North Korea: A genuine threat or grand strategy hindrance?

An analysis of the conflict so far

Photograph: North Korean Flag / Etereuti / CC

How would you determine if a nation state is dangerous, and carries a threat? Perhaps you would assess its leadership, along with its political ambitions. You may assess its military arsenal or even its economic might. All of these factors are rigorously analyzed by the US government when it formulates a grand strategy – A strategy which is built to last.

Much of the current US grand strategy stems from the Cold War. It was during this period in history where the US concluded that the use of nuclear weapons should never become a serious threat to world peace. Therefore, with a large element of cooperative security, and a hint of primacy, the US has gone to grave lengths to prevent nuclear proliferation and the use of such weapons around the world.

Cooperative security and primacy both advocate the need for the US to dominate the international community economically, politically and militarily; for the US, this can only be achieved by acting as self-proclaimed stewards of the peace and promoting liberal values across the world, in the hope that other nation-states will follow suit. Once these rules of engagement are undertaken, only then can the US pursue ultimate hegemony.

If a nation state matches the political, economic or military power possessed by the US, they are deemed a threat – This is where North Korea comes into the equation. It is the belief of the US government that North Korea’s long-term objectives include acquiring nuclear weapons and ultimately having the means to drive US forces out of South Korea. It is no secret that for years, the US has been hell-bent on preventing the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, exercising soft power in an attempt to bring their nuclear program to a halt, what we don’t seem to question, however, is why.

In order to better understand this, perhaps we first need to understand Kim Jong-un’s intentions and objectives in regards to the North’s nuclear program. This is problematic for two reasons – Firstly, Western nations including the US, and even Britain, have not once attempted to engage with Kim Jong-un in order to understand his motives, and secondly, the war of words exchanged between President Trump and Kim Jong-un makes the use of diplomacy considerably more challenging.

Donald Trump Tweet
Tweet by President Trump Re: North Korea (11th August 2017) / @realDonaldTrump / CC

All previous diplomatic tools utilized by the US have consisted of a demand for North Korea to disarm its nuclear program. However, despite remaining staunchly determined to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, the US is yet to state a credible reason why the North should not possess such weapons. The stance taken by the US is that North Korea should not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons because they intend to use them, begging the question: Where is the evidence to prove this is the case?

From the outside looking in, North Korea appears to be an insular, isolated nation, despite having diplomatic relations with over 160 nations in 47 countries. As previously mentioned, we do not know Kim Jong-un’s intentions in regards to his nuclear program, mainly due to no Western nation engaging with him over the matter. However, what we do know is that the Kim Dynasty is a three-generation lineage which has been preserved, maintained, and strengthened over a number of decades. It is unique in the sense that it does not bare expansionist goals, or crave world dominance, but instead is wholly committed to operating under the state philosophy of Juche, first implemented by Kim II-sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather).

For me, the US government and other Western nations seem to be missing a key point on this matter. Given the fact that the Kim Dynasty has worked hard to preserve its ideology and state values for a number of years, is it really plausible to believe that Kim Jong-un would jeopardize his family’s legacy by entering into a nuclear war? Somehow, I don’t think so. After all, what is there to gain from entering into a war you cannot win, a war which would inevitably result in your rule coming to an end?

Some scholars have speculated that North Korea’s nuclear strategy has shifted over the years, and one of the reasons for this is the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Han S. Park believes President Bush demonstrated that the US has the capability to destroy a regime; she states that “Pyongyang seems to have realized that a US invasion is a real possibility. The North Korean desire to avoid military confrontation is no less powerful than its desire to survive” (Park, p.41, 2007).

Despite the continuity of its nuclear program, there is still a lack of clarity over whether North Korea truly wants to possess nuclear weapons, or believes they must do so as a prerequisite for deterrence. The official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea states the following:

“On the principle of independence the Government of the Republic promotes friendship and cooperation with the various countries of the world and makes positive efforts to destroy the old international order of domination and subjugation, establish a new one, based on equality, justice and fairness and develop the South-South cooperation on the principle of collective self-reliance.

At the same time it makes every effort in unity with all the peace-loving peoples of the world to frustrate the aggression, interference, and disturbance of imperialists, reduce armaments, nuclear armaments, in particular, thereby meeting the desire of human beings to live in a world, free from nuclear weapons, and to safeguard peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world” (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea).

One view which can be taken from this statement is that North Korea’s objection to imperialism is reflected in their rhetoric towards the US. Kim Jong-un has recently accused Donald Trump of “driving the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war”, following threats of “fire and fury” by the President.

It is arguable that the emphasis placed on imperialist defiance by North Korea derives from the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; by carrying out both invasions, it demonstrates a clear ability to destroy non-liberal regimes. For a nation like North Korea, which is governed by a long-standing ideology, this would, in turn, make the US a very able threat.

Final thoughts and recommendations

There is never a quick fix when seeking to resolve international conflict, especially when there is a conflict between two very contrasting ideologies. I take the view; however, that diplomacy must always prevail. When it comes to North Korea, diplomacy can only prevail if Western nations are willing to negotiate with Kim Jong-un, in order to better understand his intentions regarding his nuclear program. I also believe that despite the rhetoric from Pyongyang, North Korea do not desire nuclear weapons to cause destruction, but rather to seek acknowledgement as an emerging military superpower from the international community.

As North Korea’s only ally in the world, China must do more to act as a mediator, and ultimately a peace enabler. As a trading partner and mutual ally, China is our best hope of bringing Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table, and when he arrives, the US and other nations need to be sat at the table with ideas, not demands. This brings me on to my final point, which is, that in order for the US to have the opportunity to engage with North Korea in constructive negotiations, US foreign policy needs to undergo fundamental reform.

The US needs to accept that though they are the biggest nation on this earth, they do not rule it. Every nation-state is different; this is something the US has consistently failed to grasp. They can achieve their grand strategy goal of cooperative security by promoting liberal values, not by attempting to enforce them on states with a different way of life. This failure to tolerate differing cultures is one of the reasons why conflicts arise and will continue to rise until such reforms take place. No nation-state, regardless of its position in this world, has the right to bare judgment on another state, infringe upon their way of life, or seek to change it in line with their own values. Until the US accepts this, the world will continue to be a cruel and unpredictable place.

Sources:

  • Park, H, 2007 in Hagstrom, L and Soderberg, M. (2007). North Korea Policy: Japan and the Great Powers, Volume 2 of European Institute of Japanese Studies East Asian Economics and Business Series: Routledge, 2007, p. 41
  • The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Foreign Relations [Online]. Available from: http://www.korea-dpr.com/relations.html [Accessed 13 October 2017]

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Matthew Cooper 3 Articles
Matthew Cooper is a University of Bath alumnus with a BSc in Politics and International Relations. He intends to take his love for writing further by actively pursuing a career in journalism or content writing.

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