Recent events on the Korean Peninsula have the world on edge, as North Korea continues to conduct missile and nuclear tests despite widespread condemnation from South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and other nations.
Since early February, North Korea has fired no fewer than 15 projectiles on four occasions, and global leaders have reacted by imposing the toughest sanctions in 20 years. In an effort to sort through this complicated narrative, we consulted with EDM Digest’s own Dr. Randall Cuthbert.
Dr. Cuthbert is an Associate Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management at the American Public University System and wrote his dissertation on North Korea.
Tensions are currently high between North Korea and South Korea — and North Korea and multiple other nations, including the U.S. How did we get to this point?
Dr. Cuthbert: The roots of the Korean conflict began in World War II. Koreans have always been an autonomous people, separated from their neighbors by language, and in appearance by subtle racial features. At the time WWII began, Korea had previously been under Chinese control, and then was ‘conquered’ by the Japanese and was under Japanese rule. When WWII concluded, one conflict that was NOT resolved was the competition between what became NATO and what became the Soviet Union. The outcome of the treaty talks that followed the war devolved into a ‘division of spoils’ between powerful, victorious nations with gigantic nationalistic egos–and the two fateful compromises that came out of that were the division of Germany and the division of Korea.
The division of Germany took 45 years to resolve. The division of Korea has not been resolved to this day, 70+ years later. The view of South Korea has been to roll with the punches and accommodate the strange Western ideas that have transformed their culture and blossomed their economy. The view of North Korea is that it is the only ‘legitimate’ Korea, and is honor-bound to protect the traditional Korean culture.
The Chinese were unhappy about being excluded from the spoils division that followed WWII, and so in 1950 invaded the Korean peninsula in what became the Korean War. At the time, the Chinese were excluded from the United Nations and basically had no voice in international affairs. So they sought their own voice in the conquest of the peninsula. The war was nasty — in many respects, more dishonorable to humankind than World War I — and the eventual result, when everyone ran out of resources, was the dividing line between the two nations that still exists today.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech that was quoted in the West with one line: “We will bury you.” This was a strong selling point for the cold war that followed. However, his message was one that was far more nuanced, and can be paraphrased this way: “What we will go through in the coming decades is a contest between two great economic systems: communism and capitalism. We think ours is better. And when history plays out and we have won, we will bury you as honorable comrades who lost.”
But instead, Khrushchev lost. In 45 years, his economic system went bankrupt. South Korea won. They hitched their wagon to capitalism and it enriched their country beyond measure. North Korea lost. After the Korean War, they began a game of brinksmanship that played the Soviet Union and China against each other with respect to who could best support their ambition to keep out the evil West, and made out pretty well in the deal. However, in 1990 when the Soviet economy collapsed, the gravy train went dry. Russia no longer considered the investment to be worthwhile. After Russia lost interest, China did too. The human tragedy didn’t fully play out until around 1993 – 1995, when between 1.5 and 3.5 million North Koreans died from famine.
North Korea still has its nationalistic goals. That hasn’t and won’t ever change. They are willing to starve rather than accede that they made an error. So they adopted a really strange, by our standards, foreign policy.
They periodically throughout the year require resources from outside. In the spring, they need fertilizer. In the fall, they need rice and other foodstuffs. They are perpetually short of electricity. And they are bound by their honor not to beg or lose face in the presence of their enemy. So they bluster. One thing that North Korea has never been short of is uranium ore.
So this has become their bargaining chip of choice: “Accede to our demands or we will blow something up — maybe even Seoul. Maybe if we can frighten you enough by demonstrating the capability to strike the U.S. continent — the U.S. will accede even more.” And this has been the North Korean foreign policy since 1990.
So to finally answer the question — the reason tensions are high right now between North Korea and the rest of the world is most likely because they want something. It might be respect, it might be fertilizer, it might be … who really knows? No one knows until some level of backroom diplomatic discussions occur out of the public eye where the North Koreans can say what they really need without losing face. It takes a lot of tolerance and a lot of diplomacy to get to that point, and I can only assume that our government is working on it behind the scenes.
Are the United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea justified? Why or why not?
Dr. Cuthbert: Sanctions imposed on a nation from outside have a purpose. That purpose is to make the targeted nation change their behaviors or their policies — or maybe even their power regimes or their political structure. The success of sanctions depends on a number of factors, including whether or not they really hurt, whether or not the government can be influenced, and so on. There are three good case studies of sanctions in the modern day.
– Cuba: Sanctions have never worked, and indeed, may have served to prop up the regime far beyond its expiration date. If we had developed a policy of engagement and economic development rather than sanctions and isolation, our conflict with Cuba may have been over decades ago.
– Iran: Sanctions appear to have worked. Iran had a national foreign policy objective of influencing the outside world, and the isolation created by the sanctions really hurt. But having said that, part of the reasons the sanctions probably worked is that the issue was around something the Iranians didn’t care about anyway — nuclear weapons. It’s much easier to bargain away something you don’t care about than something that you do.
– North Korea: The only impact sanctions have had is to create immeasurable human suffering. All North Korea ever wanted was a few things that can be provided with little or no cost: respect; a functional economy; respect; removal of threats from their borders; and respect. These are easy enough to provide. They’re cheap. They’re beneficial to all. Yet because of the brinkmanship that characterized the early years of North Korea’s existence — which is still the primary diplomacy being employed today — our fellow inhabitants of Spaceship Earth continue to suffer.
Are sanctions justified? My answer would be no. What we really need to do is what we did with respect to the division of East and West Berlin –tear down the barriers and walk away. The Koreans can deal with the details, just as the Germans did.
Can China be relied upon to enforce the imposed sanctions since they have typically aligned themselves with North Korea?
Dr. Cuthbert: China will respond to the issues surrounding North Korea in ways that serve their best interest. Here in the U.S., we understand the concept of “inexpensive Mexican labor” and have used it to great success in building our own prosperity. North Korea is China’s Mexico. To the extent that China can exploit cheap labor from North Korea, they will. However, if North Korea becomes too problematic to deal with, and negatively impacts their national strategies in other ways, then China will start cooperating in areas like sanctions.
In your opinion, what are the most logical and productive steps to reduce tensions?
Dr. Cuthbert: As noted, to my analysis, sanctions make no sense at all. My assessment, should anyone be foolish enough to ask me, is that we should immediately tear down the demilitarized zone, remove all UN forces from Korea, and allow the Koreans to resolve the issues between them in their own way. But that’s just me.