North Korea: Nearing a Breaking Point in an Unsustainable Status Quo

Michael Thomas

Over the past two decades, North Korea (DPRK) has seemingly graced the global headlines for a notable event a few times each year, only to fade out of the international spotlight. Once again in 2017 the DPRK made headlines. But this time, the DPRK first drew the attention of the global media on February 12, 2017, when the country conducted a test of its most advanced land-based ballistic missile (ICBM) and it has captured global headlines ever since. The DPRK has expressed its determination to continue to further its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

For nearly two decades, East Asia’s “hermit kingdom” has provoked the outside world with its nuclear program, doing so to exemplify the regime’s strength first to its own citizens and then to the United States and its allies and its own ally China. Many observers assume that the trend of nuclear and ballistic missile tests illustrate the program’s development will persist. Yet the country’s threat to the outside world appears to be growing. Many now fear that, once the DPRK’s ICBM capabilities are further developed, one of these missiles could be fitted with a nuclear warhead as soon as the country improves its warhead miniaturization technology. If this occurs, an unpredictable regime would have the capability of striking the continental United States (or major cities elsewhere in the world) with a nuclear weapon. It is this notion that recently led Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group to note that “for the past decade, North Korea has been a problem but not a significant risk. That changes in 2017.” While Mr. Bremmer’s prediction may over-estimate the rate at which this evolution of risk is occurring, it does appear that the significance of the DPRK’s risk to the international community will increase significantly in the coming years.

There are several reasons why the uneasy status quo may not hold. First and foremost is that the prospect of the DPRK gaining the ability to carry out a nuclear attack on an American city. Such a prospect is surely unacceptable to the United States. The current situation in the Korean Peninsula is evidently one of the first serious foreign policy crisis to confront the Trump administration. Added to the growing nuclear threat is the weakened leadership of US ally South Korea (ROK), which has been marred by scandal and weakened by succession issues. This has made it more difficult for the country to organize a response to its isolated neighbour’s military provocations. And, at the same time, China – long the protector of the DPRK – seems increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang’s actions.

All of this is happening at a time when the DPRK’s “Young Leader” – Kim Jong Un – appears to be pursuing a more aggressive power consolidation agenda than even his father. Initially considered to be viewed internally as a weaker leader than his father, Mr. Kim’s political consolidation has included the execution of many potential rivals and his continued emphasis on the nuclear program and his assertion that this program represents his regime’s “greatness”.

The Changing Nature of the Threat to the International Community

The DPRK conducted its last nuclear tests in 2016 and there is an expectation that it conduct further nuclear tests in 2017. Experts estimate that the country currently possesses more than a dozen nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to produce another twenty. Since the DPRK left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and declared that it had nuclear weapons in 2003, its nuclear threat has grown slowly. Following 2003, the DPRK leadership has used its nuclear program not only to bolster the power of the Kim family, but also as an effective bargaining chip in negotiations with international powers. In the past it offered to halt the program, or make concessions in return for financial or food aid from these states. By holding talks with the US and other powers, it has received American aid several times in exchange for the freezing of its nuclear program, only to continue improving its capabilities over time. The current balance may change drastically if the DPRK’s advance leads it to be be able to strike the west coast of the United States. Such capability may force the Trump administration to go beyond sanctions, talks, or aid concessions. But that possibility remains a ways off.

The Changing Nature of International Responses

The US is the most likely country to change its response to future DPRK missile tests, nuclear tests, or other provocations. In the wake of the recent missile tests, the Trump administration deployed the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that had been agreed to with the prior US administration.

The rhetoric of top US officials regarding the DPRK has also shifted under the Trump administration. During a trip to Seoul in March 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that a military response would be “on the table” if North Korea took action to threaten South Korean and US forces. During a speech at a US naval base in Japan in April, US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea not to US military resolve, stating that America would have an “overwhelming and effective” response if the DPRK was to use conventional or nuclear weapons against the United States. President Trump also recently stated, over twitter however, that it would be “great” if China would help the United States with the North Korea problem, but that if not, the US would “solve the problem without them.” Such statements are troubling when considering the volatility of the region. However, it appears for now at least that this rhetoric will not translate into action in the near term.

The Trump administration has been vague when discussing the option of diplomacy, which could be pursued either through direct talks with DPRK, or through talks with China. While talks with the DPRK have been common following its past nuclear tests, “strategic patience” (ignoring and sanctioning North Korea) has defined the US approach in recent years. This has been the cornerstone of President Obama’s DPRK strategy and it has continued under President Trump. However, many believe that the effectiveness of US sanctions has been minimal at best, and that “strategic patience” has been more beneficial to Pyongyang than Washington. While past talks have failed to curb the country’s nuclear program in the long-term, a more sustained diplomatic effort, including normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, could be more effective, some would argue. The regime’s heightened level of aggression under Kim Jong Un and the current advancement of its nuclear threat will make this nevertheless a very difficult option for the Trump administration.

The other avenue of diplomacy that the US could pursue would be to hold more direct talks with China about Korea issue. Presidents Trump and Xi recently held talks at the former’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida with an agreement to coordinate actions against North Korea slated to be one of the central topics of discussion. However, no agreement was reached during the meeting, and the summit was overshadowed by the US strike on a Syrian air base.

China and the US will need to discuss coordination more directly in the future if they hope to reach an outcome that is acceptable to both parties. Korea’s massive neighbour has propped up the Kim regime since its inception and could therefore hold considerable influence when trying to quell Korea’s long-term threat. China already objects to North Korea’s nuclear program and has urged it to suspend its military tests. Beijing’s frustration with the country’s most recent missile tests is also evident. In February 2017, China took the unprecedented step of banning coal imports from North Korea until the end of the year. This appears to be a markedly different approach than past responses to DPRK military provocations. This ban is punctuated by the fact that an outright import ban of DPRK coal exceeds China’s 2016 commitment to the UN that it would simply cap its imports. Analysts have linked this reaction not only to China’s frustration with Korea’s missile tests, but also to the death of Kim Jong UN’s brother – Kim Jong Nam – which many believe Pyongyang was responsible for. The assassination likely drew the ire of Beijing, as Kim Jong Nam had reportedly been living under Chinese protection in Macau and was seen by the Chinese government as a potential replacement for Kim Jong Un.

Still, China apparently continues to feel that “a violent nuclear dictatorship makes a better neighbour than a unified Korea packed with American troops” And China still seems to view the country as an essential buffer against a future unified peninsula with US forces deployed along China’s border. This notion has made it unwilling to take stronger action against the DPRK because it is afraid of the country collapsing. If the US is to gain much-needed assistance from China in quelling the DPRK’s long-term threat, the Trump administration will have to work with Beijing to reach an outcome that will be acceptable for both sides. This means that the US would have to make concessions as well. Whatever form change may take, it appears that the status quo in the Korean Peninsula may be moving closer to a major shift.

About the Author

Michael Thomas is a second-year Master of Global Affairs student with major interests in global trade, international business, geopolitical risk and issues in the Asia-Pacific region. He has held positions at the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok and Descartes Systems Group in Ottawa. He is the recipient of the Dr. David Chu Scholarship (2016), the Global Taiwan Research Project Award (2017), and the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award (2017). Michael holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton University


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