According to Google Trends, Australian internet searches relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) peaked at the beginning of September 2017, correlating with the country’s sixth nuclear test and the United Nations (UN) sanctions that followed. North Korea is a hot international affairs topic that raises numerous questions concerning how the issue will progress, and how it should be handled. Answers to the latter have included increasing economic sanctions, using direct military force, and diplomacy. This article aims to assess these different options, in relation to recent North Korean actions and their corresponding motivations. The most effective way to identify potential areas of conflict resolution and transformation is to understand the dynamics of the violence involved. The first part of this article offers a brief description and analysis of the development of the North Korean crisis since the beginning of 2017; the second part focuses on Kim Jung-Un’s motivations. The final section analyses and discusses three different options for stabilising the situation that are available to the international community, arguing that all of them present challenges, and are somewhat ineffective in isolation.
North-Korean activities in 2017
Kim Jong-Un has been keeping the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces very active since the beginning of 2017, by organising several missile launches, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, and nuclear tests (please see the appendix for the complete list of North Korea military actions). Likewise, the UN Security Council has attempted to stabilise the region and has reprimanded the DPRK for breaching international law by enforcing, mostly economic, sanctions. The pattern of the crisis development can be described as a vicious cycle; UN sanctions are implemented after offensive military actions by North-Korea, which then often responds to such ‘international provocations’. For example, following the North Korea’s ninth ballistic missile test, the UN passed a resolution with new sanctions against the DPRK beginning in June. Accordingly, Kim Jong-Un responded five days later by launching four anti-ship missiles into the sea east of the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, many experts, such as C. Seongwhun, a national security adviser to former South-Korean President Park Geun-hye, classify the three North Korean missiles launches on the 26th of August and the missile fired over Japan two days later as a response to the US and South Korea’s annual joint military drills, known as the Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Foal Eagle, which took place simultaneously. As one of the most closed and secretive countries, North Korea takes military actions that are strongly influenced by international affairs, for what Kim Jong-Un perceives to be in the best interests of the nation.
It is worth noting that the North Korean aggressiveness has reached a crescendo since the beginning of 2017; their actions have been increasingly threatening to the international community and destabilising to the region. In September, the DPRK pushed the limits by conducting in a short period of time, despite the international community’s best attempts, its sixth and most powerful nuclear test as well as an ICBM launch over Japan. North Korea has never been as powerful as it is today; the country is now potentially capable of building an advanced hydrogen bomb of approximately 120 kilotons, which is about eight times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Their latest nuclear test demonstrated that the DPRK is increasing the power of its nuclear weapons and that it will soon be a nuclear state capable of conducting powerful nuclear attacks worldwide.
North Korean motivations
Regardless of the severity of the UN sanctions, it is likely that the DPRK will never give up its aggressive and offensive posturing, Kim Jong-Un is terrified of losing power and motivated by rational self-preservation. As W. Tobey, a nuclear non-proliferation expert who has taken part in past Six Party Talks with the DPRK regime, explains, “regime preservation is the North’s paramount strategic objective”. Survival of the state and its leader is one of the main pillars of the North Korean constitution and is the reason the DPRK is relying so heavily on the disproportional use of force and will likely not cease with this behaviour. The government takes as examples the cases of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who halted their nuclear programs for sanction relief, and have since then been killed, either by the US or by their own people. Additionally, North Korea has developed a tradition of strong paranoia and hate towards the US, mostly due to their involvement in the Korean War and their strong engagement with South Korea since then. Consequently, any kind of counter-action involving the hegemon will be considered a threat to the regime and generate a violent response. That is why, despite UN sanctions becoming more and more drastic, North Korea has continued its aggressive activities, becoming increasingly threatening and uncontrollable.
There are three main ways the North-Korean crisis can end, or at least be controlled; economic, military and diplomatic actions.
Economic sanctions could potentially force the country to bend, as Tobey argued, the use of sanctions could “contain North Korea tightly until peaceful reunification and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula becomes possible”. However, sanctions against North Korea have been used on numerous occasions, and have not proven to be effective thus far, mostly because the DPRK has become used to them and adapted its operations accordingly. As a UN report published at the beginning of September demonstrated, North Korean illegal trade skyrocketed this year and is now worth more than $270 million in the six-month period ending in early August. Arguably, the most effective way to implement successful economic actions will be to either sanction trade partner states or persuade them to stop their activity with North Korea. Many argue that China is playing a crucial role in solving the conflict; Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, declared during her speech at the Asia Society Policy Institute that “China is clearly open to using its undoubted leverage […] [and] has now become part of the group working on the solution”. Economic leverage will not stop the crisis, but it can force Kim Jung-Un to be less aggressive and more submissive to international law. Taking into consideration the latest development regarding the Chinese central bank’s instructions to Chinese banks to stop doing business with North Korea, this latest strategy appears the most feasible, despite doubts regarding Xi Jinping’s commitment to the UN.
On the other hand, direct military actions against North Korea may be appealing for some, but is undoubtedly the worst possible strategy in terms of human and economic costs, as well as long term strategy. First of all, an armed conflict with North Korea would generate a strong humanitarian crisis involving approximately twenty-four million people, which, on its own, could destabilise the region even further. Secondly, North Korea has the fourth largest military on the planet and a deep national hatred of the US; therefore, a war with the DPRK would likely be long and bloody, even if it did not involve nuclear weapons. Finally, if the US and their allies were to go to war against North-Korea and win, what would happen after that? History has demonstrated that when a regime falls without a plan in place and becomes leaderless, chaos reigns. In the case of Iraq, after the US military ‘victory’ in 2003, the power vacuum gave birth to the rise of terrorist groups. Taking into consideration that “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”, imagine the same scenario and add nuclear weapons to the equation—the result could be tremendously threatening. On the other hand, assuming the allies win the war and manage to implement a pro-American regime or reunify the two Koreas, how would China react? It is arguable that the Government of the People’s Republic of China would not feel comfortable with the idea of sharing a more than 1400 kilometre long border with a pro-Western state, which may authorise the movement of American trumps within its territory, including an arsenal of approximately fifty American nuclear weapons.
Finally, the last alternative to stabilise the Korean conflict would be through diplomacy; US admiral H. Harris declared, “the most important starting point is the diplomatic starting point”. However, as simple as it may sound, diplomacy works only when the actors adopt diplomatic behaviour. Unfortunately, it is very hard to argue that the US President, D. Trump, exhibits diplomatic behaviour in his interactions with Kim Jung-Un, when during his UN speech at the end of September, he mocked him by calling him “Rocket Man” and articulated direct threats against North-Korea. Diplomatic resolutions would be the most favourable solution to the problem, if it weren’t for President Trump, who is currently engaging in a war of words with Kim Jung-Un without thinking of the consequences.
To conclude, due to the regime’s survival-focused mentality, North Korea is unlikely to cease its efforts to become a nuclear state and will probably become more and more aggressive despite the severity of the UN sanctions. Considering that military actions are inconceivable and that President Trump is a burden for diplomacy, the best way to stabilise the region is through a strong Chinese economic leverage on North Korea.