North Korea has recently drawn the attention and fear of many Americans, but the scale of it may be overblown. Kim Jong-Un has earned the title as arguably the most oppressive heads of state in the world today. While the people of North Korea struggle with hunger, poverty, and security issues, Kim Jong-Un has amassed a personal wealth of around five billion dollars. His family has ruled over the country since 1945 through the Korean War, held power through the famine of the 1990s, and under persistent and devastating economic sanctions.
Their ability to maintain power is likely based on a prevailing focus on self-preservation, rather than amassing more power. Knowing that the United States has long sought to overthrow the Kim dynasty, this in part explains the desire Un’s father President Kim Jong-Il, and now President Kim Jong-Un have to attain nuclear weapons. The looming threat of a United States attack puts the state in a perpetual state of defence. In fact, the Kim family uses this threat to their advantage. They use the United Nations sanctions, along with the rhetoric of American leaders, in order to scapegoat the failure of their rule to provide any sort of prosperity or comfort to their people. At the same time, it puts them under a dark cloud.
So, moving to actual security for the United States, are we in danger even if North Korea attains these weapons? The answer can be found in simply looking at North Korea’s actions for the over 60 years since the conclusion of the Korean War. North Korea has long sought to regain the southern end of the Korean Peninsula. But since the war’s conclusion, it has not begun any war, or anything really even resembling one. This is despite chronic instability in South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s when military governments led to widespread malcontent among its citizens. North Korea could have attempted to exploit this weakness, but they didn’t. Small-scale attacks such as missiles being launched in contested areas are more for rhetorical victories to be had at home, rather than any real signs of aggression.
At the same time, looking at the history of United States interventions, countries that have failed to attain nuclear weapons have eventually fallen. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya are two examples of leaders who attempted to attain nuclear weapons in order to deter any upcoming invasions. They failed, and they were eventually unseated by military intervention.
North Korea has been able to avoid the same fate purely based on having a strong enough deterrence through having the support of China and the Soviet Union, until after the Soviet collapse when they lost an important ally. This is when they rapidly increased their development of nuclear technology. Despite negotiations and an agreement in 1994, Kim Jong Il broke it, in all likelihood to continue developing what it considers the only truly effective deterrent to an American attack. Gaddafi negotiated with the United States to abandon nuclear development, and the U.S. still eventually intervened.
While nuclear weapons are never something that the United States should support or want a regime to acquire, it is important to realize what leads to a country’s desire for them. Iran has long sought to have a denuclearized zone in the Middle East, desiring to abolish the weapons. A fear of the United States and Israel has largely contributed to their previous attempts at development. By threatening and increasing the aggressive rhetoric towards North Korea, President Trump only incentivizes the continued development of nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be attempting to move the administration towards a more conciliatory approach with North Korea through a State Department statement on the issue.
The statement reads, “We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.” The statement is a clear attempt to ease tensions and could help to bring a dialogue to the forefront of the issues between the two countries. It could be the only way of stabilizing a volatile situation, and years of failed militaristic rhetoric.