In the last three days, North Korea has launched six missiles. Is it a protest because of the U.S.-South Korean military drills which ended in late March? Is it trying to improve the range and accuracy of its arsenal? Does its nuclear and ballistic missile program enhance its security and diplomatic position? The Security Council has imposed harsh sanctions against Pyongyang, after his third nuclear test in February. But, does this represent a threat to the International Security?
Those are KN-02, a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), which range is estimated at 160 km. That means that those doesn’t represent the threat some have claimed*. Although SRBM are usually capable of carrying nuclear weapons, it is still a doubt if North Korea has developed nuclear warheads small enough to place on a missile.
*A grave concern remains to be the possible development of an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of delivering a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead that can reach the U.S. continent. Given repeated test failures, most missile experts believe Pyongyang is far from achieving this goal.
But it is a provocative action given the general climate we are living in. North Korea routinely tests such missiles, but the latest launches came during a period of tentative diplomacy aimed at easing tensions. North Korea should retake the nuclear disarmament talks with other nations, which right now are at a standstill (actually, since 2009 when the UN condemned North Korea because of a long-range rocket launch.)
The regime has recently revised its constitution, which now refers to North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, a status that is only granted to the five states that possessed nuclear weapons at the time of the signature of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the U.S., the Soviet Union (now Russia), China, France, and the U.K.
About North Korea
One can think North Korea is a small country with huge problems. It is. It has also been an independent kingdom for much of its long history, as Korea was occupied by Japan beginning in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War. Following World War II, Korea was split with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored Communist control. After failing in the Korean War (1950-1953) to conquer the U.S. backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the southern portion by force, North Korea (DPRK), under its founder President Kim Il Sung, adopted a policy of ostensible diplomatic and economic “self-reliance” as a check against outside influence.
Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, was officially designated as his father’s successor in 1980, assuming a growing political and managerial role until his father death in 1994. Kim Jong Un was publicly unveiled as his father’s successor in September 2010. Following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, the regime began to take actions to transfer power to Kim Jong Un and Kim has now assumed many his father’s former titles and duties, continuing the regime in this Communist state of one-man dictatorship, in which there is no independent media.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea territory is in Eastern Asia, northern half of the Korean Peninsula bordering the Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan, between China and South Korea. As it also borders Russia, it is a strategic location.
It has an extension of 120,538 sq km, mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys, with coastal plains wide in the west and discontinuous in the east. Eighty percent of North Korea is covered by mountains and uplands. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding, and in the early fall, there are occasional typhoons. Because of this terrain composition and climate, the arable land is only the 19.08%, and there are frequent weather-related crop failures, which aggravated chronic food shortages caused by on-going systemic problems. Those had been eased, since 1995, by large-scale international food aid deliveries as well as aid from China. Since 2002, the government has allowed private “farmers’ markets” to begin selling a wider range of goods, and it also permitted some private farming – on an experimental basis – in an effort to boost agricultural output. The population continues to suffer from prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions.
Natural resources include coal, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, iron ore, copper, gold, salt, fluorspar and hydropower. With a poor agricultural sector, the core economic engine is industry (textiles, electric power, chemicals, metallurgy, military products and machine building), but at its turn, industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance.
24,720,407 people live in North Korea. The population is racially homogeneous; there is a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese. They speak Korean and are traditionally Buddhist and Confucianist. North Koreans live an average of 69 years, 11 years less than South Koreans, being hunger the greatest health threat. In the mid-1990s, a famine killed some 2.5 million people, or roughly 1/10 citizens. Trafficking in persons and Illicit drugs shipments are also complicated situations both within the country and transnationally.
The territory is divided in 9 provinces and 2 municipalities, Pyongyang being the capital. Their constitution was adopted 1948 although it has been revised several times. Their legal system consists in a civil law system based on the Prussian model, influenced by Japanese traditions and Communist legal theory. The suffrage is universal at 17 years of age. In the last election, held in April 2012, Kim Jong Un was elected unopposed (there are 2 other political parties; the Chondoist Chongu Party and Social Democratic Party). Since April the 1st, Pak Pong-ju from the Workers’ Party of Korea, is its Premier.
What is it between the two Koreas?
The countries remain technically at war after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty and the 148-mile-long border between North and South Korea is the most heavily militarized in the World (there is a military demarcation line within the 4-km-wide demilitarized zone that has separated North from South Korea since 1953).
Why? Well, back in 1896 the Empire of Japan occupied the Korean Empire, and some years later, in 1905, after the Russo-Japanese War, Japan made Korea its protectorate, and annexed it in 1910. China helped organize refugee Korean patriots and independence fighters against the Japanese military, which had also occupied parts of China.
During World War II, the Japanese used Korea’s resources for their war effort (actually, In August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, around 25% of those killed were Koreans). In 1943 China, the U.S. and the U.K. decided that Korea shall become free and independent, but in 1945 the Allies unilaterally decided to divide Korea. The U.S.A. Military Government in Korea refused to recognize the provisional government of the short-lived People’s Republic of Korea, as they suspected were communist. Korea was administered by a U.S.–Soviet Union Joint Commission and Koreans were excluded from the talks. These policies, voiding popular Korean sovereignty, provoked civil insurrections and guerrilla warfare.
With the divided country, the war between North and South Korea started in 1950. North Korea (Kim), China (Mao) and the Soviets (Stalin) found the South Korean (Syngman) and American (Truman) forces were unprepared. The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea (this was protested by the Soviet Union, first; because the Republic of China –Taiwan-, and not the People’s Republic of China, held a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and secondly, because North Korea was not invited as a sitting temporary member of the UN, which violated UN Charter Article 32). The war finally ended in 1954 with an armistice agreement and the division of Korea.
Nowadays, the tension between the two Koreas remains high, with land border incidents and conflicts in other areas. There are periodic incidents in the Yellow Sea, where South Korea claims the Northern Limiting Line as a maritime boundary. In 2006, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, and the effectiveness of the inter-Korean policy came under great criticism. Earlier this year, both sides pulled out their workers from a jointly run factory complex. This is probably the most significant casualty so far in the recent deterioration of relations between the Koreas.
However, there are also cooperation areas; The signing by South and North Korea of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation (the South-North Basic Agreement) and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in December 1991 was designed to pave the way for peaceful coexistence and prosperity of the two Koreas.
In the late 1990s, the South Korean government promoted various exchanges and cooperation projects with North Korea, increasing humanitarian assistance. North Korea supports South Korea in rejecting Japan’s claim to Liancourt Rocks (Tok-do/Take-shima). Finally, in the current complicated scenario, Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, said he wants to provide the necessary assistance to encourage bilateral reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas. The unification of the Koreas would result in a large economic and military growth potential.
Asian hard security and the nuclear challenge. Which is now the problem with the U.S.?
Some of the international disputes that North Korea faces are risking arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. Tens of thousands of North Koreans cross into China to escape famine, economic privation, and political oppression. The problems with its huge neighbor also include the dispute over the sovereignty of certain islands in Yalu and Tumen rivers, although the relations with China are generally perceived to be on friendly terms. Opposed, a legacy of bitterness exists in Japan’s relations with North Korea. Diplomatic relations with Japan have always been delicate issues. Last April 12th, the country warned that “nuclear war is unavoidable” and declared that Tokyo would be its first target in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula.
The relations with the U.S. have been tense since Post- WWII, during the Cold War with the Korean War and nowadays with the present hostilities. North Korea claims it need nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. invasion and hostile policy against it, such as U.S. sanctions and joint military exercises with South Korea.
Under President Eisenhower’s Administration, the U.S. introduced atomic weapons into South Korea, unilaterally abrogating paragraph 13(d) of the Korean Armistice Agreement. North Korea responded militarily, by digging massive underground fortifications, and forwarded deployment of its conventional forces for a possible attack against the U.S. stationed in South Korea. Fortunately, in 1993, U.S.–North Korea talks began, and they reached a Agreed Framework in 1994. As a result, North Korean nuclear program was frozen and economic sanctions against it, eased.
In 2001, George W. Bush announced his opposition to the Agreed Framework during his presidential candidacy. One year later, the Administration asserted that North Korea was developing a uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons purposes, and was categorized as a part of the “Axis of Evil”. As of 2008, North Korea has agreed to all U.S. nuclear inspection demands and the Bush Administration responded by removing the communist country from a “terrorism blacklist”. That same year, North Korea allegedly resumed its nuclear activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and apparently, the activity at the facility has steadily increased, threatening its possible reactivation. Nuclear tests occurred in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Pyongyang believes the U.S. desires regime change. Some political analysts say the recent North Korean threats were partly an attempt to push Washington to agree to disarmament-for-aid talks. As North Korea and the U.S. have no formal diplomatic relations, Sweden acts as the protecting power of U.S. interests in North Korea for consular matters.
At its turn, the official relations with the E.U. are stable since after 1989, North Korea retained most of its diplomatic relations with the former Warsaw Pact countries. However, since 2009 and the Nuclear Crisis the relations are not going so well. Those have basically always been based on economic reform and human rights violations.
Is there any solution?
North Korea’s fundamental objective seems clear: regime survival on the one hand, and possibly status as a nuclear power on the other. Reaching an agreement with the U.S. and its allies (re-taking six-party talks) and being serious about denuclearization is mandatory for North Korea. Real progress depends on Pyongyang’s actual fulfillment of this latest agreement. At its turn, the lift of economic sanctions against the country should be made, and international aid, I the form of nutritional assistance must de effective, in a tit-for-tat situation.
After that, it will be necessary to verify past reactor-disablement measures and uranium-enrichment activities, deal with non-nuclear issues of mutual concern, and eventually wading into uncharted waters for even farther-reaching commitments that will lead to the final dismantlement phase agreed upon in past six-party accords.
North Korea has a Permanent Mission to the UN in New York and diplomatic talks will need to resume at some point after the noise settles, in tandem with inter-Korean dialogue. Peacekeeping operations must be carried out as well as preservation of human rights, by the international community. Inaction is always worse than any not-good option.