Beginning at 7:04 AM on Thursday, March 25th, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into eastern waters, violating the United Nations Security Council resolution on nuclear weapons. This move follows last weekend’s release of two “cruise missiles” into the Yellow Sea. While the United States dismissed the first launch as “normal military activity,” Thursday’s maneuver raises concerns over international security and diplomatic relations. North Korea is known to use nuclear ‘tests’ to send messages to other world players—such as repeated rocket launches in 2017 and 2018 amidst conflict with former U.S. president Donald Trump. The most recent move may signal continued diplomatic disputes between North Korea and the trilateral alliance of Japan, South Korea, and the United States, or even with global organizations.
This is North Korea’s first act of nuclear aggression since March of last year when the country tested a series of rockets and short-range missiles. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga publicly stated: “the first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates UN resolutions.” In a similar sentiment, the U.S. Pacific Command responsible for regional military action reaffirmed the test’s exemplification of “the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbours and the international community” According to Al Jazeera. Even China, North Korea’s economic partner, has called for de-escalation and compromise to ensure “lasting peace and security on the peninsula”.
In 1985, North Korea acceded to the United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a binding multilateral agreement which seeks to prevent nuclear buildup. North Korea promptly left the treaty in 2003, and though it almost returned in 2005, a failed negotiations process resulted in Pyongyang’s further non-compliance with the treaty’s guidelines. Since 2006, the UN Security Council has imposed nine different unanimous sanctions on North Korea as it continues nuclear buildup efforts: these sanctions include calls to rejoin the NPT, cessation of nuclear activity, economic restrictions, limits on imports and exports including missile-related machinery, and member countries’ right to seize and inspect illegal North Korean cargo. Despite sanctions, Kim Jong Un does not seem deterred, maintaining that nuclear proliferation is “a strategic and predominant goal.” Clearly, the international community must utilize alternative prevention methods to successfully combat Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions.
Many believe that the rocket launch was a direct provocation towards the U.S. as the Biden administration reevaluates past North Korean policy. President Trump maintained a rocky relationship with Kim Jong Un during his tenure, although he is still the only U.S. President to visit North Korea. A successful 2018 meeting with Trump initially offered hope for renewed diplomacy, but North Korea revamped nuclear demonstrations and animosity after negotiations broke down in 2019. Just two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, threatened the U.S. for its intended joint military efforts with South Korea: “If it wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step”, according to AP News.
President Biden is already taking a much different approach to Pyongyang relations than his predecessor. He announced in his first press conference on Thursday that he refuses to meet with North Korea. He did, however, leave the door open for “some form of diplomacy… conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization,” according to the Military Times. For now, this seems unlikely as Biden also promised to respond to any escalation by North Korea, a statement Pyongyang took to be provocative and threatening to its self-defense.
The recent aggravation in the region raises significant concerns for global nuclear armament. North Korea’s blatant disregard for Security Council sanctions as a U.N. member threatens the legitimacy of the United Nations and creates questions about how to prevent nuclear buildup if international organizations cannot play a meaningful role. Paired with Iran’s repeated violations of the JCPOA arms treaty, atomic weapon buildup seems to be rapidly increasing without limit. Global powers need to respond harshly to North Korea’s actions to clarify that this form of aggression will not be tolerated. In addition to U.N. sanctions, other member countries should impose individual economic regulations. Action by China would likely have the greatest impact given its economic relations with Pyongyang and presence in the region. The U.N. must also reconsider North Korea’s voting rights or membership if it continues to ignore its commitments. Finally, although the U.S. should continue to push for diplomatic negotiations with North Korea under the pretense of disarmament, it should also maintain military efforts with South Korea and Japan to ensure regional security in the case of escalated aggression. Unchecked nuclear development holds devastating implications for civilian lives and global peace and could tempt other countries to join the nuclear ‘race.’