The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Where to Go From Here

North Korea celebrates Day of the Sun (Source: NBC News)

On September 15th, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido for the second time in the span of three weeks. This provocative launch comes just four days after the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous adoption of new U.S.-drafted sanctions on North Korea. Despite the new sanctions’ unprecedented severity and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s push for “all nations [to] implement them completely and aggressively,” there are few signs that North Korea will decelerate the rapid development of its two decades-long missile program.

The major part of this new U.N. sanction seeks to cut off North Korea’s refined petroleum imports by 55 percent. The new embargo would deprive the country’s total annual fuel imports—or what Haley calls “the lifeblood of North Korea’s effort to build and fund a nuclear weapon”—by 30 percent. In addition, the sanctions ban the country’s textile exports, as well as any form of foreign investment and technology transfers.

Even North Korea’s historic allies—China and Russia—have supported this decision, for the purported aims of “denuclearizing” the peninsula through nonviolent means. The Chinese ambassador to the U.N., Liu Jieyi, stated that “China is consistently committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, to the peace and stability of the peninsula and to the solution of the issue through dialogue and consultation.”

However, given the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong advocacy of the resolution and the increasingly bellicose stance of the U.S. in the region, standing against the proposal would have been a decidedly self-ostracizing move. The Chinese ambassador Liu’s goal of achieving peace through dialogue and consultation does not ring close to Haley’s claims, who told CNN that the Security Council has exhausted all its options and that she would be “perfectly happy kicking this over to [Secretary of Defense] Gen. Mattis, because he has plenty of military options.” Then, explicitly expressing the willingness for military measures, Haley added that “if North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed—and we all know that.”

Nevertheless, the North Korean stance remains unmoved. Instead of vacillating under threat, the country’s state news agency has gone so far as to condemn the “Japanese reactionaries” for backing the U.S. given its record of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For those who are willing to see it, the state of the crisis is very clear: sanctions and military threats have not, and will not, stop North Korea from pursuing its nuclear program. Instead, the international community must redirect its attention towards a much overlooked strategy of humanitarian diplomacy.

North Korea and the U.S.: The Strained Affair

Haley’s combative stance towards North Korea is nothing new. It represents decades’ worth of sour relations that date back to the Cold War Era, when the South allied with the U.S. and the North with the then Soviet Union. During the Korean War, the U.S. Army carpet-bombed the entirety of North Korea, an act which was confirmed by the former General Curtis Lemay of the United States Air Force who coordinated the bombing campaigns. As a result, North Korea lost approximately 25 percent of its population in the span of three years, an act of which Michel Chossudovsky, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Ottawa and the Founder of Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), have declared as an act of genocide under the international law. For comparison, the CRG points out that “during the Second World War, the United Kingdom lost 0.94% of its population, France lost 1.35%, China lost 1.89% and the U.S. lost 0.32%.”

Ever since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 brought a quasi-permanent end to the Korean War (since it was never followed by a Peace Treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at War), approximately 37,000 U.S. troops have remained stationed in South Korea at the face of the DMZ. Every year, thousands continue to partake in the U.S.-South Korean joint annual military drills. In 1958, five years after the end of the Korean War, the U.S. deployed nuclear armed Honest John missiles and 280mm atomic cannons to South Korea, adding various arsenal over the span of six decades.

On April 26th, 2017, a live-fire drill took place in Pocheon, a city located near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas. This drill involved firing rockets, a U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft firing flares, and K1A2 tanks firing live rounds—a generally belligerent exercise designed to mimic real life combat. In August 31st, two days after North Korea’s first missile launch over Hokkaido, a similar drill was held.

Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corp throw smoke bombs during a U.S.-South Korean joint drill in 2014 (Source: Reuters)

Despite repeated requests by North Korea to halt these annual drills and dispel the U.S. troops from the peninsula, its requests were never granted. “Every time these war games happen there’s a problem—that a deterrence signal bleeds into a provocation from North Korea’s perspective,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, during his interview with CNN. “The U.S. and South Korea can call the joint exercises defensive and regular as much as they want, but it’s not defensive if you’re sitting in Pyongyang.”

To Kim’s regime, these joint exercises serve as active, hostile threats. Whenever these joint drills occur, North Korea has accused the U.S. and South Korea of preparing for an invasion and follows them by conducting military exercises and missile launches of its own.

To make matters worse, in July 2016, South Korea has agreed to install the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense units, developed and paid for by Washington. President Moon Jae-In of South Korea—who has heavily relied on questioning the legitimacy of THAAD deployment during his presidential campaign—have briefly suspended its installments in July 2017, only to continue weeks later.

The Justified Paranoia and the Nuclear Crisis

Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea under whom the country’s nuclear program has quickened its pace, has not once wavered his stance towards his country’s nuclear development. His attitude reflects a larger trend within the North Korean leadership that has persevered through rounds of international sanctions and condemnations, including the now famous inclusion of the country in what George W. Bush called “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union Address.

Analysts point to the fall of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi as an embodiment of why, according to Kim Jong-un, North Korea must not give up its nuclear weapons. To this day, Gadhafi remains as the sole dictator to concede to Western demands of eliminating its nuclear program in returns of humanitarian aid. Nic Robertson, the International Diplomatic Editor of CNN who had met top advisors of Gadhafi, writes that the regime had trusted the western nations to hold up their end of the deal. It was Libya’s surefire route to mend its relations with the U.S. and the main European powers. However, when the Arab Spring protests arose, NATO held little reservation in bombing Libyan forces and bringing Gadhafi to his death in 2011.

The case of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who was deposed by a U.S.-led coalition that invaded the country in 2003, also provides an apt source of paranoia for Kim Jong-un. An accusation by the U.S. president George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair towards Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al-Qaeda—later proven false by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Iraq Survey Group report—resulted in the dictator’s capture and execution in 2006.

The North Korean regime had learned that the U.S. is a threat to their security before the turn of the 21st century; however, through incidences in Libya and Iraq, it may have learned an additional lesson. As the North Korean state media has so aptly put it, the “tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs… clearly prove that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) was very far-sighted and just when it made the [nuclear] option.” To them, the U.S. is an unpredictable entity with the demonstrated capacity to annihilate a regime with a mere false accusation. Thus, the U.S. remains a dangerous intruder to be reckoned with—a force to defend from with all one’s fangs. From Kim’s mind, death might be the only other option.

Where to go from here?

On September 30th, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated on Twitter that there have been attempts to establish diplomatic contact with North Korea. However, she said, North Korea is not interested.

“Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization,” Nauert said.

However, given the history of the U.S.-North Korean relations and the volatile nature of the current administration, this response is a predictable one at best. For better or for worse, stockpiling nuclear arsenals is Kim Jong-un’s best bet for maintaining the autonomy of his regime while staying alive; and that resolute stance is likely to stand against the latest sanctions as well.

This new missile test … is both a reaction to the stringent UN sanctions of Monday evening and a wake-up call about the limits of sanctions and military threats as a way to change North Korea’s behavior,” said George A. Lopez, a former member of the UN Security Council panel of experts for sanctions on North Korea, to CNN.

However, analysts have also come to a general consensus that North Korea will not fire first. Kim Jong-un is tactful enough to understand that a war against the U.S. is a losing bet for North Korea. Therefore, scenarios described by ambassador Haley, in which the U.S. would be forced to defend itself and its allies, are unlikely to occur.

If an all-out war with the U.S. is not what North Korea wants, then why are they continuing to develop nuclear arsenals? The only credible remaining explanation points to its need for defense and isolated self-reliance, which have only been galvanized by military threats and sanctions from the international community.

For a country that is always on the defensive, the best method of appeasement may be a demonstration of commitment to peace.

Moon Jae-In, the newly elected South Korean president, is a left-wing advocate of a peaceful dialogue with North Korea. His political attitude displays similarities with those of former president Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003) and his successor Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), the former of whom received a Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering policies of peaceful engagement with North Korea, later named the Sunshine Policy. These policies centered around the continuation of humanitarian aid and encouragement for dialogue despite potential aggression, which stands in stark contrast to the new rounds of U.N. sanctions and the current—and historically—aggressive stance of the U.S.

In accordance with this philosophy, Moon is likely to pursue a diplomatic route despite the mounting military pressure from its Northern neighbor. On September 15th, just hours after North Korea’s second missile launch over Hokkaido, Moon has confirmed his administration’s humanitarian aid plans towards North Korea, which includes a donation of $4.5 million to the World Food Program to help provide supplies to North Korean hospitals and daycare centers. “In principle, giving support for infants and small children and pregnant women should be handled separately from politics,” said Mr. Moon in a statement.

Indeed, the effectiveness of the Sunshine policy towards North Korea is inconclusive. Opponents of this approach have long claimed that the North has been, and always will be, steadfast in its nuclear development regardless of South Korea’s attitude. However, the primary reason behind the inconclusiveness of the Sunshine Policy was its short-lived and volatile nature; expectations of permanent peace and compliance from North Korea in an environment of short-lived concessions and periodic vilification are not realistic grounds to evaluate the agenda. Further, the approach behind the Sunshine Policy simply remains the only viable option left that will not precipitate a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula.

While the complete disarmament of South Korea is politically unfeasible, Mr. Moon and South Korea must take care to reduce the military tensions within the peninsula if it wishes to rebuild the foundations for long-term peace. In order to do so, the South Korean government must incorporate the attitude of compassion and peace behind the Sunshine Policy with tactful diplomacy. This will inevitably entail regaining South Korean autonomy from U.S. pressures in its foreign policy, and may include postponing its annual joint military drills. But above all, it will require South Korea and the peninsula’s regional players to understand the North Korean regime and the historical roots of its anger.

Featured Image Source: NBC News