The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“North Korea”) provides plenty of opportunities for a cheap laugh. It is in many ways the last of the loony dictatorships that were a feature of the 20th century, from its vast, vaguely demented choreographed parades to the outlandish claims of God-like genius by the three successive members of the Kim family who have served as its leader.
For the overwhelming majority of North Koreans living under the Kim’s Stalinist-monarchy hybrid, life is no laughing matter. According to the UN World Food Programme, hundreds of thousands of people have died in famines since the mid-1990s and over six million out of a population of 24 million are regularly at risk of starvation. Whilst natural phenomena play a role, the main causes of the famines are the government’s policies and apparent callous disregard for the fate of its people. The situation is compounded by their frequent rejection of foreign food aid or seizure of it to feed the army instead.
Apart from the risk of starving, North Koreans are subjected to what Human Rights Watch calls a “severe and unrelenting violation of human rights” by the state. There are harsh restrictions on almost every aspect of everyday life and thousands of people who have offended the regime are imprisoned in labour camps. Conditions in the camps are appalling and torture and death are commonplace. The regime also inflicts collective punishment on dissidents’ families by sending them to the labour camps as well.
Whilst all of these horrors are of great concern, the biggest security fear for the outside world is North Korea’s nuclear programme. Bellicose statements from the North Korean government and external satellite imagery suggests that it did indeed conduct its third test of a nuclear weapon, following previous known tests in 2006 and 2009. North Korea’s recent improvements in its missile and nuclear enrichment technology indicate that it is edging closer to producing functioning nuclear weapons with which to threaten its neighbours.
The neighbours with most to fear from North Korean nuclear missiles are Japan and South Korea. Japan is a long-standing target of North Korean ire because of its history of aggression towards Korea (notably during its brutal World War II occupation) and modern status as the biggest democratic-capitalist ally of the USA in the region.
North and South Korea are still officially at war because the 1950s conflict that led to their division into two countries was never formally ended and have been stuck in an uneasy truce since 1953. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and its 10.5 million residents are located a mere 35 miles from the North Korean border. The North continues to launch periodic attacks on the South, such as when it shelled an island near the border in 2010, killing four South Koreans, and sank a South Korean warship the same year, leaving 46 sailors dead.
One reason why North Korea pursues its nuclear weapons programme is to extort assistance and attention from Japan and South Korea, as well as their US allies. Its most common tactic is to offer a halt to its nuclear activities in return for something it wants. It then reneges on the deal once the desired benefit has been delivered and starts rebuilding its nuclear bargaining chip for another round of extortion. But the North Korean regime’s greatest motivation for acquiring atomic weapons is to preserve its hold on power by deterring any external attempt to unseat it, whether by military means or economic strangulation and support for opponents.
To some extent, it could be argued that North Korea’s disreputable tactics work, in that the regime is still intact and often manages to secure a modicum of what it demands. On the other hand, the Kim dynasty’s nuclear brinkmanship has brought UN mandated sanctions down upon it and contributed to the country’s near-destitution. The total collapse of the regime has been averted so far because external pressure is limited by the protection of the one neighbour that North Korea takes care not to threaten directly – China.
China regularly uses its status as a veto-wielding Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to water down sanctions against North Korea. It has long-standing, ideological communist ties to the regime, as its backer in the Korean War. But, most of all, China fears that the fall of the government could lead to an influx of millions of desperate North Koreans across its border. China also prefers to have a weak and partially dependent country next door, rather than adding another member to the burgeoning group of Asian countries who are wary of Chinese dominance and seeking ways to counteract it.
There are signs, though, that even China is tiring of North Korea’s antics. It acquiesced to the tightening of UN sanctions in December 2012, following a prohibited North Korean satellite launch that was believed to be a cover for testing ballistic missile technology. One interpretation of the situation is that China might reconsider its support for North Korea if it gets to the stage of full nuclear missile capability.
Despite coming from a different standpoint, China faces a similar conundrum to North Korea’s other neighbours and the wider world in deciding how far to go to prevent it from obtaining reliably functioning nuclear weapons. The North Korean regime’s deterrence effect depends on convincing the world that it has the technical capability to launch a nuclear first strike and is crazy enough to do so. The dilemma for the world’s leaders lies in deciding whether North Korea is bluffing as part of a dangerous but essentially rational strategy or whether it really is crackers enough to irradiate millions of people in an attempt to stay in power. Once they have taken a view on that, they then have to decide what to do about it. Neither is an easy judgement to have to make.