North Korea has long been perceived as a global threat, primarily owing to its nuclear weapons program. Previous administrations, such as those of Bush and Obama, made heavy use of diplomacy in handling North Korea. However, the country recently expressed its disinterest in diplomacy with the U.S. until it achieves its goal of developing a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In response, President Trump warned that “the U.S. is prepared to use ‘devastating’ military action if necessary.” With this combination of heightening North Korean aggression and decreasing patience from the United States, it is crucial to analyze the nuclear crisis, the history of its build up, and the global community’s response.
Within 2017 alone, North Korea has conducted an astonishingly high number of tests, including two ICBMs that held the potential to reach U.S. mainland- most experts have agreed that a North Korean missile could reach Alaska or Hawaii. U.S. allies, such as Japan, have also been placed under the radar, as some missiles were fired over the country in early September.
The history of the nuclear crisis traces back to 1985, when North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) treaty to much of the world’s surprise. However, high hopes for this event quickly diminished in 2003, when the nation withdrew from the NPT and reactivated a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, its main nuclear facility located in the north of Pyongyang, the capital. Two years after its aggressive venture into nuclear weapon development, North Korea “tentatively agreed” to forfeit its nuclear program and associated weapons, a declaration that the United States and China responded to with great enthusiasm. Along with Japan, Russia, and South Korea, the governments offered economic and energy assistance in exchange. Soon enough, however, the relationship between North Korea and the rest of the global community came to resemble a bumpy, tumultuous rollercoaster ride – one that was filled with partial ups, but many more downs. In response, six-party talks were held by the aforementioned countries in hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the security concerns raised by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. While steps have been taken to encourage discussion on how to best handle the posed threats, they have only increased in their severity. On September 3rd, North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear weapon test, perceived to be a hydrogen bomb that can be attached to an intercontinental missile. The increasing frequency and extremity of these tests has been of great concern to the global community.
In response to these threats, individual countries have taken various approaches. China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, prioritizes the stability of the Korean Peninsula over denuclearization. Because of this viewpoint, China proposed a “suspension for suspension” plan in which North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for U.S. suspension of military exercises with South Korea. The U.S. has not responded well to this suggestion, with the Trump administration repeatedly rejecting the plan and encouraging a more aggressive approach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. As a substitute, the U.S. has recommended exerting pressure on the country through the promotion of denuclearization from the beginning. The differences between the U.S. and China’s means of handling the crisis are vast – the former is more skeptical about North Korea’s intentions, whereas the latter sees peaceful dialogue as an optimal solution.
As for South Korea, the country lies in a dangerous state should more missile tests be conducted. Its geographical position, as well as its past contentions with North Korea, place the country and its citizens in a consistently fearful state. Former President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration marked a shift in South Korean policy towards North Korea, as she called for a stricter response to any future attacks or provocations. This strayed away from her predecessors’ more progressive and fluid approach, otherwise known as the Sunshine Policy. However, after her impeachment in March of 2017, the progressive Democratic United Party candidate Moon Jae-In took office, reinstalling the engagement policies of previous presidents. Up to this date, President Moon has launched additional THAAD missile interceptor launchers and has rejected dialogue as a primary solution. With the increasing severity of North Korea’s actions came a drastic policy shift on Moon’s end, as he advocated for greater diplomacy during his campaign but soon distanced himself from the Sunshine Policy that pushed for engaging Pyongyang. If similar behavior from North Korea continues, South Korea may be likely to respond with heightened THAAD deployment and greater engagement with the U.S. in order to develop a more comprehensive solution.
Ultimately, it is clear that having nuclear weapons is a matter of life and death for North Korea, something a senior North Korean diplomat also stated earlier this month. Diplomatic talks with Washington seem unlikely at the moment, especially when partnered with rising tensions marked by hostile conversations between Trump and Kim. With this in mind, it would be best for the U.S. to understand where its policy has been failing and alter it as such – this could include ensuring Kim Jong Un of regime security (versus actively seeking out regime change) and acknowledging that complete denuclearization is nearly an impossible task. Pressuring China to become more serious about the crisis and pay for the denuclearization of North Korea is a potential solution. China should also pay closer attention to nationals that conduct private business with North Korea, as this behavior only further undermines the U.S. goals. Win-win solutions like these have been hard to agree upon, simply due to the complexity of policy agreements across several countries. However, should the global community wish to protect itself from the dangers posed by North Korea, it must take conscious, collaborative steps with one another.