North Korean monument depicting soldiers. Military symbolism and martial iconography plays a significant role in the DPRK's propaganda (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
The year 2016 began on an inauspicious note for stability in the Korean peninsula as Kim Jong Un—supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)—carried out nuclear tests on January 6, provocatively displaying nuclear weapons capability yet again and even claiming to have reached hydrogen bomb potential. Whether the North Koreans tested a regular nuclear or a hydrogen bomb remains unclear but what is known is that the powerful underground explosion caused seismic ripples that were felt not only across the peninsula but even in neighboring China.
These explosions understandably caused widespread alarm in South Korea, Japan, and the US—which are the DPRK's traditional adversaries—and also brought about severe condemnation from Asian powers China, Russia, and India. For its part, the DPRK dismissed all claims of wrongdoing and then quickly moved to launch a satellite into space on February 7. The rocket, used to carry the supposedly 200 kg. satellite, seems to have added to the launch capabilities of the overtly nuclear North Korean military.
Fireworks, Sanctions, and an Execution
As fireworks lit the sky in Pyongyang following the two 'victories' of the Kim Jong Un administration the US, South Korea, and Japan moved in to respond to the latest round of provocations with severe sanctions. In a rare show of political unity, the US Senate voted unanimously for punitive economic sanctions on the already cash-starved and isolated DPRK regime. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez—in a particularly sharp statement--said that "Four nuclear tests, three Kims, two violations of UN security council resolutions, and one attempt by North Korea to transfer nuclear technology to Syria later – it is clearly time for the United States to start taking the North Korea challenge seriously." The urgency of the issue became all the more apparent as Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio attended the Senate to vote in favor of the sanctions, temporarily leaving behind their ongoing US Presidential campaigns for the proceedings in Washington.
South Korea suspended its operations in the Kaesong commercial complex, which is managed jointly by both sides in order to promote economic cooperation as a means of rapprochement. The DPRK responded ferociously by announcing its intention of expelling South Korean workers from the complex and freezing the assets of companies from its rival country while placing Kaesong under military control. These retaliatory measures mean little to affluent South Korea but will hurt the North Koreans in the long term since the complex was one of the country's last remaining meaningful sources of revenue and employment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan also announced sanctions on the DPRK, further isolating the country as Japanese authorities banned the entry of all citizens and maritime ships from North Korea into Japan. This ban includes restricting maritime access to even foreign vessels which have been to North Korea.
Another distressing news to come out of North Korea in early 2016 was the supposed execution of the military chief General Ri Yong-gil on charges of corruption and misuse of power. This news has yet to receive full confirmation since information emerging from the DPRK usually takes time for credible verification. However, North Korea has carried out multiple high-profile executions in the recent past, including that of defense minister Hyon Yong-chol and high-ranking official Jang Song-thaek—who also happened to be the uncle of Kim Jong Un himself. Given the recent context these are all indications that the Kim regime is pursuing a sustained strategy of countering all threats—whether real or imaginary—from both outside and within.
A History of Provocations
Although the pace and the scale of measures taken by Kim Jong Un in early 2016 would surprise even veteran North Korea watchers none of these events are entirely out of place given the nature of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since 1948. The founder of the dynasty Kim Il-sung built a cult of personality around him, and remains the only world leader to hold office even after his death as North Korea's Eternal President. Kim Jong-il, his son and successor, also relied on a cult of personality of his own in order to secure his hold on power. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Kim Jong Un, who succeeded Kim Jong-il following his death, would want to retain the same hold over the North Korean people.
Although the country was once a moderately successful socialist state it quickly descended into economic disrepair after it isolated itself not only from the western world but also from fellow socialist countries such as Russia. The Kim regime has repeatedly justified the use of harsh measures in the name of its Juche (self-reliance) and Songun (military-first) ideologies. The DPRK has also favored 'peaceful' reunification of Korea as a cherished ambition and has also amassed a very large army to one day achieve that objective. This posture naturally alarms South Korea since it implies military aggression. The two countries have not signed a peace accord since the Korean War ended in 1953, which means that the two sides are technically still at war. North Korea has also viewed Japan and the US, both South Korean allies, with hostility.
North Korea is also a nuclear weapons state—a feat which the secretive country supposedly managed to carry out with covert support of the rouge Pakistani AQ Khan network. The acquisition of weapons of mass destruction has emboldened the Kim regime in its provocations and has also ensured some deterrence against an outright invasion from the allied forces comprising of the US, Japan, and South Korea. Following a global crackdown on the AQ Khan network, Pakistan has largely shied away from its strategic relationship with North Korea in order to safeguard its own national interests. The only real ally that the DPRK has left in the international community is the People's Republic of China, which is also the country's largest trading partner. However, relations between the two countries have been increasingly strained during recent times due to North Korea's repeated provocations even amidst Chinese calls for more responsible state behavior.
The Future of Stability in the Korean Peninsula
The situation in the Korean peninsula is one that involves Kim Jong Un—an inexperienced and aggressive leader—pursuing power in disregard of international law and acceptable state behavior. This creates a volatile case in which the balance of power undergoes frequent disruption and that is a troubling condition which does not augur well for regional stability. There are a number of ways in which the impasse in the Korean peninsula can be brought to an end without revision of borders or military aggression. In terms of international relations, the three main ways of resolving the instability in the Korean peninsula are through strategic alliances, regime change, or economic sanctions. Any effort in this regard will also require sustained diplomatic support from the international community.
The first manner in which the Korean conflict can be resolved is through strategic alliances and that in the given context means working in alliance with China—North Korea's most trusted outside partner. It is here that the complexities of the Korean peninsula become vexing as China may not entirely be amenable to Japanese, South Korean, and US interests in the region. China is involved in the South China Sea dispute with a number of its neighbors. The US has differences with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and Japan contests China's territorial claims in the same region. A belligerent North Korea throws the allied powers off balance to some extent and thus the hermit kingdom may have some utility for Beijing so that a tilt in the balance of power in China's own favor can be managed. Therefore, a strategic alliance with the DPRK ultimately serves Beijing's own long-term interests.
Beijing holds the key to peace in the region and may want concessions of its own if it is to decisively act in order to bring North Korea into the realm of internationally acceptable state behavior. It was, therefore, not entirely surprising that China condemned the recent North Korean provocations but also cautioned the world against the use of economic sanctions on the DPRK.
In terms of the role of other powers, Russia has generally been in agreement with western powers on curbing the Kim regime's provocations but may understandably not see much reason to move aggressively against a regime that poses no threat to its own national interests. Also, with involvement in Ukraine and Syria the chances of Moscow involving itself in the Korean peninsula on behalf of the US—seen to be ill-disposed towards Russia's own interests—are minimal. Taiwan has managed to maintain neutrality through the recent crisis and the chances of other Asian powers such as India and Israel in determining the fate of the Korean Peninsula are also very weak.
As far as regime change is concerned challenges to Kim Jong Un regime may arise from within, especially as more influential people see the removal of the Kim family as the key to national prosperity and international integration. The Kim regime's hold on the masses and the information that they receive is strong. However, several powerful North Korean individuals such as foreign ministry and military officers routinely serve abroad and have access to unrestricted information. The effect of the Kim dynasty's myth-making on these individuals is bound to be minimal as they have been exposed to the realities of the outside world.
Gordon G. Chang rightly observes that any sustained continuation of a policy of hostility towards the military's top brass may not augur well for Kim Jong Un's own future. The young leader's penchant for frequent executions of military personnel makes the possibility of a military coup or a hostile takeover all the more realistic. However, regime change is more likely in volatile countries with multiple centers of power than in authoritarian states which promote their leader's personality cult. Hope for a regime change due to internal factors cannot serve as a basis for realistic, long-term policy.
For now, the allied powers have favored the use of economic sanctions to deal with a belligerent North Korea. Some measure of stability can return to the peninsula if the Kim regime gives up its weapons of mass destruction in favor of removal of sanctions. Given the apparent success of economic sanctions in Iran their use in the Korean context is perhaps apt. It is reasonable to assume that Kim Jong Un cannot sustain his present posture of heightened hostility in light of the recent sanctions and weakening financial strengths.
However, the regime is ill disposed and belligerent towards its neighbors and is not likely to pursue rapprochement in the near future, although the extent of its hostilities may tactically subside in exchange for some financial relief. The chances of removal of nuclear weapons from the DPRK's arsenal are also slim given the deeply entrenched nature of the Kim regime. Unfortunately, the only thing that is certain is that the ordinary people of North Korea will suffer as the economic sanctions placed by the allied powers take hold.
Ultimately, peace in the region appears to be distant given the nature of the belligerents and the history of the Korean peninsula. In absence of the possibility of a real breakthrough in the prevailing impasse an observer is forced to come to terms with the likelihood that confrontation, and not engagement, is going to be the defining characteristic of North Korea's foreign relations with South Korea, Japan, and the US in times ahead.