere in the United States.
This bit of insight from crime writer Bill James is useful in understanding why North Korea garners so much international attention, “Popular crimes are an expression of our impulse to draw a protective circle around ourselves. The interest that we take in a crime is therefore proportional to the sense it creates that our sanctuary may have been violated.”
North Korea is currently making much of the world feel at least a little less safe. What are they after and should you be worried?
First off, why does North Korea want nukes?
This is a matter of some debate among scholars. Some argue that the Pyongyang government sees nuclear armament as a way of guaranteeing that it remains in power, that nukes are essential to avoid the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddaffi, who was overthrown after giving up his nuclear weapons. Armed with nukes, this line of thinking goes, North Korea can’t be bullied by anyone and the mafia-like cliques that run the country can remain in their privileged positions.
The other theory is scarier. North Korea is a nationalist state with a system of dynastic leadership and an inward-looking ideology that prizes self-reliance over any kind of international cooperation. The Pyongyang regime sees itself as the legitimate ruler of the entire Korean peninsula (the South Korean government makes the same claim); some scholars therefore think that the development of a nuclear arsenal is a key step toward the longstanding goal of unifying the peninsula under North Korean rule, forcibly if necessary.
What can the U.S. and South Korea do?
South Korea and the United States have an alliance that goes back to at least to the Korean War and regularly get together to tell the world how united they are in their approach to handling North Korea. Somewhat ironically, neither of them have diplomatic relations with the North, or any official channel of inter-governmental communication.
Whenever North Korea does something to demonstrate its growing nuclear clout, the two countries condemn the act and, if possible, enact stricter sanctions on Pyongyang with the hope that economic conditions can be made so uncomfortable for the country that they have no choice but to negotiate away their nukes in exchange for access to the international economy.
But North Korea has shown it is willing to endure economic hardship, and is staying firm in its position that its nuclear armament is not on the table for negotiation. Therein is the impasse: South Korea and the U.S. won’t hold talks until North Korea shows it is serious to give up its nukes, while North Korea refuses to give up its nukes.
The only way out of the rut may be for the Seoul and Washington to formally recognize North Korea as a nuclear power as a way of getting negotiations started.
Where is China in all of this?
China, as North Korea’s only major ally and trade partner, is often seen as the key to reining in North Korea. Though North Korea is subject to major international sanctions by the United Nations, United States and South Korea, it is difficult to impossible to really strangle the North’s economy without China fully cooperating, something Beijing has been reluctant to do. Though China has taken measures like cutting off coal imports, there isn’t conclusive evidence that sanctions on North Korea are being carried out to the letter. Though far from rich, North Korea is still consistently able to fund some very expensive weapons development.
Relations between China and North Korea are also unfriendly; China is frustrated with North Korea’s combative behavior and the North resents holding the subordinate position in the relationship with a much bigger, richer country. Though relations are somewhat frosty these days, the two countries’ have a long partnership, having fought on the same side in the Korean War, and were ideological allies of a sort during the Cold War. And China is still by far North Korea’s main economic partner.
But in spite of that, China has little influence over North Korea politically — Pyongyang is free to pursue whatever policies they choose whether China likes it or not — but China still does have the power to disrupt life in North Korea: China controls the North’s only active land border, through which almost all imports of goods come into the country. If China were to cut off access there, North Korea would get very uncomfortable very quickly. But such a move would also be likely to spur waves of desperate North Korean refugees into China, making it likely that China will go on gritting its teeth and tolerating North Korea.
Will there be war?
Though North Korea has nuclear weapons, so does the United States and South Korea falls under that umbrella of protection. And though North Korea has a large standing military, it would have no chance in a conventional war against South Korea and, by extension, the United States, which is obligated to protect South Korea under a mutual defense treaty. The people in charge in Pyongyang know that picking a fight would likely lead to them losing power, so don’t expect the North to declare war any time soon. Also, something that tends to get lost in English-language coverage of North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric is that almost always what they say is that they will turn some city into a sea of fire if they are attacked first. They generally don’t threaten to initiate a war.
So North Korea is fundamentally rational, and it’s a strategic miscalculation that presents the greatest risk of conflict. It’s possible that a military commander on either side could misinterpret a move by the other side and thereby spark a localized clash that could escalate into something bigger.
But is North Korea going to violate your inner sanctuary? Probably not.
Steven Borowiec authored this article.
Cover image: The North Korean flag. (Source: Max Pixel)
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