Sabres Rattle: U.S.A.-D.P.R.K. Tensions Escalate With Missile Tests

On Tuesday, October 4th, North Korea flew a ballistic missile further than ever before, flying over Japan in a manner not done since 2017. How worried should the world be? It is this writer’s opinion that, while frustrating, the missile tests of the country — though certainly not safe — do not pose a serious threat. Furthermore, the DPRK’s nuclear policy is the inevitable consequence of the confrontational and highly militarized policy employed by the U.S.A. with regards to the country. If the U.S.A. wants North Korea to back down, they must lead by example.

The DPRK has made a spate of missile tests recently, sending no less than 5 missiles since September 25th. A recent test of two missiles fired at short range immediately succeeded a joint Japanese-American anti-submarine naval exercise, which itself succeeded previous missile tests and suspicions that North Korea was developing a nuclear-capable submarine.

Criticism has not been lacking. South Korea’s President Yun Suk-yeol called it “reckless,” Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida called it “barbaric,” and the White House called it “dangerous and reckless.” The U.S.A. sought to bring the matter to table at the UNSC but was blocked by China and Russia.

Unfortunately, the past two decades of U.S.-D.P.R.K. relations have only given legitimacy to North Korea’s commitment to the bomb. Consider the North Korean perspective: every year, the largest military exercise in the world happens on their border, organized by the world’s most powerful state and two of its closest allies (all of whom are virtually hostile to the notion of its statehood). Two of these countries have invaded North Korea previously: Japan, to horrific results which they downplay or deny, and the U.S.A. — within living memory — killing 15 percent of North Korea’s population during the Korean war. North Korea is surrounded on the Atlantic front by American military bases and constantly witnesses joint military exercises. All of this in conjunction with some of the world’s most restrictive economic sanctions forbidding virtually all trade, crippling the country’s economic development — according to Statista, North Korea is the third most sanctioned country in the world as of March 2022.

So, what’s changed? The war in Ukraine has emboldened military action around the world: critically, China has its gaze focused on Taiwan, and Russia is fixated on Ukraine. As a consequence, for the first time in a half-century, both of North Korea’s reliable protectors may be unavailable should the worst come to pass.

Given this context, it’s hard to imagine North Korea giving up their one security assurance — nuclear bombs — because they simply do not have a viable alternative. Ideally, they could undertake a lengthy denuclearization process coupled with economic rewards — and they did, with the Clinton administration in August of 1994. However, this agreement weakened when North Korea received minimal sanction relief and nuclear power plant construction, and was killed when president Bush described the state as a member of an “axis of evil.” So, the North Korean options are: maintain a nuclear program, ensuring its security at the cost of continued economic punishment, or give up all security insurance in hopes that an infamously unreliable and bellicose American foreign policy will favour it.