North Korean Missile Tests: Methods of De-escalation

This past week has marked one of the most eventful in months for North Korean (D.P.R.K.) nuclear activity: the country has successfully launched two long-range missiles, and recent satellite images show the expansion of a uranium plant at its main nuclear complex. These are clear indications of intent to boost production of nuclear weapons.

The reclusive country tested both ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday and Sunday with both hitting targets 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away after flying for more than two hours, said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. Previous series of resolutions passed by the U.N. Security Council have banned the country from developing or testing ballistic missiles, but not cruise missiles. Deploying the two types of missiles is seen by experts as an effort to diversify missile forces, particularly strengthening attack capabilities on South Korea and Japan, where a total of 80,000 American troops are based. Experts say both types of missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads. Shortly following the D.P.R.K. tests, South Korea launched a planned test of weaponry – a submarine-launched ballistic missile –  although the test was pre-planned and not reactionary.

Soon after the tests, satellite imagery indicated an expansion of uranium production facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, which the state has referred to as the “the heart” of its nuclear program. The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters (10,760 square feet) – enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges. “The expansion of the enrichment plant probably indicates that North Korea plans to increase its production of weapons-grade uranium at the Yongbyon site by as much as 25%,” Jeffrey Lewis and two other experts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey said in a report.

The recent uptick in the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear activity suggests that the state prioritizes expanding its nuclear arsenal over providing aid to combat ongoing humanitarian crises in the country. The D.P.R.K. is notorious for perpetrating human rights violations against its people. Refugees tell harrowing tales of their narrow escapes from the repressive country, and the consequences almost certain to befall those they’ve left behind. In 2014, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that the government “committed violations amounting to crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and forced abortions.” Severe food shortages are not uncommon; a 2019 U.N. report found that 11 million people – 43% of the country’s population – are undernourished and “chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread.”

Covid-19 has only increased the severity of the situation. The state halted almost all imports, including food and medicine, claiming that external aid could be contaminated with, and contribute to the local spread of, Covid-19. These restrictions were implemented around the same time that the country experienced catastrophic floods, destroying infrastructure and much-needed modes of agricultural production. In April of this year, leader Kim Jong-un formally acknowledged the severity of the food insecurity. His statement utilized language which invoked the memory of the 1990s famine, estimated to have killed as many as three million people, in a clear break from the state’s more common strategy of denial.

However, the acknowledgement of the crises is largely incongruent with the actions taken to remedy it. Experts warn ultra-strict restrictions could be an attempt to return to the absolute control over “information and distribution of food and materials,” forcing civilians to be entirely reliant on their government for aid.

One thing is abundantly clear: North Korea and South Korea have found themselves embroiled deeply in a seemingly never-ending arms race with deep humanitarian implications. A statement issued by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, following their own missile test, speaks to their motivation to acquire weaponry as a “sufficient deterrence to respond to North Korea’s provocations at any time.” The conflict is complex and multidimensional: after all, the two parties are still officially at war (The Korean War “ended” with an armistice rather than a peace agreement). A mutual distrust and conflicting international allegiances (North Korean closeness with China vs. South Korean allegiance to the United States) adds another layer of complexity to the conflict. Further international worries over the sudden uptick in nuclear activity stem from a lack of global consensus as to what the D.P.R.K.’s nuclear arsenal actually contains – estimates range anywhere from six to over 18 missiles.

In addressing a conflict of such complexity, we must narrow down our priorities. Disarmament of the Korean peninsula should be viewed first and foremost as a humanitarian issue. The effects of utilizing the acquired weaponry on one another would be devastating: millions of people could die, and millions more could be displaced. As we reflect on years of failed diplomacy and peace negotiations, we must choose to make a change in our approach to negotiations. It is an absolute imperative to de-stigmatize, to see beyond the weapons and focus on people instead. We cannot have constructive conversations about de-nuclearization without also addressing the intrinsically connected humanitarian crises.

In our diplomacy, we must be conscious of the human implications of our actions. “North Korea uses weapons tests strategically, both to make needed improvements to its weapons and to garner global attention,” said Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “With the United States hinting that it will seek to tighten the sanctions regime, North Korea will be looking to expand its arsenal by ramping up testing.”

Several studies corroborate the fact that sanctions actually have a negative net effect, inadvertently deepening the preexisting humanitarian crises while directly feeding into the D.P.R.K.’s “victim mentality.” A study conducted by Korea Peace Now, a women-led international organization dedicated to bringing an end to the Korean War, found the humanitarian consequences of international sanctions to be “severe,” drastically limiting aid-workers’ ability to provide assistance to local populations, causing “irreplaceable damage.” The report estimates that more than 3,968 people died in 2018 – 3,193 children under five and 72 pregnant women among them – “as a result of sanctions-related delays and funding shortfalls” that impact U.N. programs, “especially those dealing with acute malnutrition; vitamin A deficiency; water, sanitation and hygiene issues; and the need for emergency reproductive health kits.” Given the impact of Covid-19, we can assume that the gravity of the situation has only increased, demanding immediate humanitarian assistance. Ultimately, sanctions have not fulfilled their goal of preventing North Korean nuclear arsenal advancement – so it is time to revise our strategy.

The United States and close allies, including South Korea and Japan, should seek to resume dialogues with Pyongyang, remaining open to compromise. Stigmatizing the country is counterproductive; their governing philosophy is one of self-sufficiency, self-protectionism and national pride – this will not change simply because the international community tells them it should. The D.P.R.K. interprets U.S.-led sanctions and regular military drills with Seoul as antagonizing. Until some kind of mutual understanding is reached, it’s unlikely North Korea will cease building up its nuclear arsenal.

Concerned states should approach the country on the basis of addressing the humanitarian crises at hand, focusing on preventing the D.P.R.K.’s humanitarian crises from becoming worse. The international community should send strong messages to Pyongyang advising the ending of restrictions on imports of food, medicine, and other basic needs, coupled with alleviated sanctions. In exchange, the international community could request that the D.P.R.K. dismantle significant portions of their nuclear program and establish an internal committee to oversee aid distribution.

The Korean peninsula will not be denuclearized overnight. However, this is imperative to establish a semblance of a working relationship, not to be confused with complacency in humanitarian crises or allyship with the state, but a consistent dialogue based on mutual compromise to address the ongoing tensions in the region.

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