North Korea: should we be worried?

North Korea has been in the spotlight recently as tensions have risen between the regime and the US and its allies. But as concerning as the media is portraying these developments as, what action, if any, should be taken?

Foreign Affairs

By Will Fawcett


Image rights: Uri Tours @ Flickr

Relations on the Korean peninsula have been fraught ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, with frequent border confrontations and assassination attempts. Considered as one of the most infamous rogue states that still exist in the modern world, North Korea is the world’s most restricted, authoritative nation with huge poverty levels, although it is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. With the North and South still technically ‘at war’ with each other and persistent provocations by the North in defiance of UN and US sanctions, most recently their missile test attempts, is diplomacy in the Far East finally failing?

Following on from his father and grandfather’s viciously anti-American attitude, Kim Jong-Un has attempted to demonstrate himself as strong and prove himself not to be dictated to by the USA or the international community. North Korea relies on China as its sole military ally and by far its largest trading partner (75% of all trade), and the two countries have an established history that long predate their Communist ties.

However, China is losing its patience with its most unpredictable ally, recently introducing a trade embargo on coal from North Korea. Although China will not surrender its huge level of influence over the North nor favour Korean unification for its own reasons, it has attempted to distance itself from Kim Jong-Un’s actions and sees itself as a mediator rather than a dictator in the country’s foreign relations.

As for the USA and the West, if you have been reading the headlines recently, it appears that this small, far away country of 25 million could reignite fears of a nuclear confrontation. The remarks of Trump to “solve North Korea” if the Chinese fail to do so, met with the response from the North’s vice-Foreign Minister that it is prepared for an “all-out war” if any US military action is taken, it could seem that the world is building up for another war once again.

The North has conducted five missile tests since 2006, and in a pursuit to demonstrate his resolve, Donald Trump and his administration are determined not to preside over a sixth. In his own words, Trump has sent an “armada” to the Korean peninsula in a competition of who can out-tough the other, whilst Russia and China have deployed ‘spy vessels’ to monitor the situation. If history has taught us anything, it’s that these actions all point towards one direction: conflict. However, is it as bad as everyone is making it out to seem?

Pragmatically, North Korea and the USA, plus Russia, China and the North’s most despised neighbour, South Korea, all possess nuclear capability. But not in a realist attempt to argue that nuclear weapons make the world safer as a deterrent, the actions of the North do little to provoke fears of a nuclear confrontation. As irrational as the actions of the North appear, they are not insane and understand that they are hugely outgunned on all sides, possessing a fraction of the quality and quantity of the firepower of its adversaries.

Nor has China offered its military support to the North’s military agenda. The Chinese President has responded well in urging the USA and the North to not follow this “irrevocable” path to war. Furthermore, although the North has undoubtedly tested some form of nuclear device in the past, most of its missile tests have ended in failure with the most recent exploding upon launch. It is clear the North has not yet acquired the capabilities of successfully launching a strike upon the United States, the West’s most recent concern, although the threat to South Korea remains self-evident. Nonetheless, there are several reasons why this remains an initiative of the North Korean government.

Donald Trump has ordered an increase in US Naval presence around the Korean Peninsula (Source: US Navy @ Wikimedia Commons)

Very few states dare to menace the world’s most powerful nation, and when they do they are often responded to with economic sanctions, international condemnation and in several cases, American-led invasion. However, North Korea has been ruthless and consistent in what the US calls its ‘provocative’ behaviour. Skirmishes along the worlds most heavily guarded border with its Southern neighbour are not uncommon, and this is not the first instance the North Korean leaders have threatened the West with war, and will certainly not be the last. But who is in the right?

Through a humanitarian lens, the situation for the North Korean people looks utterly bleak and pessimistic. It is very easy to sympathise with the actions of the West upon discovering the daily brutalities of the North Korean regime. Concentration camps, 24-hour state propaganda, prohibition to leave the country are among the many restrictions placed on its citizens. Any vague form of political dissent is always met with a heavy-handed response resulting in either execution or decades working in hard labour camps, which is usually a death sentence in itself.

However, whilst the USA espouses freedom and liberal values that the populaces of the West savour, and so frequently does this through fighter jets or naval convoys bearing The Stars and Stripes, I’m afraid the main offenders here are not the North Koreans. Recently becoming America’s 45th President, the Trump administration wants to loudly assert itself on the world stage in an attempt to not appear weak or allow another superpower to gain more worldwide influence, as his domestic political opponents feared.

Although, of course, this is a complete U-turn on what many American voters hoped would be an end to endless foreign interventions that have tarnished American reputation abroad. US Naval ships around the waters of the Korean peninsula and the recent airstrikes in Syria completely invalidate these hopes, and it is likely we will witness even more Western-led action overseas in the next four years of Trump’s presidency. The USA has a long history of appearing to ‘police the world’ and I believe we are beginning to witness a challenge to this authority.

While I do not condone the North’s aggressive actions and its regime, perhaps we must now start to recognise the North’s nuclear capabilities instead of ruffling its feathers and provoking these missile-launching reactions, which we will witness indefinitely if the West continues down this path. Moreover, let’s not make a mistake with regards to the USA — this is not a humanitarian step to liberate the oppressed peoples of the North, it is purely and simply a contest of diplomatic swagger and bravado.