There is no doubt that the evolving crisis on the Korean Peninsula represents one of America’s greatest and most consequential foreign policy challenges ever. Given America’s history of dilemmas in the foreign policy sphere, it is a difficult title to bear, but consider the following. In the event of an armed conflict, military and civilian casualties would likely exceed half a million in the first 90 days alone. Four of the 12 largest economies according to nominal GDP are located near North Korea, and in a war scenario, the U.S., the world’s largest economy by a wide margin, would be directly harmed. Waves of refugees in the millions would flee to neighboring countries, culminating in a migrant crisis which would likely dwarf that from Syria in recent years. In summary, such a conflict would be more economically devastating to the global economy than any war since WWII, while total casualties would exceed that of any war since Vietnam.
As the situation currently stands, the North Korean government, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, has conducted 13 ballistic missile tests in 2017, culminating in the recent successful launch last week. In recent years the DPRK has ramped up its missile launch schedule, with a record 23 last year and a total of 82 since 2011, far more than over the previous 27 years since testing began.
While advanced missile tests alone would spark far less concern, the concurrent progress of North Korea’s nuclear program has spurred considerable condemnation and alarm from many nations, particularly neighboring South Korea and its close ally, the United States. In just the past year, Kim Jong-un’s regime oversaw a nuclear test greatly exceeding the explosive power of its previous record set last year. In numerical terms, this month’s test contained the force of an estimated 120 to 160 kilotonnes of TNT. By comparison, September 2016’s test yielded only 17 kilotonnes, while the infamous “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima equaled just 15 kilotonnes. Quite simply, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, North Korea’s nuclear program has made startling progress.
So what is preventing the international community from swiftly halting these developments in the “Hermit Kingdom”? The situation is rife with competing geopolitical interests that immediately complicate any considerable diplomatic or military action. Foremost among them is the DPRK’s primal desire for self-preservation and eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Without its nuclear and complementary ballistic missile programs, both of these goals are–in their view–unattainable. With such high importance attached to these twin programs, there is scarce reason to believe any measures short of complete military intervention would prevent any further progress.
In the backdrop is the antagonism between the China-Russia geopolitical alliance and that of the U.S. and South Korea.
For years, China, North Korea’s sole ally, perceived the DPRK as a necessary land buffer between the sizable military forces of the United States and its allies. In modern times this is evident in China’s vehement condemnation of South Korea’s recent installment of its new, American-made ballistic missile defense system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system or “THAAD.” Many U.S. military analysts and intelligence experts believe China views this system as ulteriorly directed toward a broad U.S. military containment effort to counter China’s tremendous military rise. As such, many analysts have long assumed China would come to the DPRK’s aid in the event of a preemptive attack, which would likely ignite a conflict unprecedented in scale since WWII. In recent years, however, particularly since the ascension of Kim Jong-un in 2011, China has become increasingly frustrated by its northeastern neighbor’s defiant and belligerent behavior. Notably, China recently approved new, sweeping economic sanctions against North Korea.
As in the recent past, Russia plays a more subdued role in supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime. Perhaps reflective of his KGB roots, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin is surreptitiously attempting to fill the vacuum of influence left by China of late. This would give Putin an excuse to burnish his already domestically touted foreign policy credentials while simultaneously expanding Russia’s sphere of influence, particularly through aid – both humanitarian and military – in the event of conflict.
On the side of the United States and the broader international community, South Korea seeks to preserve its own existence, both politically and, well, literally. Moreover, any military intervention in North Korea would most imperil South Korea’s civilian population. Seoul, the capital of the country, boasts a population of 25 million and lies just 35 miles from the DMZ. At the figurative side of South Korea lies the United States, the nation the DPRK has always viewed as its archenemy. While geographically distant from the region, the U.S. represents South Korea’s largest and most powerful military, economic and political ally, and has 30,000 troops stationed on the peninsula. More alarmingly, on numerous occasions the DPRK has touted its military capacity and desire to annihilate the United States.
Underlying these realities is the long and eventful history of the DPRK – a relevant and oft-ignored component in understanding and ultimately resolving the ongoing crisis in the region.
The historical origins of North Korea’s aggressive and defiant foreign policy posture lie in the armistice signed in 1953 which concluded the Korean War. This left North and South Korea in essentially a frozen state of war and resulted in the formation of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where 28,500 American soldiers, 522,000 South Korean and 1,000,000 North Korean soldiers are stationed today. In such a climate, North and South Korea are never truly far from conflict on the peninsula. In South Korea this is evident in the two year military service mandate for all physically fit men between the ages of 18 and 35, while an even larger proportion of North Korean men serve in the armed forces.
Perhaps more terrifying is the DPRK’s apparent imperviousness to foreign attempts at influencing the regime. Even China, North Korea’s only ally, has inconsequential sway over the reclusive country. From a historical context, in 1958 the late leader Kim il Sung ordered the withdrawal of all Chinese forces in the country which had assisted in the nation’s reconstruction efforts since the conclusion of the Korean War. No foreign troops have set foot in their territory since. In the 1950s, a key power struggle occurred between the regime led by Kim il Sung, and rival parties seeking influence over the nation. This led to the transition of the “Hermit Kingdom” from a multi-party authoritarian state somewhat influenced by the Soviet Union and China, to a single party totalitarian government under the firm control of Kim il-sung.
Since that formative period, the isolated nation in the Korean Peninsula has constructed a political and social culture which revolves around the regime’s current leader. In each case, the people worship him as an exalted, superhuman figure with an almost religious fervor. The education and propaganda network is structured around the dualistic struggle between North Korea and its arch nemesis, the United States. According to one defector from the country, a typical grade school math question would be, “If there are two American bastards, and you shoot one American bastard, how many American bastards are left?”Anyone who hesitates to accept the dogma and rules of the regime is subject to internment at brutal forced labor camps where even a single infraction might result in the admission of one’s entire family to what are essentially present day concentration camps. Such conditions in the country have established a firmly united people built upon conditioned loyalty and the specter of fear. Such a nation would not only be difficult to subdue in a conflict, but would also be challenging to integrate into modern society if the current government were to collapse.
To add the proverbial fuel to the flame, the DPRK regularly disregards economic and political agreements with foreign nations and the companies therein. Any businesses engaging in exchange with North Korea do so at their own peril. Throughout the Cold War, the USSR invested resources and military equipment into the country and to this day hosts thousands of North Korean workers, has seen little gratitude. China, now North Korea’s largest trading partner, is currently frustrated with the bombastic behavior and blatant disregard for international agreements and demands by the United Nations for an end to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the DPRK’s deceptiveness was its behavior following the government’s signing of the nuclear agreement during the Clinton Administration. While in literal terms the regime abided by the contract, which barred the production of weapons grade plutonium, it omitted any explicit restriction of the refinement of uranium ore–the other potential path to a nuclear weapon. In characteristically duplicitous fashion, the DPRK exploited this loophole to maximum effect. These historical realities should give pause to proponents of a diplomatic resolution to this crisis.
On a different note, what is unfortunately often overlooked is the critical fact that North Korea’s motives are not strictly defensive in nature – North Korea survived for decades before even signaling it had nuclear ambitions. Instead, its leaders’ actions reveal an ultimate goal of reunifying the whole of the Korean Peninsula. In the face of a NATO military resistance and an estimated economy smaller than that of Birmingham, Alabama, a conventional military victory is out-of-the-question for the North Korean government.
What is often overlooked, however, is the critical fact that North Korea’s motives are not strictly defensive in nature–North Korea survived for decades before even signaling it had nuclear ambitions.
However, with the threat of nuclear retaliation, the DPRK may effectively prevent American and international military intervention altogether. This would leave South Korea’s military as the lone stalwart against the DPRK in its endeavors to conquer the entire peninsula. As the regime’s nuclear proliferation and complementary ballistic missile development are evidently essential to achieving this long-standing goal, any notion of a cessation to such efforts conveys a misunderstanding of the fundamental motives of the North Korean regime.
In the scope of recent years, the reign of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-Un, which began in 2011, has been marked by a significant acceleration of the nation’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Remarkably, the last four years reveal more progress in both areas than seen in the previous two decades. Such a development provides only a superficial hint of the true agenda of the current North Korean regime, however. At the moment, North Korea’s government is one of the most reclusive and meticulously controlled in the world. North Korean society mirrors a real-world version of the widely-read dystopian novel 1984 to a frightening extent.
Many ludicrous misconceptions of North Korea pervade the media, which in any other context would be immediately identified as speculation. This is, in part, a testament to the sheer insularity of the nation, one of the world’s most isolated, where reliable information on domestic affairs is scarce also. More tangibly, however, is the little knowledge of North Korea that does leave the country, which in many cases sounds inconceivable but is actually true.
One striking example of this is the Sinchon Museum of United States War Atrocities, a museum, as the name suggests, devoted entirely to American military crimes during the Sinchon Massacre alone – a scantily sourced massacre that occurred during the dawn of the Korean War. One exhibit describes the atrocity in gruesome detail: “In the last liberation war…during our strategic retreat, the American hyenas…arrested Min Youngshik…stabbed her muscles with a three-pronged spear and sucked her flowing blood.” Kim Jong-un himself has released statements through his state-run news network claiming that “they are cannibals and homicides seeking pleasure in slaughter.” In other words, the very suggestibility of the false rumors about North Korea are a product of the degree to which they are rationally believable based on previous, corroborated truths about the regime. Many Koreans are fed propaganda such as this regularly in various forms that reflect the incredible extent to which the regime exercises complete control over the lives of the populace.
In other words, the very suggestibility of the false rumors about North Korea are a product of the degree to which they are rationally believable based on previous, corroborated truths about the regime.
Within Kim Jong-un’s inner circle, many high-level officials, even family members, have been brutally executed by the ruthless leader. Experts on Kim Jong-un’s regime know that he rules the nation with an iron fist and is worshipped like a divine figure. During Kim’s ascension to power in 2011 many analysts were skeptical that he would last more than a few years–now we’re here. All of this said, it is clear that whatever the head does (Kim), the body follows (the nation of North Korea). Based on the audacity and ambitiousness of Kim, it seems reasonable to consider that he will not easily budge on important issues to himself and the fate of his nation. To paraphrase Jonathan Pollack, the Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies in the Brookings Institution, who recently guest spoke on campus, the last concession Kim would make is the relinquishment of the his nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
During Kim’s ascension to power in 2011 many analysts were skeptical that he would last more than a few years–now we’re here. Such conditions in the country have established a firmly united people built upon conditioned loyalty and the specter of fear.
Provided the historical antecedents of the North Korea crisis, in combination with the current behavior of the regime of Kim Jong-Un, and the conclusion of one of the nation’s foremost experts on East Asian Studies, a peaceful resolution eventuating in the conclusion and ultimate dismantlement of nation’s nuclear arsenal is evidently untenable. Instead, the United States and its allies must either prepare for a scenario where North Korea possesses advanced nuclear armaments made perilously mobile through capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or a decisive, full-scale war with one of the world’s only remaining totalitarian states.
*I would like to acknowledge the crucial, historical insight provided by Jonathan D. Pollack, who inspired me to write this article*
This is an extended version of the article by the same name in the WUPR “Constructions” issue. Johnathan Romero ‘20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.