Shifting Dynamics of a Nuclear North Korea

nkOn September 9th, North Korea conducted its fifth and most recent nuclear test. While we often look at Kim Jong Un’s displays of military bravado as childish temper tantrums, this time the threat may be credible, affecting both regional and international security. Pyongyang has been creating new bombs in terms of both quantity and quality, possibly making them light enough to fit on intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. North Korea has supposedly stockpiled over 40 kilograms of plutonium, and an unknown amount of highly enriched uranium. This makes for the unpleasant possibility that North Korea could stretch their limited supply to make about 10 nuclear bombs with this composite. North Korea’s neighbors, namely Japan and South Korea, have always been understandably nervous about the nation’s nuclear enthusiasm. However, the difference with this most recent test is that it may now be an international threat as opposed to a solely regional one. After the fifth test earlier this month, Kim Jong Un claimed that the nuclear warheads have been “miniaturized to fit for intercontinental ballistic missiles.” For all of us across the ocean from the Korean Peninsula, these new developments are slightly unnerving.

The past few months have also seen a rise in Kim Jong Un’s angry rhetoric against enemy states (which is most of the world) and threats of nuclear attacks against them. Historically, threats leaking out of Pyongyang have been just that – threats. The age of fearing obliteration by nuclear attack is long past in America’s memory, with freedom from such burden coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, North Korea is a few decades behind. After all, even if Kim Jong Un is just a manic and disillusioned leader, his party has denied and violated almost every aspect of the human rights standard of an entire nation. What would stop him from dropping a bomb if a real or imagined threat to his power comes up? While still unlikely, these factors all lead to an increasing fear among neighboring countries and even the American populace that an attack could actually be attempted.

In terms of both the international security situation and the domestic human rights crisis in North Korea, it is strange that the global community has kept them well at arm’s length; however, dealing with an armed and temperamental North Korea is a complex issue for the international community. Paradoxically, the Hermit Kingdom is one of the most closed-off, abusive nations of the 21st century; yet purely in terms of stability, is perhaps one of the most stable and least likely to experience political uprising. It seems as if the liberal leaders of the world have a moral imperative to relieve the suffering of North Korea’s 25 million citizens, but more sanctions may only help Kim Jong Un keep complete autocratic hold over his nation while pushing ordinary citizens further into isolation and disconnect from the outside world.

This most recent nuclear test will only result in more sanctions and isolation for North Korea, but is that what they want? The international community could do more, like blocking the exports of fuel oil to North Korea. However, here we enter the real complexity of the conflict, as severe actions like this that could actually cripple the nuclear program may also put ordinary citizens at risk. The only way that Kim Jong Un has been able to keep hold of absolute power over a highly populated nation is through starvation of information and brainwashing level propaganda. The citizens are deprived of food, education, representation, and many other precipitating factors that would usually slide a state into instability and civil war. A sort of liberalizing intervention that could open North Korea up to political revolution is a possible solution the liberal world powers could undertake. However, this can create a dangerous descent into chaos. It is Kim Jong Un’s waterproof hold on information and exposure to the rest of the world that allows his state to conduct severe human rights abuses while also remaining extremely stable. These tactics of autocratic paranoia only work if there is no influence or information from the international community. If the people of North Korea were to be exposed to the internet, international news, or any sort of freedom of thought for just a day, who could tell how fast this regime would fall? However, this is a unique case. The citizens most likely know nothing beyond the borders of the Hermit Kingdom, and have such a skewed vision of the rest of the world and the concept of governance that there would be no leadership and no institutions to aid in political transition.

The problem here seems simple enough to resolve – stop North Korea from building its nuclear capacities and avoid a regional arms race at all costs. However, this conflict, like most in the 21st century, is not cut and dry. Although Member States could starve North Korea dry of exports and supplies, the true victim would not be Kim Jong Un, who thrives off of isolation, but the ordinary citizens, who have already suffered enough. In theory, China could easily collapse the regime or at least remove its top leadership from power. However, Chinese officials said they would not be willing to take this risk as it would leave a huge power vacuum, which they would not want to be filled by the United States or its allies. Intervention on the peninsula is risky in two ways. North Korea is now armed with intimidating weaponry, and has clearly stated that it would not hesitate to use them at any real threat to the dictator’s power and sovereignty. Even if these are all empty threats though, we cannot ignore the delicate situation of North Korea’s closed stability at this point in time, and the violently destabilizing effects any sort of intervention or further interaction with the dictator may have on his nationals. So what is there to do about a regime that is dangerous to its own citizens when left alone, and dangerous to the rest of the world when touched?

Rachael Hughen

Author: Rachael Hughen

Rachael is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution and a minor in Geology. She is also a member of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams at GW. Rachael has a special interest in the region of Southeast Asia and hopes to work in the field of conflict resolution in this region after college. She is currently working for a human rights NGO in DC and has studied abroad in Finland. Other interests include running, hang gliding, and painting.