North Korea has one of the largest militaries in the world, standing at 1.2 million.[ii] Being under the impression that if it does not have deterrence power, it can be compelled to change or even collapse, North Korea is obsessed with security. Countries have often viewed North Korea’s nuclear weapons as bargaining chips in bids to assure security.[iii] North Korea has pulled off its “crazy-dangerous, weak-dangerous act” for decades to great success, as no military action has been taken against North Korea to change the regime, compared with other authoritarian regimes such as in Libya.[iv]
Since 1984, North Korea has conducted 130 missile tests that continue to keep the countries in the region, and worldwide on edge.[v] North Korea’s goals are to legitimize the regime, have South Korean defenses lowered and have U.S. troops withdrawn from the peninsula, all which would contribute to North Korean security.[vi]
South Korea is in an unenviable position. The unpredictability of North Korea requires South Korea to remain in a perpetual state of readiness. South Korea’s goal is to prevent another war from breaking out, since that would be catastrophic for the country, especially with nuclear weapons now in play. South Korea has greatly increased its defense spending from previous decades, spending around 2.5% of GDP on defense and has between 500-625,000 personnel in its armed forces.[vii] South Korea has tried to temper North Korean actions through economic means. Between 1991-2015, South Korea gave North Korea over $7 billion in aid, namely during its 1998-2008 Sunshine Policy period.[viii] Many South Koreans feel that economic engagement is the way to make North Korea less repressive and belligerent.[ix]
South Koreans are torn about the possibility of reunification. While it would enormously reduce South Korea’s security threats, the social and economic burdens of reunification would be enormous as well.[x] Because of this the status quo, albeit a less tense one, would be preferable.
[i] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 200-1.
[ii] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 88-9.
[iii] Heungkyu Kim, “Enemy, Homager or Equal Partner?: Evolving Korea-China Relations,” Journal of International and Area Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2012): 51, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43107239.
[iv] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 196.
[v] Ian Williams, “North Korea Missile Launches: 1984-Present,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, last modified June 12, 2017, https://missilethreat.csis.org/north-korea-missile-launches-1984-present/.
[vi] Joshua Stanton, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea: How to Hit Pyongyang Where It Hurts,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 3 (May/June 2017): 74.
[vii] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 87-9.
[viii] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 67-8.
[ix] Marcus Noland, “South Korea: The Backwater That boomed,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 1 (January/February 2014): 21.
[x] Sue Mi Terry, “A Korea Whole and Free: Why Unifying the Peninsula Won’t Be So Bad After All,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 4 (July/August 2014): 153-5.
North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering the Korean War, which set the tone for future relations.
1993-1994: U.S – North Korea – South Korea talks
Talks between North Korea and the United States and South Korea broke down and North Korea expelled nuclear inspectors and withdrew from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), triggering the First Korean Nuclear Crisis and raising the likelihood of war.[i]
1994 – Agreed Framework
The Agreed Framework was signed between North Korea and the U.S., ending the First Korean Nuclear Crisis.[ii]
2000 – Joint declaration
North and South Korea signed a joint declaration stating their agreement to resolve the question of reunification on the peninsula, among other issues.[iii]
2002-2003 – Second Korean Nuclear Crisis
North Korea admitted to enriching uranium, rejected the Agreed Framework and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).[iv]
2003-2007 – Six Party Talks
The Talks were convened to try to find a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear program.[v]
2006 – Ballistic missile and nuclear tests
North Korea launched several ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in the late summer, followed by its first nuclear test on October 9th, claiming that the test was to protect its sovereignty.[vi]
2009 – North Korean satellite launch
In April, North Korea launched a rocket intending to launch a satellite and after condemnation withdrew from the 6PT saying it was no longer bound by the agreements, ejected monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.S., restarted its Yongbyon reactor and on May 25th, conducted its second nuclear test.[vii] When South Korea responded by saying it would join the Proliferation Security Initiative, North Korea responded by saying it was no longer bound by the 1953 armistice.[viii]
2010 – sinking of the Cheonan
On March 26th, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk off the coast of the peninsula and in May, South Korea formally accused North Korea of being behind the attack, severing almost all ties.[ix]
2010 – Attack on Yeonpyeong
In November, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing 4 and injuring 20.[x]
2011 – Ascension of Kim Jong-Un
In December, Kim Jong-Un became the new Supreme Leader of North Korea after his father, Kim Jong-Il died.[xi]
2013 – Third nuclear test
North Korea conducted its 3rd nuclear test, leading to international condemnation.[xii]
2016 – Fourth and Fifth Nuclear tests
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in January and September.[xiii]
[i] Leon V. Sigal, “The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Understanding The Failure of the ‘Crime-and-Punishment’ Strategy,” Arms Control Association, last modified May 1, 1997, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997_05/sigal.
[iii] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,” Arms Control Association, last modified June 22, 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron.
[iv] Leszek Buszynski, “Russia and North Korea: Dilemmas and Interests,” Asian Survey 49, no. 5 (September/October 2009): 818, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/as.2009.49.5.809.
[v] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”
[xii] Jiang Longfan and Wang Haifan, “North Korea’s Peripheral Diplomacy in the “Post Kim Jong-il Era” and Its Relationship with Japan,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 30, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 97, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43829411.
[xiii] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”
1990s – Original talks over the nuclear weapons program
North Korea, South Korea, the United States and the IAEA were the main players in these negotiations to resolve North Korea’s nuclear program and the fears it caused. Negotiations broke down multiple times over discrepancies in North Korea’s accounts of its facilities and the concurrent U.S. and South Korean pressure, resulting in North Korea’s withdrawal from the IAEA.[iv] The negotiations were eventually a success with the reaching of the Agreed Framework.[v] The negotiations were successful for two reasons: 1.) South Korea backed down from its demands in hopes of peace, and 2.) Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea and secured North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung’s personal agreement, in part because his visit represented American respect of North Korea.[vi] The Agreed Framework pledged aid in return for the freezing and eventual end of the nuclear program.[vii] The Framework lasted for 8 years, collapsing with the 2nd crisis in 2002.[viii]
2003-2007 – Six Party Talks
The Six Party Talks, which lasted in six rounds from 2003-2007, and encompassed North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
The first few rounds of talks (2003-2004) failed, notably because the U.S. refused to sign a nonaggression treaty with North Korea and because North Korea refused US-Japanese-South Korean demands to dismantle its nuclear program.[ix]
The rounds in July and September 2005 were successful in part due to bilateral US-North Korean talks, and resulted in the Joint Statement of principles for future negotiations, which stated that: 1.) North Korea commits to abandoning nuclear programs at an early date and return to the NPT and IAEA, 2.) Calls for the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to be observed and implemented, 3.) U.S. confirms that it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea, 4.) Achieve the verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula peacefully and 5.) North Korea has right to peaceful nuclear energy.[x]
The talks in the rest of 2005-2007 were often marred by US-North Korean disputes over frozen North Korean funds. At one point in 2007, talks were suspended for days when the North Korean delegation walked out and refused to return until the U.S. unfroze $25 million in North Korean funds.[xi]
However, the rest of the talks were relatively successful and focused on how the agreements made so far should be implemented, resulting in North Korean actions in 2008 that lead it to be removed from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list.[xii] Lesser-known negotiations in Berlin in January 2007 were incredibly successful and led to the gradual shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor, which would not be until 2013.[xiii]
Ultimately, the Six Party Talks legacy is of failure, due to events in 2009 when North Korea launched another rocket and after international condemnation, stated that it would never return to the talks and was not bound by the agreements.[xiv]
2012 – Leap Day Agreement
The last major talks occurred in February 2012 over suspension of the weapons program in return for aid, and were initially a success when North Korea agreed to suspend the uranium enrichment program, nuclear tests and long-range missile tests if the U.S. resumed food aid.[xv] This agreement, like all those before ultimately failed when North Korea launched a satellite a few months later.[xvi]
All negotiations with North Korea have failed because of its unwillingness to reconcile its obsession with security and having methods of deterrence.
[i] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 67.
[ii] Ibid., 74.
[iii] Sachio Nakato, “Japan’s Responses to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Responsive Engagement Perspectives,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 59-60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23595529.
[iv] Sigal, “The North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”
[vii] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”
[xiii] Buszynski, “Russia and North Korea: Dilemmas and Interests,” 824.
[xiv] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”
[xv] Longfan and Haifan, “North Korea’s Peripheral Diplomacy in the “Post Kim Jong-il Era” and Its Relationship with Japan,” 100.
2012-2017 – North Korean uptick in tests
Kim Jong-Un has accelerated the amount of nuclear tests and missile tests from his father.[ii] Since he took power there have been 3 nuclear tests and over 90 missile tests.[iii] 2016 was the most active year under his rule.[iv]
2017 – Missile tests
So far in 2017, there were 17 missile tests alone so far in 2017.[v]
2017 – First North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Test
On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested an ICBM, marking the first time the country has done so, drawing international condemnation.[vi]
For both sides, escalation into war would be calamitous. North Korea has around 10,000 artillery pieces in the hills above the DMZ, and should war start or should North Korea launch a surprise attack, it is estimated that they could fire up to 500,000 shells at the Seoul area, with almost 50% of South Korea’s entire population living in that area, in the first hour.[vii] At the same time as preparing for war, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has been preparing for the North Korean regime’s collapse.[viii] Ultimately, the deterrent power of North Korea’s nuclear weapons will prevent any attempts at regime change or a use of major force, keeping the current situation the way it is unless something so drastic occurs that it must change.[ix]
[i] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 205.
[ii] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 69.
[iii] Williams, “North Korean Missile Launches.”
[vi] Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. Confirms North Korea Fired Intercontinental Ballistic Missile,” The New York Times, last modified July 4, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/world/asia/north-korea-missile-test-icbm.html.
[vii] Ibid., 201-2.
[viii] Terry, ” A Korea Whole and Free,” 155.
[ix] Jieun Baek, “The Opening of the North Korean Mind: Pyongyang Versus the Digital Underground,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 1 (January/February 2017): 113.
The United States has a huge stake in this conflict. Due to its commitment to South Korea’s defense, the United States has around 30,000 troops in South Korea.[i] The U.S., Japan and South Korea have a strong triangular relationship that includes an important intelligence agreement.[ii] The U.S. has a stake in the peaceful resolution of the conflict because it would prevent the U.S. from being bogged down in another war.
For North Korea, the U.S. is the biggest threat. U.S. sanctions and the countries that go along with the U.S. make life for the regime incredibly difficult, and one of their main goals is to get the sanctions lightened and eventually lifted.[iii] North Korea has tried to bring the U.S. into discussions through hostage diplomacy, which gives the U.S. another level of stake in the conflict.[iv] Recently, hostage diplomacy backfired when an Otto Warmbier, an American student held in North Korea died just after being released from North Korea, further sinking relations.[v] For the United States, any relationship changes will be impossible without a change in North Korea’s nuclear stance.[vi]
China and North Korea share a long land border, which would be compromised in event of a war.[vii] China’s main goal is to prevent social and economic implosion.[viii] North Korea is a major bulwark against the power in the region of the U.S., Japan and South Korea.[ix] This is the main reason for China’s continued support. In 2014, China accounted for around 84% of North Korea’s imports, and was the recipient of around 84% of their exports.[x] Chinese trade helps dull the blow of sanctions, irritating the U.S. and other members of the international community.[xi] China also violates the sanctions that the UN puts on North Korea, after having voted for them.[xii]
Sino-South Korean relations complicate China’s stake. China and South Korea have had diplomatic relations since 1992, and by 2008 had strengthened their relationship to the level of “strategic cooperative relationship.”[xiii] They both share grievances against Japan, which has helped strengthen their ties.[xiv] Trade has also played a key role in strengthening the relationship, and South Korea has become one of China’s largest trading partners, and China does not want to risk losing that.[xv] But diverging interests on North Korea have hurt their relationship, evidenced in 2010 when China tried to protect North Korea from blame over the Cheonan incident, angering South Korea.[xvi] South Korea’s ability to trust China will continue to be low as long as China defends North Korea.[xvii]
Japan has a stake in the conflict due to the threat North Korea poses to its safety. North Korea’s missiles have the ability to hit Tokyo, as well as other major cities in Japan.[xviii] Japan knows it would be a target if a war did break out. In recent years, Japanese-North Korean relations have improved slightly over the resolution of the abduction issue, where North Korea had abducted a number of Japanese citizens.[xix] However, Japan is unwilling to compromise on the nuclear and missile issues, making relations rough.[xx]
Like China, Japan’s relations with South Korea complicate matters greatly. Japan and South Korea’s relations are rough due to their history during Japan’s occupation of Korea, namely over the issue of the comfort women.[xxi] The issue was “resolved” in 2015 with a U.S. brokered agreement where Japan paid $8.3 million into a fund for surviving women and South Korea dropped the claims.[xxii] The U.S. needs both countries’ cooperation to present a united front, but tensions hinder this.[xxiii]
Japan’s concerns about a united Korea with 70 million people with grievances with Japan means that Japan will likely prefer the a neutralization of the missile and nuclear threat without reunification.[xxiv]
Russia is the last major stakeholder. Russia has a small land border with North Korea, raising fears of a flood of refugees coming into Russia as a result of a war or regime collapse.[xxv] Russia wants to prevent North Korea from destabilizing the peninsula, as well as maintain influence.[xxvi] Russia is in a complicated position of being unable to accept another powerful nuclear neighbor, but also unable to accept the use of force against North Korea, because that would diminish its own influence.[xxvii]
Russia has worked with China to blunt the blows against North Korea on numerous occasions.[xxviii] While a nuclear power is undesirable, a nuclear power with a grudge against Russia is even more unfavorable, tying Russia’s hands in difficult situations regarding the nuclear program so as not to aggravate an unpredictable North Korea.
[i] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 125.
[ii] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 213.
[iii] Longfan and Haifan, “North Korea’s Peripheral Diplomacy,” 112.
[v] Emanuella Grinberg, “McCain: North Korea ‘murdered’ former detainee Otto Warmbier,” CNN, last modified June 20, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/19/politics/otto-warmbier-dies/index.html.
[vi] Longfan and Haifan, “North Korea’s Peripheral Diplomacy,” 112.
[vii] Rachman, Easternization, 97.
[viii] Bosco, Five to Rule Them All, 246.
[ix] Terry, ” A Korea Whole and Free,” 159.
[x] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 196.
[xi] Christensen, “Obama and Asia,” 33.
[xii] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 71.
[xiii] Kim, “Enemy, Homager or Equal Partner?: Evolving Korea-China Relations,” Journal of International and Area Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2012): 47-8.
[xiv] Rachman, Easternization, 98.
[xv] Kim, “Enemy, Homager or Equal Partner?: Evolving Korea-China Relations,” Journal of International and Area Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2012): 57.
[xvi] Christensen, “Obama and Asia,” 30.
[xvii] Kim, “Enemy, Homager or Equal Partner?: Evolving Korea-China Relations,” Journal of International and Area Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2012): 48.
[xviii] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 203.
[xix] Longfan and Haifan, “North Korea’s Peripheral Diplomacy,” 114.
[xx] Ibid., 113-14
[xxi] Rachman, Easternization, 93-6.
[xxii] Ibid., 98.
[xxiii] Ibid., 96.
[xxiv] Ibid., 97.
[xxv] Buszynski, “Russia and North Korea: Dilemmas and Interests,” 816.
[xxvi] Ibid., 809.
[xxvii] Ibid., 818.
[xxviii] Ibid., 823.
The U.S and China have a political communications hotline.[i] China and South Korea have one as well.[ii] These three countries should strengthen these hotlines so as to better prepare for and manage a crisis on the peninsula should one occur.
It is recommended that the United States and its allies continue to work to coordinate their sanctions against North Korea. Sanctions require coalition building and the ability to present a united front.[iii] U.S. allies such as Japan have pursued unilateral sanctions as well, which if not coordinated properly with the other countries, could undermine the rest of the sanctions.[iv] It is strongly recommended that Russia and China end their policy of violating UN sanctions on North Korea, which serves to shield them from the full force of the sanctions.[v] If they do not, it is recommended that the United States apply secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian banks and trading companies, which greatly value U.S. access, in order to force the hand of these two countries.[vi] The unity that would be achieved should China and Russia, however begrudgingly, join in enforcing the sanctions could be strong enough to force North Korean compliance.
The sanctions route is controversial however, with experts such as Kelsey Davenport at the Arms Control Association highlighting a key weakness of sanctions, which is a poor track record of enforcement, but also notes that while they may not be the most effective at bringing about negotiations, they can be effective at limiting materials that North Korea uses to make its weapons.[vii] The United States and its allies should strengthen the enforcement mechanisms and use the sanctions only when coupled with outreach, much like what was done with Iran before the Iran nuclear deal was reached.
In recent years, Russia and North Korea itself have indicated that North Korea was willing to resume the Six Party Talks, other talks about denuclearization and even pledge to stop nuclear testing if the U.S. and South Korea stopped spring military exercises.[viii] While the United States should maintain that it is always open to talks, it should allow no North Korean preconditions for talks, and if North Korea withdraws from talks again, ramp up sanctions in response.
Most importantly, it is recommended that the United States and South Korea not take direct military action against North Korea. Evan Medeiros, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s head of Asia Policy has called North Korea “the land of bad options.”[ix] Military action would be the worst option, due to the physical and human cost South Korea and Japan would face. However, the United States, South Korea and Japan must maintain readiness should hostilities occur out of an unforeseen crisis.
[i] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 129.
[ii] Kim, Enemy, Homager or Equal Partner?: Evolving Korea-China Relations,” Journal of International and Area Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2012): 51.
[iii] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 75.
[iv] Nakato, “Japan’s Responses to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” 66.
[v] Buszynski: Russia and North Korea: Dilemmas and Interests,” 829.
[vi] Stanton, Lee and Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” 75.
[vii] Kelsey Davenport, “Would More Sanctions Sway North Korea?,” Arms Control Association, last modified April 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-04/news/more-sanctions-sway-north-korea.
[viii] “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”
[ix] Rachman, Easternization, xviii.
On July 17, 2017, South Korea announced that it was proposing military talks with North Korea in hopes of defusing the tension on the peninsula.[iii]
On July 24, 2017 it was revealed that China was strengthening defenses along its border with North Korea for the event of a crisis.[iv]
On July 28, 2017, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), its second in a month, which experts say had the ability to reach large parts of the continental United States.[v]
On August 29, 2017, North Korea launched a missile, which flew over Japan.[vi]
On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, claiming that it was a much more powerful hydrogen bomb.[vii]
[i] “China Condemns US Sanctions over ‘North Korea Funding’,” BBC News, last modified June 30, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40456843.
[iii] “South Korea Proposes Rare Military Talks with North Korea,” BBC News, last modified July 17, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40627608
[iv] Jeremy Page, “China Prepares for a Security Crisis Along 880-mile North Korea Border,” MarketWatch, last modified July 25, 2017, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/china-prepares-for-a-security-crisis-along-880-mile-north-korea-border-2017-07-25.
[v] Brad Lendon, “North Korea Missile Test Puts Major US Cities in Range, Experts Say,” CNN, last modified July 30, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/29/asia/north-korea-intercontinental-ballistic-missile-test/index.html
[vi] Brad Lendon and Joshua Berlinger, “Next Target Guam, North Korea Says,” CNN, last modified August 30, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/29/asia/north-korea-missile-launch-guam-threat/index.html
[vii] “North Korea Nuclear Test: Hydrogen Bomb ‘missile-ready’,” BBC, last modified September 3, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41139445
This page on CSIS’ Missile Threat Project site allows the reader to learn about the history and components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which is important to South Korean defenses.
-The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s CNS North Korea Missile Test Database (http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/cns-north-korea-missile-test-database/).
This database provides a comprehensive and interactive database of all of North Korea’s missile tests since 1984.
-“The Korean nuclear issue: Past, present and future: A Chinese perspective” by Fu Ying (https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-korean-nuclear-issue-past-present-and-future/).
This article out of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center by a high-ranking foreign affairs official in the Chinese government offers a take on security in Northeast Asia from the perspective on China.
– Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War by Tim Beal,
This book by an Asia specialist who taught at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand looks at the historical buildup of tensions on the peninsula and the Cheonan incident. He is more critical of the U.S. and South Korean response to the incident.
-North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival by Glyn Ford and Soyoung Kwon.
A former British Labour Party member of the European Parliament, and a Korean scholar look at North Korean history and tensions through 2008, and offers the reader a European perspective on the issue.
–“Territorial Issue in the Context of Colonial History and International Politics: the Dodko Issue Between Korea and Japan” by Chinsoo Bae, The Journal of East Asian Affairs Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2012).
This article by a member of the Northeast Asia History Foundation explores the tensions between South Korea and Japan over the Dodko/Takeshima Islands, and looks at the historical relations between the two nations. It is important to note that the journal is based out of South Korea and the article is more Korea leaning than Japan.