Is North Korea a Legitimate Threat?


North Korea, known by its inhabitants as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is probably the most isolated nation in the world, and very little information exists as to what goes on inside its borders. North Korean citizens are allowed no contact with the rest of the world, and those who attempt to break this law risk facing the death sentence if they are found out. Formed once Japan relinquished its hold on the Korean peninsula at the end of World War Two, life in the DPRK is centered around the Kim personality cult – initially constructed to glorify Kim Il-Sung – where the elevation of individual leaders is used as the driving force of the entire nation’s political ideology. The nation’s veneration of Kim Il-Sung is so extreme that many classify North Korea as the only ‘necrocracy’ in the world; because Kim Il-Sung was named their ‘eternal leader,’ he is still technically considered to hold primacy as head of state despite the fact that he died in 1994. It was under Kim Il-Sung and his son that the ‘revolutionary cause’ of Juche theory, a blend of Soviet Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, Korean nationalism, and Confucianism, was developed, consolidated and placed at the centre of the North Korean project.

In August 2015, North Korea declared itself to be in a ‘semi-state of war’ with its South Korean neighbours after two South Korean soldiers were seriously injured by newly-placed landmines while patrolling the border, spurring South Korean authorities to order the resumption of propaganda broadcasts on loudspeakers at the border for the first time in 11 years. Further, the border between these two nations (although ironically termed the ‘Demilitarized Zone’) is one of the regions with the highest density of military personnel in the world. North Korea has also been extremely belligerent in its foreign policy more broadly, regularly testing nuclear weapons, launching cyber attacks and releasing aggressive statements. This is perhaps unsurprising as Western states are presented by the North Korean government as inherently evil entities which are aim explicitly to undermine the superior way of life which the Kims have gifted their people.

Sunday, 12th of March saw an official announcement from North Korean officials that the nation would be undertaking rocket engine testing of ‘historic significance.’ This is not the first instance of North Korean military posturing, but recent years have seen the international community become increasingly wary of the ‘hermit kingdom.’ Opinions as to whether North Korea constitutes a significant threat are divided, and there is always a significant risk that they are informed to a significant extent by ideological dislike for the Kim regime which has reigned in Pyongyang since Kim Il-Sung came to power in 1972. In international discourse surrounding North Korea, the question of military capability almost always takes primacy. This debate is often especially centered around the harrowing possibility of nuclear warfare. Seoul, only 120 miles from the North Korean capital Pyongyang, is most at risk of nuclear attack (and, indeed, of attack with more conventional weaponry), but many have wondered whether North Korea has the military capability to launch longer-range assaults; perhaps against the West.

Although sources are sketchy, and North Korea persists in trying to present itself as having increasingly significant nuclear powers, evidence suggests that North Korea definitely has nuclear weapons in its arsenal, probably of around the same power as that which was used in the Hiroshima bombing of 1945. Although this could undoubtedly cause significant damage, as of yet it seems unlikely that the nation has yet developed nuclear technology small enough to fit on the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles which would be necessary to launch an attack on the U.S. However, the Washington Post recently quoted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as having said that “the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed,” and experts predict that North Korea likely isn’t more than four or five years away from developing the technology it needs to launch an international attack if it wants to. So should everybody in the West fear for their lives?

Certainly, many are becoming increasingly concerned about the North’s attitude to the rest of the world, and its leaders are infamous for their unpredictable and punitive behaviour. Fears are also beginning to emerge that a desire to avoid the attention of states and organizations with greater power no longer influences the North Korean state as much as it seemingly once did. For instance, in February Kim Jong-Nam (the half-brother of Kim Jong-Un, although the two likely never met) was assassinated by two women at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he was about to board a flight to Macau. Two women approached him in the airport and touched his face, and minutes later he was dead. The assassination has been traced back to the North Korean government, although its motivations are unclear. The substance with which he was killed was a nerve agent called VX, one hundred times more potent than the nerve gas – sarin – used by a Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in their 1995 subway attack and officially recognized by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction. North Korea is undoubtedly guilty of many infringements upon human rights, but this crime was particularly significant because of how brazenly it was carried out in international territory. This being said, many commentators have argued that the primary motivation of North Korea is always its self-preservation, and since even irrational or ill-suited leaders must realize that the nation risks obliteration if it launches an attack on the U.S. or any of its allies an assault of this kind will remain unlikely even once they possess the technology to execute one.

North Korea is undoubtedly guilty of many infringements upon human rights, but this crime was particularly significant because of how brazenly it was carried out in international territory. This being said, many commentators have argued that the primary motivation of North Korea is always its self-preservation, and since even irrational or ill-suited leaders must realize that the nation risks obliteration if it launches an attack on the U.S. or any of its allies an assault of this kind will remain unlikely even once they possess the technology to execute one.

Ultimately, however, concern about North Korea is misplaced if not unnecessary. Current international relations have created an orthodoxy where there is rarely any meaningful concern for a nation unless it poses a military threat and, especially in the North Korean context, this is a moral failing. Although thousands of articles and official statements have been written about North Korea’s military progress almost no attention is given to the goal of finding a non-military solution which frees its population from the authoritarian rule of the Kim dynasty and the suffering which it has created. However, the suffering within North Korea is immense. For instance, although it claims to operate according to an economic model whereby the state provides essential resources such as food in exchange for labour from its citizens, in recent decades the nation’s leaders have been siphoning off ever-greater quantities of money to fuel the elite ‘gift economy,’ (whereby support is garnered and maintained by offering lavish gifts to loyalists) and military expansion at the expense of the people. This has resulted in death by starvation for hundreds of thousands and continues to do so.

Further, those who commit crimes are regularly thrown into labour camps where they are condemned to hard labour for the rest of their lives, with those perceived as political dissidents sent to the harshest camps of all. Worse, their entire extended family is also confined to the camps, including three generations of their offspring. The abuses which occur here are innumerable and have been revealed only by the very few who have managed to escape. Despite the fact that satellite images of these camps are visible for anybody to see on the internet there has been a remarkable little outcry (let alone action) from the rest of the world. Comedic depictions of the Kims such as those found in the movie ‘The Interview,’ while perhaps funny, play exactly into the hands of the North Korean state by ratifying the West’s refusal to really take it seriously in the way it needs to be. Certainly, they do not seem to suggest the presence of a powerful grassroots movement to pressure Western governments to take action on behalf of the North Korean people.

It must be recognized that discourse which focuses the ‘North Korean issue’ on military resolutions does a disservice to the entire population of the country, all of whom deserve the same concern shown for victims of cruel regimes the world over. There are two problems with this military focus; firstly, that it maintains an attitude which sees only military interactions between states as significant or effective solutions to problems. Secondly, that it shows no regard for the well-being of the North Korean people, whose liberation should ostensibly be the end-goal of any interactions with Kim Jong-Un and his government. Although it is, for many, geographically distant and conceptually almost unimaginable, the North Korean regime should be treated with unreserved seriousness. It’s essential that the international community at every level goes beyond this one-dimensional view of state relations and reorders its priorities with regard to the North Korean case.

Samantha van Staden
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