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Nuclear Weapons

North Korea on the Brink

January 25, 2018

The U.S. and North Korea have had two unproductive summits.  How did we get here and what happens next?

North Korea is the world’s most isolated and secretive nuclear power. While most of its people live in extreme poverty, the country has used its scarce resources to develop nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching all of the United States. Today, North Korea sees the United States as its primary enemy and nuclear weapons as its best protection.

In 2018 North Korea conducted nuclear and missile tests at an unprecedented pace, while Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump hurled threats and insults at one another. Those tensions were placed on hold as Trump and Kim met for two separate summits. Now that the summits are over, what happens next?

A troubled and troublesome nation

The Kim family has ruled North Korea since shortly after the end of World War II. They have used a combination of continual indoctrination and violent suppression of dissent—including public executions and mass imprisonment—to stay in power.

Today, many North Koreans live in poverty and struggle to get enough to eat. Approximately one-third of the country’s children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. At the same time, the country pours money into its military and nuclear programs.

They would rather eat grass but will not give up the [nuclear] program if they do not feel safe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, September 2017

A group of people stand in a rice field.

Farm workers at a cooperative farm in North Hamgyong province plant rice in 2002. Most of this rice will belong to the government-run Public Distribution System. Since a devastating famine in the 1990s, North Koreans have faced food insecurity and malnutrition.

Gerald Bourke/AFP/Getty Images

People are tightly controlled and have little choice but to support the government and its policies. All news and media are government-run. Foreign media is outlawed, so the official state channels are the only “news” available. Very few people have access to the internet. Official propaganda feeds citizens a narrative of U.S. aggression and the heroic actions North Korea must take to counter and eliminate it. It is illegal to leave the country without permission.

While the people mostly live in isolation, the government maintains channels to the international community. Most countries have a diplomatic relationship with North Korea, but few maintain embassies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang.

A neon sign illuminates a dark boulevard. A younger man and an older man in similar uniforms walk in discussion.

North Korean students walk past the central station in Pyongyang, illuminated by a public television screen. This photo was taken in November 2017.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

What does North Korea want?

Above all, North Korea’s regime wants to survive. They see nuclear weapons as their best insurance policy against the perceived threat of the United States.

North Korea considers the United States an existential threat for a number of reasons. The Korean War ended in an armistice agreement—not a peace treaty—so a state of war is technically ongoing. There are 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea—some close to the border with the North. The United States has the strongest military in the world, and a history of using it against smaller countries it sees as enemies. Furthermore, a narrative of U.S. aggression helps the Kim family legitimize its rule. Perpetuating that narrative is key to staying in power. As Kim has offered talks of peace, he has quickly replaced some of his military leaders with ones more supportive of the process.

Kim Jong Un stands out of the sunroof of a car and salutes.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un attends the combined fire exercise of the Korean People's Army in celebration of its 85th founding anniversary. (2017)

STR/AFP/Getty Images

But North Korea also wants global acceptance. With nuclear weapons backing it up, North Korea believes it can force detente with the United States and South Korea on its own terms. Looking at China’s transition from a pariah state into an accepted nuclear state and respected international actor, North Korea sees a model for its own path.

The war the world needs to avoid

U.S. officials reportedly believe that North Korea has as many as 60 nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested a missile able to reach any part of the United States. But skeptics point out that the North Koreans have not yet demonstrated a reentry vehicle that allows warheads to survive re-entry into the atmosphere at this intercontinental range. On the other hand, different analysts point to the fact that the Soviet Union developed this technology in the 1950s. They don’t consider it to be as challenging as other aspects of missile technology that North Korea has already demonstrated. If the North Koreans don’t have confidence in their reentry technology yet, they probably will get there before very long.

The truth is that North Korea is a nuclear-armed power. A nuclear exchange with the United States and its allies would be utterly devastating. Millions of civilians could die, and millions more would suffer from the short- and long-term effects of radiation. The scale of damage to the economy and environment are hard to imagine and difficult to calculate.

Even without using nuclear weapons, North Korea’s conventional forces pose a significant threat. The country currently has more than 10,000 artillery pieces. Hundreds are trained on the densely populated city of Seoul, South Korea. North Korea is also believed to have chemical weapons and the ability to launch cyber-attacks. As a result, some estimate a death toll of 1 million people could result even from a war that did not involve nuclear weapons.

Given the risks, diplomacy is a much better option than war.

A sea of soldiers in brown uniforms stand in front of long red banner with white text.

Soldiers of the Korean People's Army stand in Pyongyang during celebrations marking the July 4, 2017 launch of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile. The rocket, which has a range of roughly 10,000 kilometers, puts most of the U.S. within reach.

Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images

A history of failed negotiations

The international community does have some leverage in negotiations with the regime. Currently, North Korea faces a wide range of sanctions. There are restrictions on travel, mineral exports, financial transactions, and purchases or sales of military equipment. And there are things North Korea wants from the West. At various times, it’s shown some willingness to limit its activities in the nuclear and missile fields in exchange for aid, investment, technology, and a peace treaty.

In 1994, for example, the country reached an agreement known as the Agreed Framework with the United States. It shut down North Korea’s nuclear facilities in exchange for help with peaceful nuclear technology and supplies of heavy fuel oil. But the agreement broke down in 2003, and North Korea withdrew from the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Later that year, the United States and North Korea, along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, began the Six-Party Talks, a new diplomatic effort to stop the country’s nuclear program. These negotiations showed some initial progress, including the temporary disabling of North Korean nuclear facilities. They were ultimately unsuccessful and talks stopped in 2008.

North Korea’s worried neighbors

A row of children sit against a wall in a school hallway.

Sixth graders at an elementary school in Japan's Iwate Prefecture sit in a corridor during an emergency drill on Nov. 29, 2017. Earlier that day, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed near Japan's Honshu Island. 

Kyodo News/Getty Images

North Korea is not an exclusively American problem. There are four other countries significantly affected by its nuclear weapons program. Three of these share a border with North Korea: China, Russia, and South Korea. The fourth, Japan, has had rocky relations with Korea for decades. Japan colonized Korea in the early 20th century and didn’t leave until the end of World War II. Today, Japan demands that North Korea account for missing Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted to North Korea in the 1980s.

South Korea has the most obvious concerns. The war in Korea ended in 1953. The two sides face each other across the world’s most heavily fortified border, separated only by a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Since the cessation of hostilities, North Korea has periodically attacked South Korean leaders, skirmished with its naval vessels, and once destroyed a South Korean passenger jet with a bomb. The two sides have occasionally exchanged shots or artillery barrages. In 2010, for example, the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two civilians. More recently, South Korean companies have suffered repeated serious cyber-attacks attributed to North Korea.

Korean soldiers stand guard at the border

North Korean soldiers look over to the South in the “truce village” of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea. April 17, 2017.

Jung Yeon-JE/AFP/Getty Images

China is North Korea's main trading partner and provides most of its fuel. Its policy toward the country seems to be driven by two concerns. China doesn’t want a strong, united, U.S.-allied Korea on its southern border. It also fears that if the North Korean regime collapses, it would be overwhelmed by an influx of refugees.

It's unclear how China would respond in the event of a military conflict between the United States and North Korea. The county has a mutual defense pact with North Korea, which it signed in 1961. According to the pact, China must come to North Korea's defense in the event of unprovoked aggression. However, it is not obligated to help if North Korea is the aggressor.

North Korea faces a wide range of sanctions. There are restrictions on travel, mineral exports, financial transactions, and purchases or sales of military equipment. And there are things North Korea wants from the West.

Russia has a small but beneficial economic relationship with North Korea. Until recently, 20,000-50,000 North Koreans went to Russia each year to work in logging and construction, often in slave-like conditions. A 2017 UN Security Council Resolution banned the use of North Korean laborers, and Russia says it will end this program within two years. The two countries also enjoy a modest level of trade. Russia does not want a nuclear North Korea, but it also does not want a regime change that would place a close United States ally right on its border. As a result, Russia walks a delicate line: it wants to be seen as helpful in the effort to contain North Korea's nuclear program, but it also wants to preserve the status quo.

Japan’s tense relationship with North Korea is based on its troubled history with both Koreas, its role as a U.S. ally hosting thousands of U.S. troops, and North Korea’s history of exploiting networks of ethnic Koreans in Japan to gain access to funds and advanced technology. Two North Korean missile tests in 2017 flew over Japan. North Korea's nuclear program directly threatens Japan’s security—in the event of a U.S.-North Korea conflict, it would inevitably be involved and could become a target.

All four of these countries were involved in the Six-Party talks. For any future negotiations to move forward, all four nations—and the United States—will need to collaborate.

Two trucks drive across a bridge, across a river. A city is visible in the background.

Trucks roll across the Friendship Bridge, which connects North Korea's Sinuiju with China's Dandong. China is North Korea’s most important trade partner and a critical source for imports of food and fuel.

Kyodo News/Getty Images

Diplomacy, the only way out

For 60 years, an uneasy truce has held on the Korean Peninsula. While the North Koreans have maintained an aggressive diplomatic posture, the United States and its allies have typically used more restrained language.

This all changed in early 2017, when the new American president, Donald Trump, began a war of words with the Kim regime. Among other things, he has called Kim Jong Un “short and fat,” dubbed him “Little Rocket Man,” and promised to rain “fire and fury” on the country. North Korea has responded by calling Trump “old,” “mentally deranged,” and a “dotard.”

If the goal is to intimidate the North Koreans, it needs to be understood that they are really hard to intimidate.

Evans J. R. Revere, former deputy assistant secretary of state and Korea expert, September 2017

More recently, the two leaders took a break from their escalating verbal battle.  In March 2018, Kim Jong Un invited President Trump to meet for talks about North Korea's nuclear program.  President Trump accepted, and the two leaders met Singapore on June 12, 2018. After meeting for a few hours, the two leaders signed an agreed statement.  Trump agreed to provide North Korea with security guarantees and to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea.  Kim reaffirmed his commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and both leaders agreed to work towards peace.

A second summit took place in Viet Nam in late February 2019. Although many had great hopes for progress between the two nations, the summit was cut short and ended with a failure to reach any agreement. In October of 2019, the US and North Korea tried to come together for a third time in Stockholm to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea. However, the negotiations fell apart just hours after they began, with North Korea later declaring it did not want to engage in discussions with the US anymore. Weeks after this failed meeting, North Korea conducted yet another weapons test.

An image of Donald Trump.

In 2017, President Donald Trump spoke to world leaders at the 72nd U.N General Assembly. His comments about North Korea were aggressive and inflammatory.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The risks of any conflict with North Korea are grave. The Trump-Kim summits are a welcome step in the right direction, but working out the details of a lasting peace will be hard.  Complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means different things to the U.S. and North Korea, and some argue that the U.S. has conceded too much too early. A long road lies ahead.

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