Showing brazen defiance against the Trump administration, North Korea has successfully conducted its sixth nuclear test, demonstrating a capability to produce a hydrogen bomb. This “statement” by North Korea is loud and clear. The rest of the world may not like it, but North Korea is a nuclear weapon state. Thus they have put the seven-month-old government of US President Trump into a tizzy.
Being in power has not been easy for Trump. Almost all of his decisions have been criticized, from domestic issues like Obamacare to issues of international relevance like the Paris climate accord or cyber-attacks on the US from Russia. He is always found standing isolated with an entirely different point of view from the rest of the world. Presently, he is also trying to resolve the North Korean issue in very hawkish way. He told the North Korean leadership that one incorrect move in the region of Guam and they would meet with “fire and fury.”
But the North Korean leader is playing the game cleverly. He threatened an attack on the area around Guam, but instead opted to test a missile close to Japan, thus demonstrating its capability. He followed this immediately with the hydrogen bomb test. A few days later there was a US intelligence report confirming North Korean claims that they have developed the capability to assemble a nuclear weapon that could fit in a missile. In short, North Korea now has a capability to drop a nuclear bomb at the place of their choice in Japan or on some other locations of US interest.
In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan. In 1945, at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two regions along the 38th parallel, with the northern part occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern part by the United States. Negotiations for reunification of both parts of Korea failed around 1948.
Within two years, North Korea invaded South Korea, but the US came to aid the South. A ceasefire eventually took place, allowing both the countries to return to 38th parallel positions, but no peace treaty was signed. Until the 1960s, economic growth of the North had been higher than in South Korea. Subsequently, North Korea became dependent on assistance from the Soviets. From 1994 to 1998, North Korea suffered a great famine, killing hundreds of thousands of people and ruining the country’s economy, which had been lagging since the end of Cold War (1991), when Russian aid had halted. Korean politics had been played as power politics between the two superpowers.
Since the Korean War, the US has maintained a strong military presence in South Korea, despite opposition by the North Korean government, which considers the US an imperialist occupation force. North Korea shares borders with China and Russia and naturally both these powers are unhappy about the US presence in the region.
North Korea has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons for decades. During early 1990s, the US successfully blocked its experimentation with nuclear technology for some time. However, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Though they were persuaded to destroy their nuclear assets around 2009, subsequently their relations soured with the US and they re-started developing nuclear weapons. The rest is history. They have also successfully developed and tested various kinds of missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that can travel more than 6000 km and possibly even 9000 km.
For a while around the year 2000, South Korea had sincerely tried to constructively engage North Korea with a program called the “Sunshine Policy.” However, in 2001 US President George W. Bush rejected the Sunshine Policy and treated North Korea as a rogue state, mainly for their nuclear ambitions.
There have since been various attempts to establish peace in the region—such as the “six-party talks.” However, the Pyongyang dictator Kim Jong Un, who has been in power since 2012, understands that when he gives away his nuclear weapons he will die, like the Libya’s dictator Col Gaddafi or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Hence he is unlikely to give them up. He wants his country to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state and that all the sanctions put by the United Nations be lifted. This would help to repair the dire situation of his country. He is keen that his country receive international assistance, which the US might be willing to do, provided he gives up the nuclear weapons. Today, neither country is not ready to make any compromise. Hence the ongoing crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin feels that if the present situation continues, the North Korea crisis may be “impossible” to solve. President Trump also appears to have mellowed down a bit. He has mentioned that military action is not his “first choice” on North Korea.
For many years China has been assisting North Korea to survive and today China is considered the only country in the world that can influence North Korea. China has multiple uses of its own for North Korea. Significantly, China is dependent on North Korea for coal and iron ore. Moreover, North Korea is important for China strategically, to keep the US presence in the region at bay.
China does not want war to erupt in North Korea. They fear that, since they share a border, there could be a major influx of refugees into their country. From 2006 until August 2017, the UN has imposed seven major economic sanctions on North Korea. However, it has not helped much, as some countries still do business with North Korea. China continues to supply oil to North Korea, which is a lifeline for the country.
One opinion holds that cutting the oil supply might prove counter-productive. North Korean people are used to hardship and know that they are ruled by a dictator. Also, North Korea may have already stored the oil for such an emergency. Or they could shift to coal, which is abundant. More importantly, if China pulls this last trigger by depriving North Korea of oil, then they could lose their influence on that state.
Now the US is responding to North Korea’s latest hydrogen bomb test with a new United Nations Security Council resolution. However, now it is clear that sanctions are limited in the case of North Korea, so Russia and China are not backing their strong efforts. China and Russia have long used North Korea as a tool to checkmate the US presence in the region. Today, the nuclear armed North Korea is in no mood to listen to its masters or deal with the US directly.
Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D studies geopolitics and security concerns. She is associated with York University.