What’s Going On In North Korea?

North Korea has once more found itself in the news for threatening its neighbours mainly by conducting missile tests. As of Sunday the 3rd of September it conducted its 6th test of a nuclear weapon. This represents a complex situation for the international community, with numerous global powers having a vested interest in the ongoing situation.

Background

North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it is formally known is a highly impoverished military dictatorship positioned in the north of the Korean peninsula. It borders China, Russia and South Korea and has been ruled by the Kim family since the partition of Korea at the end of World War 2. The current leader is Kim Jong-un who came to power in 2011.

North Korea and South Korea fought a war from 1950 to 1953 which because of the intervention of the USA, USSR and China ended in a stalemate returning both countries to their starting borders. The countries never signed a peace treaty as formally war was never declared by any of the participants. Instead an armistice was signed and the Korean Demilitarized Zone was created along the border. This would evolve into the most heavily armed border in the world with thousands of artillery pieces and troops positioned by both side along the length of it.

Nuclear and Missile tests

North Korea has conducted a total of 6 tests of nuclear weapons since 2006. The program has its roots in the 1960s when the USSR and China refused to help North Korea develop weapons, but instead provided the materials and training to develop nuclear power plants. From the 1980s onwards they began to use these materials and expertise to develop the technology to create nuclear weapons. North Korea has claimed to have nuclear weapons since 2005, a claim confirmed with their first test on October 9th, 2006.

They have also been developing and deploying various forms of short and long-range missile since the 1960s, aiming to develop a system that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. This is the primary concern of the international community at this time, as without these missile North Korea is unable to deliver their nuclear weapons. The most recent missile test was on August 29th when North Korea fired a missile that passed over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

It is estimated that the most advanced missile in North Korea’s possession, the Hwasong-14 can travel approximately 10,000km. This is sufficient to reach the US and parts of Northern and Eastern Europe. It remains unknown whether a nuclear warhead can be mounted on this missile.

Why?

The justification that North Korea frequently presents for its nuclear program is self- defence or self-preservation. The ruling powers of North Korea are subscribing to a variant the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) theory of nuclear warfare. In essence if they have the power to strike the United states or their allies with a nuclear weapon then the United States will not attack them because the consequences will be too great

As a part of the history taught in North Korea, everyone is taught to fear unprovoked aggression by the USA who they believe aim to see the utter destruction of their home. This fear of American aggression stems from the Korean war which the North was winning until the USA intervened and pushed the North Korean army all the way back to the Chinese boarder in the north of the country. This anti-Americanism is particularly dangerous now as President Trump seems to play to the narrative, rather than attempt to disprove it.

International Response

The big international players left in this situation are the USA, China with Japan and South Korea both factoring in, but simply adopting the US’s approach.

China was seen to be the power behind North Korea for decades, to such an extent that President Trump has stated via he preferred method of Twitter that “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!” However, there is a growing belief that China has lost what control it did have over North Korea. They denounced the most recent set of nuclear and missile tests and as a sign of how serious they were, banned the most valuable of North Korean exports to China, cutting off a vital financial lifeline for an isolated and impoverished regime.

China may now look at North Korea not as a valuable tool to keep the region on edge, but rather an excellent chance to prove they are the dominant force and a serious global player by finding a solution to this problem.

The USA and its allies are the second big player in the area. Currently they just want to stop  the weapons tests and to oversee the disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. However, the US would eventually wish to see the Kim regime lose its power in the country. The biggest issue with the approach from the US now is Trump’s unpredictable statements.

Trump said earlier this year in an interview with Bloomberg News “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it”. At the time, it seemed like he was going to continue the US policy on North Korea, namely sanctions to punish them with the ongoing offer of negotiations if they co-operate. Since then he has threatened “fire and fury” for North Korea if they continue their tests. Whether Kim will respond to this threat remains to be seen.


Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor

 

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