The North Korean crisis: the future of North Korea?

A missile is paraded through Kim Il sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan  

To look to the future, let’s first take a look at the past. The Koreas have both seen a long history of war and oppression: longing autonomy from the pulling forces of respective states, the South’s internal political struggle for democracy countered with the North’s struggle for stability, growth, and military power. All of which has amounted to over 5 decades of conflict—divided by a mere 250-kilometer line and a gentlemen’s understanding of an armistice agreement. While the military demarcation line --known most commonly as the DMZ-- remains fortified with an estimated two million soldiers armed with weapons and discerned eyes on the most heavily guarded border in the world, a place where apocalyptic thoughts and unwarranted tensions are ever prevalent. Former President Bill Clinton even describes the DMZ as the “scariest place on Earth.”

From Kim-Il Sung’s establishment of a pervasive cult of personality and Kim Jung Il’s institution of a “military first” policy, Kim Jong Un has seemingly converged his father and grandfather’s legacy. He has inherited the rules of the game: embracing “juche” a self reliance ideology created by his grandfather, ignoring all international agreements, tightening borders and aggressively igniting threats to feed the fire. Some have speculated his background stems from western culture growing up in Switzerland. I met an elderly woman named Mary in Geneva at the UN who is a member of a prominent church and remembers him just as a normal young boy. Still, no western influence, not even Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy will loosen North Korea’s border or weaken his cult of personality that can now virtually even be seen from outer space. It is clear that his military strategy proves unwavering in the continuing game of political warfare.

The Kim dynasty has developed into what everyone had hoped to avoid: a nuclear brinkmanship.

The actions and aggressive rhetoric echoed by Kim Jong Un raises serious concerns and often called, “unpredictable.” While previous North Korean leaders have entertained similar threats in the past, the question of war is not only between the Koreas, but how it is changing the political landscape of the five biggest economies in the world, four nuclear weapon states, and three permanent mission of the UN Security Council. Surrounded by a plethora of 21st Century problems, these complicated issues persist as human rights, nuclear weapons, and socio-economic interests surrounding the entire region.

What’s happening now

North Korea launched a long-range rocket last December, conducted its third nuclear test in February, and earlier last month, nulled a 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. And more recently, cut off hotlines with South Korea, made threats of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S. and blocked access of South Koreans from entering Kaesong Industrial Complex—a joint industrial region and a symbol of cooperation articulated by former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy.” In addition, North Korea has no plan for negotiations with the U.S. over their nuclear weapons program. In response,  the U.S. has organized ongoing joint military exercises in South Korea positioning its presence in respective locations and deploying stealth fighter jets. Despite this, rhetoric from Washington signifies that "We have no indications at this point that it's anything more than warmongering rhetoric."

Scholars question the 28-year old leader’s role in the North Korean government. Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea says he has recently met with North Korean contacts and they relayed "that they have given up on their diplomats, and the military is now in control." Victor Cha an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies questions whether the new leader "really is fully in charge, or whether the military is in charge." Many members of the Korean community believe this is merely a young leader’s ploy in marking his considerable place as a strong military leader in the weary eyes of many North Koreans.

Professor Anderi Lankov a scholar on North Korea was asked about his analysis of the situation, he believes the world should ignore North Korea's immature antics and also offers an interesting insight as he has lived in North Korea. He suggests one of the large reasons as to why the regime is bolstering such a crisis is because, "They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo."

What’s next? Analyzing the scope of North Korea.

The answer to the solution is not as easy as it seems. The reality is that nuclear weapons and military power is North Korea’s first priority, and they will never stop. It is the source of their power- a lesson the regime learned from Gaddhafi’s fall and loss of power.

Several factors support their withstanding regime: indoctrination, command economy, pride in self-reliance, and military dictatorship. Their next priority is their economy and sustaining their country. Therefore, the posture of North Korea seems to be offsetting any threats to these values. Finding the key to unlock the mysterious closed-door policy to North Korea is quite possibly one of the most challenging diplomacies of the 21st Century. Time will only reveal whether or not Kim Jong Un is really carrying the big stick, or hiding behind an Oz curtain of a possible falling regime. In an interview on ABC, President Obama, in response to North Korea’s vitriolic threats on carrying out a missile attack on the U.S. said, "They probably can't, but we don't like the margin of error." From personal recent interviews with South Koreans and a former North Korean defector, the dialogue mirrors that of many experts: North Korea doesn’t have the capability yet to attack the U.S. and their dire economic condition will not be able to support their threats for an all-out war. Moreover, it is unlikely North Korea will start a nuclear war risking the actions of the U.S. and international community, and most importantly, the mutually shared discomfort by its closest ally and neighbor, China.

China- North Korea’s closest ally and economic source, providing about half of all imports and receives a quarter of its exports-fully backed U.N. Security Council’s decision to impose sanctions making the resolution unanimous and magnifying North Korea’s actions as serious implications to international security. The Chinese government has often been criticized for its recognition of North Korean defectors as “economic immigrants” rather than regarding them as refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, along with its dubious interests in keeping North Korea as a buffer zone in order to prevent stronger U.S. influence in the region. Many activists claim China may be the key player and could influence the DPRK to back down. But, despite their long alliance, experts say Beijing may not have as much control as most people think.

"In general, Americans tend to overestimate the influence China has over North Korea," says Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia expert at the International Crisis Group. Nonetheless, China joins global condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and recent activity; it expressed its equally concerned views regarding the U.S.’s response from provocations by Pyongyang in “bolstering its missile defense.” Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, "The anti-missile issue has a direct bearing on global and regional balance and stability. It also concerns mutual strategic interests between countries."

South Korea is protected under the “nuclear umbrella” of the U.S. Under this safeguard, the U.S. will help deter any nuclear threats and proliferation led by North Korea. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon puts it into light by stating that “North Korea’s claims may be hyperbolic - but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: we will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea.” South Korea has also shown interest in developing its own nuclear weapons program in which two-third of South Koreans are in support of—a topic that has become increasingly popular amid North Korea’s recent activity.

North Korea has decided to open its plutonium plant but, from analysis by experts, it does not have the capability to launch a nuclear missile to the United States—speculating possible reach to Alaska. While North Korea and the U.S. continue to play the game of chicken to nuclear brinkmanship, it should take a quick look through the historical lens at Hiroshima for sufficient evidence of potential outcomes. While the end results are still unclear amid the hazy rhetoric, South Koreans say the regime is “bluffing”, pigeonholing the crisis as a Cold War-like stalemate. While others still question Kim Jong Un’s irrational behavior in the rational choice theory- and do not want to merely rely on probability. No one, however, can disregard the real dangers of one mistake on either side that could lead to possible nuclear apocalypse.

When and how will the regime fall? A look at inside North Korea.

If there isn’t a real solution to the problem now, then what can we expect? When asked Dah-Hee Choi, a South Korean native, she believes change will eventually happen in North Korea and that change will come from within. Founder of NKHRFF and activist, Gilad Cohen carry the people’s hope stating, “The regime will fall in our lifetime.” In a personal interview with (former South Korean President) Kim Dae Jung’s grandson, Jong Dae Kim points his grandfather’s foreign policy as a successful strategy of economic aid given to the regime. Ultimately, he believes this will offer an alternative discourse to peace. In his opinion, North Korea will mirror that of China—eventually transitioning its state through economic prowess. The Market is key.

Currently, systemic change remains obsolete and the leadership remains steady. Many Koreans and non-Koreans alike hope for a revolution from the people. However, in order for this to happen, there are two vital actions that must take place: one, the people must be aware of their situation and two, have a means to mobilize. With recent revolutions and springs taking place in the growing globalized world, these two steps are imperative. This will be difficult given the ideological indoctrination of the North Korean people and the constant isolation of the hermit kingdom.

The Shift

There are small changes taking place. The Jangmadang generation, North Koreans who are now in their 20s and 30s, paralleled with our Millennials, grew up in a much different era where marketization and modernization are increasingly more prevalent than earlier generations. A North Korean refugee, who escaped North Korea, described to me how he smuggled items between China and North Korea --such as cigarettes and clothes—spreading substantial evidence of the outside world. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, borders have tightened and numbers show less defectors fleeing the country. Despite this, North Koreans now, more than ever have access to technology, and according to a BBC report, "The government can no longer monitor all communications in the country, which it could do before," explains Scott Thomas Bruce, an expert on North Korea who has written extensively about the country. North Korean defector and friend, Seongmin shares that information is key, “so they could compare with outside world and recognize which is true or false by themselves, if this happens, even a reclusive regime couldn’t avoid its country’s reform and people in North could have a better life and the nuclear threat from North Korea could disappear.”

Additionally, according to a source from human rights non-profit group People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE), when asked a defector whether or not they had the ability to get in touch with a family member by phone in North Korea they replied, “Yes, but it would be extremely risky and dangerous for the person in North Korea.”  It may not serve as an open door to a revolution just yet, these testimonies and analysis paint a brighter picture of the country becoming more modernized and information slowly becoming tangible. As we have seen with history and more recently with Arab Spring nations, knowledge is Power.