Resolving The North Korean Crisis – A Perspective | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

Resolving The North Korean Crisis – A Perspective

Published Jun 05, 2019
Updated Apr 14, 2020


1. Most people, the world over, when asked to comment on North Korea, have, if not all, but at least one of these phrases included in their answer (irrespective of their language) – Failed State, Rogue State, Pariah state or a nuclear state owned by lunatic who is an antithesis to peace. Thanks to the fast paced life where Internet sells easy five sentence answers, often lacking the complete perspective, the use of such phrases is not unexpected.

2. North Korea is today run by a dynastic regime, which has charted the destiny of this small yet strategically very important nation, since its inception in 1948. The regime steadfastly worked to showcase its military might, courtesy which the nation today possesses nuclear weapons and is capable of striking the US mainland. The regime has also been blamed for numerous terror incidents on South Korean soil, including the infamous Korean Airline bombing. Nonetheless, all this has made North Korea internationally very unpopular, with a total of thirteen UN sanctions imposed on it in the last three decades, which has taken a considerable toll on its economy and led to a relatively nutritionally deprived population, a stunted younger generation and a broken down infrastructure.

3. The above notwithstanding, despite years of isolation and economic punishments and predictions from outside analysts about the collapse of the nation, North Korea continues to demonstrate an ability to survive as a coherent, functioning entity and it does so seemingly in an undeterred manner, as its fulminations continue unabated as can be inferred by the recent tactical missile tests in April and May 2019. On the contrary, its economy has only grown, as in 2018 the North Korean GDP Growth was 4.6% compared to 3.7% in 20171 . By putting a satellite into orbit in December 2012, Pyongyang has also demonstrated that it is technologically able and has the industrial wherewithal to achieve some of its most ambitious goals, contrary to what many observers had thought. Therefore, however lamentable the regimes policies may be, North Korea is not a Failed State2. But the fact remains that these ambitions have stirred tension and fear throughout the region.

4. The last one year since 27 April 2018, brought about a new hope of much awaited peace on the Korean peninsula, starting with the Inter Korean summits, followed by the Singapore and Hanoi summits and lastly the Kim-Putin summit. But all these having passed, little seems to have changed and we seem to be back to where we started. So the key question that remains unanswered today is, how can the problem surrounding the last existing vestige of the cold war be fixed, for good? The solution is anything but simple and first needs a tacit understanding of the circumstances that steered North Korea to tread on this path in the first place. This paper is a humble attempt to do just that, albeit in an unbiased and an objective manner.

Understanding the Problem

5. Kim Il Sung, the founder and the leader of North Korea was a guerilla fighter against the Japanese prior to 1945. Interesting as it may be, but of little relevance here, Kim Il Sung was born in Pyongyang on April 15, 1912, the very day the Titanic sank. So when he assumed charge of the Northern and the Communist part of the Korean peninsula, the centrality of his military mindset can hardly be misunderstood, which propelled him (of course with the tacit support of China and perhaps the erstwhile USSR) to launch a military campaign to reunite Korea (One Choson), which led to a bloody and destructive three year Korean war. North Korea was devastated with Pyongyang almost raised to the ground and the Kim led North Koreans attributed this to one country – The United States of America.

6. After the signing of the 1953 Armistice agreement, while the Chinese Army withdrew from the North, the United States Army remained, for good, as South Korea gave it a perfect foothold in East Asia to counter the spread of communism. The dynamics of American designs notwithstanding, North Koreans always perceived the presence of US forces on South Korean soil as a looming threat to its existence, a phenomenon that exists, till date and is central to all North Korean military designs. Joseph S  Bermudez, Jr and Sharon A Richardson, two celebrated scholars on North Korea, postulate that Kim Il Sung might have established the following two underlying principles of national security, at the end of the Korean War – The survival of the Fatherland and the liberation of the Fatherland (One Choson). In the backdrop of an absolute understanding of the above two principles, if we go back into time and analyze the manner in which the events b unfolded on the Korean Peninsula, we may perhaps understand – What led to this situation, as it exists today?

7. Though never used, but during the Korean War itself, General MacArthur had requested the use of tactical nuclear weapons on North Korean targets. Moreover, Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster had claimed that nuclear threats had played a major role in bringing about the armistice3. Then in 1958, five years after the armistice agreement was signed, United States unilaterally abrogated Article 13 (d) of the agreement by introducing Nuclear Weapons on South Korean soil (Honest John missiles, 280mm atomic cannons and Matador Cruise missiles)4, following which North Korea too denounced the abrogation of paragraph 13(d). Thus, even if the United States argues that the introduction of these weapons on Korean soil was to counter the communist designs of USSR and China, the circumstances suggest that USA, in effect was responsible for kick starting an arms race on the Korean peninsula and initiating the perilous North Korean aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons.

8. Alongside the above, in the mid 1950s, the great communist divide emerged between the two Godfathers of North Korea – USSR and China, adding insecurity to the already insecure North Korea. Though Pyongyang managed mutual defense treaties with both these communist giants in the 1960s, North remained apprehensive of both these powers. The coming years did find a dip in  the relations of North Korea with Moscow and around the same time in July 1971, when Henry Kissinger landed secretly in Beijing for the Sino – American rapprochement, the communist world was openly split and it fundamentally changed global politics. But more importantly, it exposed North Korean vulnerability and if anything, it reinforced Kim Il Sung’s resolve to take its security matters into its own hand and interesting as it may be, it reasserted the faith of North Koreans in their leaders Juche ideology, which means self reliance. Though North Korea  continued receiving support both militarily and otherwise from both its communist big brothers, but the dye had already been cast.

9. In 1972, the number of nuclear warheads deployed in South Korea was a whooping 7635 and in the period between 1971 to 1989, public threats by the US to use nuclear weapons against North Korea were not an uncommon feature and indeed were sometimes backed by a demonstrated display of nuclear capable planes and naval vessels being deployed in the US-ROK military drills6. All of which did little, but aggravate the already worse situation.

10. North Korea commenced its nuclear voyage, by signing two agreements with USSR in 1959 on cooperation in nuclear research, in which the USSR even installed a small experimental reactor at Yongbang. Though there is no evidence to suggest the timeframe, when North Korea commenced its flirtation with nuclear reprocessing, but American records suggest around 1979. North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 on the insistence of Soviet Union, however, the first inspection by IAEA was allowed only in 1992, when the world did actually realize that North Korea was cheating and was on course to acquire a nuclear weapon. The passive approach of the US Government at that time allowed North Korea under Kim Jong Il, to leverage the specter of its nuclear program to help achieve some of its diplomatic and economic objectives, by offering limited nuclear concessions in return for economic aid, cancelation of the US – ROK military exercises and the prospect of improved relations with the United States.

11. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of its alliance with China, the nuclear program remained a valuable asset to North Korea and though there is no evidence to suggest that Pyongyang saw the nuclear program as a bargaining chip at its inception, but the record is clear that by early 1990s, it had learned the programs value in its relations with the outside world7.

12. Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 till 2002, in a short period of thirteen years, US conducted eight major military operations across the world, many of which led to regime change. That’s an extraordinary record of belligerence8 . Also in 2002, George W Bush designated North Korea to be part of an Axis of Evil, alongside Iraq. This was followed by a very provocative demonstration by the US in 2003, when nuclear capable aircraft and naval vessels were deployed in a joint US-ROK military exercise. Thus, if Pyongyang assumed, that it is probably next on the list, it was logical, unless it could deter US from doing so.

13. Thus what emerges is, North Korean interest in acquiring any advanced missile and nuclear capability was rooted in its belief that these would be a deterrent or a tool to counter US military might and belligerent designs. Thus, every US aggressive stance towards North Korea would have only reinforced the Kim regime’s belief that a substantial nuclear arsenal was an inescapable requirement for survival. Therefore, in effect, US behavior and its policies may have inadvertently precipitated nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. As a noted American columnist, Stephan Chapman notes, “nuclear weapons are the best way to assure a government’s survival. Any government that has serious disagreements with the US – and particularly any on the axis of evil list – knows that if US decides who rules Iraq or Libya, then the US may well decide who rules other nations. There is only one protection: going nuclear”9.

14. The decade that elapsed between 2006 and 2016, North Korea conducted six nuclear tests and with each test demonstrated a greater yield and greater technological sophistication. In the interim it also continued with missile tests and after the 2017 Hwasong -15 ICBM test, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”10. In 2012, North Korea also modified its laws to declare itself a nuclear weapons state and later in 2013 adopted, “Law on Consolidating the Position of Nuclear Weapons State”. According to this law, though nowhere is the clause of no first use mentioned, it does include, “strategic nuclear weapons will be employed for deterring and repelling the aggression and attack of the enemy against the DPRK and dealing deadly retaliatory blows at the strongholds of aggression”11.

15. Unless North Korea has something more up its sleeve (which can never be ruled out), with a considerable amount of nuclear warheads of varying yields in its kitty and the capability to deliver the same on US mainland (if North Korean claims are to be believed), Kim regime would have secured, at least for now, the first of the underlying principles of its founding father: Survival of the Fatherland. After all, if it was one aspect that the Kim regime would attribute its survival for the last seven decades, it would be first, the specter of nuclear weapons and later, the demonstrated capability itself.

Addressing the Problem

16. After seventy one years of its creation, North Korea stands firm as the last vestige of the Cold War, defying all expectations of the western world. In all these years, the efforts to restore normalcy in the region have yielded little results and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula remains frozen in many ways. The serenity on the DMZ is deceptive as even today, soldiers of opposing sides stand guard on hair trigger alert and around 28,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea as part of USFK with a motto of Fight Today.

 17. So obviously the varying approach and policies followed by thirteen US presidents alongside the efforts of twelve South Korean presidents in dealing with the three members of the Kim dynasty, need review, if we are to hope any change in the current situation, leave aside a presently unthinkable and later a farfetched dream of a Unified Korea. Discussed in the subsequent paragraphs are certain factors, which have in the past and will likely in the future, form part of every option of brokering peace on the Korean peninsula.

 18. Economic Sanctions.

 (a) With thirteen UN sanctions having been imposed on North Korea in the last three decades, with the harsher ones in the most recent past, North Korea seems undeterred. So clearly some lessons emerge. One, the North Korean threshold for economic pain is very high and two, these sanctions have not worked in arresting North Korean designs. There can be no denying the fact, that with an  economy like North Korea, sanctions would have hurt it, but the question always remain, how much?

 (b) The answer to the above lies only with Kim Jong Un and though many scholars advocate the philosophy of draining North Korea economically, they must understand that this so called magic wand has yielded little or no result  till now and second there has to be a strong reason now to impose further sanctions. Even if North Korea enjoys the patronage of China at the moment, Kim would be aware that on crossing a critical threshold, even China would not be able to veto further sanctions, as happened during the six nuclear tests. So, if he were really on the verge of economic collapse, would Kim risk such a stupid misadventure?

 (c) In the absence of UN sanctions, USA may consider imposing harsher sanctions on North Korea, on its own. This option too is fraught with risk – The risk of pushing North Korean economy to such low ebb that the Kim regime acts rashly to save the situation: Use it or loose it option.

 19. Military Action/ Surgical Strike.

 (a) The Israel Air Force carried out a surgical strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and ever since there have been pressures on the US administration to replicate the same in North Korea to take out its nukes or to use Special Forces instead. Towards that, firstly, North Korea has been the toughest intelligence target in the world and with scanty intelligence, such operations are always a no go. Donald Greg, a career intelligence officer who served as the CIA station chief in South Korea in the early 1970s and later as the US Ambassador to Seoul in 1989 – 1993, said, “North Korea has been the longest running intelligence failure in the world”12. Moreover, if ever there was a time window to do this, its long gone.

 (b) North Korea has a larger army compared to South Korea and boasts of one of the largest rocket force in the world and possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of targeting US mainland though its ICBMs, efficacy notwithstanding. But despite this, it is no match to the US Military might and Kim Jong Un, would be well aware of this. Seen in isolation, the US has adequate military capability, both in quality and quantity to solve the North Korean problem militarily, but the result will be catastrophic, even if we don’t consider players other than USA, South Korea and North Korea, a highly unlikely scenario in the first place. With Seoul – Incheon metropolitan area being less than 60 Kms from the DMZ and  the estimated capability of North Korea to fire up to 500,000 artillery shells and rockets in less than an hour, the casualty figures in Seoul would be horrific, even if nuclear weapons were not used. Thus at the end of this conflict, North Korea would have been decimated, but South Korea would certainly not show gratitude to the Unites States.

 (c) Thus, for the lobby that argues that Kim Jong Un has harnessed all these nuclear weapons with an offensive intent, to launch a military campaign to realize the second underlying principle of his founding father: liberation of the fatherland, might be wrong, as it would just be spelling his own doom. Of course, these weapons being used as a last resort for survival by North Korea can certainly not be ruled out.

 (d) The US always found North Korean nuclear program unacceptable, but never so unacceptable that it considered waging a war to prevent it. Now with a looming ICBM threat to its mainland, if the US were to change its stance at the cost of several thousand South Korean and possibly Japanese citizens, it would be the apotheosis of the “America First” philosophy and a crushing blow to Washington’s reputation amongst its allies13.

 20. Diplomatic Actions.

 (a) If we are to learn anything from history it is that applying pressure on North Korea has pitiful results rather than solving a problem and America can retract from a treaty to suit its interests. Thus, each time the US and North Korea have negotiated before, it has led to some sort of cheating and paved the way for a new crisis. So clearly, there exists a trust deficit. Possibly because the North Korean were adamant on getting their nukes and the Americans never gave them a convincing enough assurance to refrain from it. As former US president Jimmy Carter put it, “North Koreans must be convinced that they will be more secure without nuclear weapons and that normal diplomatic relations with the United States are possible”14.

 (b) While its easy to blame North Koreans for all their actions, it would be unfair to suggest that they did not attempt the route of dialogue. In 2003, when it is intelligent to assume that the uranium enrichment program would be at a very advanced stage, North Koreans wanted a non aggression declaration from the US, a peace treaty to end the Korean War and Washington’s diplomatic recognition of the DPRK15. It was bluntly turned down by the US as the North Koreans put a clause that only once these clauses were met would they talk about the Uranium Enrichment – something similar to All or Nothing.

 (c) One of the long stated aims of the North Koreans has been to get their leader talk one to one with a US president and the first time it was realized was in 2018 at Singapore, seventy years after its creation. But now when they have met, this time the North Koreans are not very pleased with the American stance of All or Nothing in the form of Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID).

 (d) The moot point remains that after all these years of struggle and hardships, when finally North Korea has acquired its security insurance, in the form of its nukes, why would it just let them off so easily, without being given any concrete security assurances and why would North Korea not fear of the same treatment being meted out to it as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, given the impeccable US track record in the past?

 (e) With the exception of few South Korean presidents, whenever tensions surged on the Korean Peninsula, with open threats and counter threats being exchanged between US and North Korea, South Korea has always tried to mediate and diffuse the crisis, sometimes even meeting North Koreans secretly. This is despite the numerous offensive actions carried out by North Korea on South Korea, both military and terrorist related, which cost hundreds of South Korean lives. The reason is clear, that a miscalculation or a rash decision by any side, irrespective of which side wins, South Korea has all to loose. However, ironic as it seems, South Korea does not call the shots for its future and peace, it’s the US that decides, a price the South Koreans might have to pay for outsourcing their security.

 21. The China Factor.

 (a) The Americans came to Korea, first to tackle Japan during the World War II and then to check the spread of communism. Even after the Cold war ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans stayed on, as there was no one to challenge them. However, after the cold war the rise of China started and as it grew economically it also endeavored to grow strategically. Today, China is a global power and has improved upon its military capability, both quantitatively and qualitatively and it seeks space, at least in its own neighborhood.

 (b) Korea lies in the immediate geographical neighborhood of China and besides the blood alliance of North Korea and China dating back to the Korean War, North Korea acts as a geographical buffer between its territory and the US dominated South Korea and Japan: a relation of lips and teeth, where the lips protect the teeth. US will do well to appreciate that a stable North Korea is in China’s interest and while Americans are faced with a nuclear threat, the Chinese are faced with a threat of a nuclear leak, in the event of a US attack or incase the nukes are mishandled after a regime change in North Korea. So China will do its best to avoid both these scenarios.

 (c) China may not like to get embroiled incase of a military clash with US over North Korea, but a US tilting unified Korea (which would be a possible outcome in case of a military option) would certainly not be in China’s interest, a factor that needs deliberate war gaming by US strategic and military experts, while charting out their options against North Korea.

 (d) USA and China have a clash of interest in may arenas, be it on Trade or Taiwan and North Korea may only just get added to the list, if not already there. US interests in South Korea is not just North Korea but much beyond. United States interest in Asia Pacific can easily be ascertained with the only five countries it has bilateral and mutual defense treaties: South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. American interests in the region may have transformed over the years, but as of now they clearly stand out: one, to contain or check China and two, economic. East Asia is now the most significant region for international commerce. However, USA must realize that it is on a direct course of conflict with China. After all, the last thing that China will accept is being second best to USA, in its own region.

 (e) United States must understand that its broader position in the region by disarming North Korea of its nukes by military action, will not save it from this challenge, instead this will if anything benefit China. The financial and the human cost of such a campaign would raise China’s position relative to the US, just as it did in the Iraq War16.

 The Way Forward

 22. Clearly, the way forward is stark and difficult, with no clear answers in binary and like it as it may USA will have to be in the lead to restore peace and stability in the region, first due to its strategic clout and second due to its passive abetment in letting the situation get this far. Thus it comes as no surprise that the whole world looks at the United States for answers.

 23. The situation in North Korea is starkly different from what USA has faced elsewhere in the world, so clearly no template of a previous situation might work here. Military teaching suggests – never reinforce a failure, so if we really want to fix this problem, a de-novo approach is required, because if it didn’t work till now, it might not work in the future either.

 24. If one positive is to be extracted from the Hanoi and the Singapore summit, it is that the long lasting aspiration of a Kim to speak to POTUS directly, has been met and hopefully it would be a big celebrated achievement for the North Koreans, for whatever its worth. However, a rigid stance like All or Nothing/ Big Deal or No Deal, is not going to work and all the Americans might get is Nothing. So some variance to Diplomacy and Deterrence, within the realm of pragmatism is what is the need of the hour. 12

 25. Immediate Denuclearization may not happen or even Complete Denuclearization may never happen. The scenarios are abundant, but what stands out is this: it will have to be a give and take, considering all the factors I have discussed above. The answer possibly lies in a sequential and conditional process, spread over a period of time, involving all stakeholders. Implying that, only, if the first mutually decided condition is met, in its totality will the next step be implemented and so on, or the deal is off. The underpinning of this arrangement will have to be eliciting trust and  commitment by both sides, with either side ready to compromise some of their previously stern stances. Cases in point being, US military pullout from the Korean peninsula and North Koreans giving a full inventory of its nuclear arsenal and strategic missiles with a No First Use commitment and immediately rejoining the NPT to start with. To cite a stern stance, when I asked Mr Harry Harris, the US Ambassador to South Korea, when he came to deliver a talk at the Korean National Defense University in April 2019, about the possibility of a US pullout from South Korea, if it were a precondition of North Korea for implementing CVID, in its totality, his answer was straight and crisp – it will never be negotiated. This is just the approach I am talking about.

 26. Kim Jong Un is well aware of the geopolitics of the region and will play his cards well, as is seen from his recent actions post the Singapore and Hanoi summits. Status quo will suit him and will only undermine the American standing in the region. At the moment, South Korea needs America for its security and its export driven economy needs China, so it may find itself sandwiched between its own interests. A delayed solution or Status quo will only give more fodder to South Korea and possibly even Japan to take their security interests in their own hands, a likely course, given the vast size of the economies of these two countries. If this were to happen even in part, it would be a narrative changer, consequences of which cannot be fathomed at this stage. USA coexisted with Soviet Union and can do so with North Korea also, may not hold water here.

 27. The only uncertain aspect in this entire gamut is the stamina of North Korean economy, though China possibly would do its best from allowing North Korean economy to collapse to a point of no return. In the eventuality of this happening, bleak as it may be, but not impossible, will also fundamentally alter the dynamics of this  sensitive situation, with the likelihood of destructive outcomes far outweighing constructive ones.

 28. And lastly, given the China angle, USA must tread with caution as any accident, miscalculation or overreaction may spiral the situation out of control.

 29. Therefore, in effect, negotiations and dialogue is the key and these must continue, even if it is not one to one between the two leaders. Positive as they may be, but the previous two seemed more of optics than anything else. South Korea must demand to be brought in the forefront of the negotiations and getting South Korea to sign on the 1953 armistice agreement, even today, will be a good start towards it.


 30. No one would have imagined this state of the Korean peninsula way back in 1953 or for that matter, at the end of the Cold War. This uneasy peace that prevails on the peninsula is too dangerous to be left unattended or unresolved and constructive dialogue is the only retort. The past is mystery and the future is mystery, but instead of looking for stunning solutions and unification at this stage, the major stake holders, particularly the Two Koreas and the USA, must work with focus and resolve, looking for small goals initially and then building on them gradually.