*The author is an editor and educationist
A Moody Past
The political tone of North Korea must be understood by looking briefly at its history and relationships with other countries and their interest in the region. Sharing borders with China, Russia and South Korea, it once was a part of both China and Japan and thus shares historic affiliations with them which cement or fragment relations even in the present day. Though its affability with Japan is tenuous due to Japan’s close association with the United States, China maintains close ties with North Korea.
Prior to the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Korea was a tributary state of the Qing Dynasty, which enjoyed substantial influence over Korea’s Joseun court and even since gaining independence the two have maintained a close relationship despite international pressures and expectations. 1
The Empire of Japan annexed Korea in 1910 but after the end of WWII in 1945 and after the Japanese surrender, Korea was bifurcated into twin zones along the 38th parallel by the Soviet Union and the United States with the South occupied by the latter and the North by the former. Eventually in 1948 two independent states came into existence, the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North and the capitalist Republic of Korea in the south 2 which was overseen by the United Nations. Soon after, this led to the Korean War in 1950 when unification efforts failed and the North invaded the South. Even with American troops from Japan helping South Korea’s Seoul soon fell in June but by September, with the help of the Americans, the North was pushed back. The United Nations attempted a forced unification having ignored the interest and potential military involvement of the newly created People’s Republic of China’s to come. It was not long before the United Nations suffered a massive defeat at the hands of thousands of Chinese troops who took control of Seoul. 3 The UN countered the aggression and another UN advance carried the front line roughly back to the 38th parallel, where a stalemate developed from July 1951. UN forces occupied this front line– until an armistice ended the fighting two years later 4 in 1953. The Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a ceasefire, but no peace treaty was signed and negotiators were unable to broker a peace settlement. Officially, the two Koreas remain at war.
If history is a gauge by which relationships and a national mood is defined then one can see why the present day affiliations of North Korea with Japan, the US and China are what they are. The relationship presets were arranged a long time ago – of trust and friendship with one and of wariness and circumspection with the other two due to their role in past events and also in part due to North Korea’s geo-strategic vulnerability on the map. This influences diplomatic postures even today.
Even though the Leninist/Marxist affiliation has been struck out of the constitution of Korea its influence remains glaringly visible in the working of the North Korean Republic. Though it holds elections, North Korea officially describes itself as a “self-reliant socialist state” while the media has referred to it as being Stalinist. Some even refer to it as a “fossilized reminder of a bygone era”. 5 This could also be as a result of the alignment of the North and the South with the Soviet Union and the US respectively during the Cold War and then leading into the Korean War thus also being seen as a proxy war of the two most powerful states with diametrically opposed socio-political constructs.
In 1972 an ideology was introduced into the Constitution aimed at national self- reliance called “Juche”. It was a semantic variation on Leninism/Marxism which was losing currency. “The means of production are owned by the state through state-run enterprises and collectivized farms. Most services such as healthcare, education, housing and food production are subsidized or state-funded”6. This kind of socialist dispensation generates self -sufficiency advancing away from global capitalist interdependence which draws up memories of a red history.
A Stern Personality Cult
The world views North Korea with suspicion partly because it has developed the cult of personality around its leaders, around Kim Il-sung and his family. The political system has been referred to as a “hereditary dictatorship” or even as an “absolute monarchy.”
From “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was extended to his son,” “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. To Kim Jong-un the incumbent leader of North Korea, the cult of personality and the spirit of “Juche” lives on. It encapsulates the concepts of self-reliance that have evolved with time and circumstances, but still provide the groundwork for the spartan austerity, sacrifice and discipline demanded by the party. 7 The rest of the world favours democracy, transparency, meritocracy and capitalism.
The Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), led by a member of the ruling family, 8 is the leading party of North Korea. It holds power in the state and leads the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland of which all political officers are required to be members. Revised rules stipulate that North Korea and the Workers’ Party will be “kept alive forever by the Baekdu bloodline”. Baekdu Mountain is the highest on the Korean Peninsula and the ‘Baekdu bloodline’ refers to the Kim family. 9
“The control the Kim family has exerted over North Korea is like nothing that has been seen before, but it is in part a legacy of traditional Confucianist values in Korean society,” says Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and author of a number of books on the North Korean leadership. 10 This cult of personality might work indigenously within North Korea for propagating the existing order and power structure though there are alleged reports of serious human rights abuse, but internationally such concentrated power, and nuclear power to boot sends nervous tremors across think- tanks, governments, political firmaments and to political pundits who prophesize doomsday scenarios if North Korea does decide to go to war with the US.
According to some, in part the purpose of North Korea’s nuclear programme is to bolster the image of Kim Jong –un. Any punitive measures taken against him seem to “embolden” him more and he has shed the ambiguous language surrounding the nuclear missile programme. This impenetrable façade of uncompromising leader of the people does set the tenor for the projection of his personality. In addition according to Bruce Bennett, Senior researcher at RAND Corporation a California-based think tank, “Kim Jong-un believes that nuclear weapons are his guarantee of regime survival,”
With the spirit of Juche and a national policy of “Songun” or “military first” North Korea boasts the fourth largest active duty army of 1.21 million and world’s largest number of military and paramilitary personnel with a total of 9,495, 000 active, reserve and paramilitary. 11 This accounts for 5% of its total population.
North Korea also possesses military capability along with missile technology to carry nuclear warheads over long distances. It ploughs a substantial amount of its national resources into its military, nuclear and missile programme sounding alarm bells with each advance. According to the US State Department estimates it spends a quarter of its GDP on the military. 12
On 4th July North Korea tested the land-based Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).It landed in the Sea of Japan after a steep trajectory flight of 580 miles, but analysts said the flight appeared to show the missile had a potential range of 4,160 miles – bringing Alaska in range.
North Korea is believed to have more than 1,000 missiles of varying ranges. Short range missiles such as Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 (both variants of Scud missiles) can easily hit targets in South Korea, while medium range Nodong missiles can hit all of Japan.
Longer range Musudan missile has an estimated range of anywhere from 1,550 to 2,500 miles. At the top end it could reach US military bases on Guam. 13
“North Korea is in a category all its own,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan D. Pollack. “The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons.” 14
The power and pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests has intensified over the years and more significantly in the present.
“The first explosion in 2006 was a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb with a yield equivalent to two kilotons of TNT, the September 2016 test had a yield of thirty-five kilotons, according to data from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank.” 15
In addition, under Kim Jong-un since he came to power in 2011 North Korea has conducted 85 missile tests and 3 nuclear tests which overtakes those of his two predecessors. With 85 missile launches to date, the current leader has almost tripled the amount of missile tests or launches of his father and grandfather combined. 16 According to CNN the country has fired 22 missiles during 15 tests since February, further perfecting its technology with each launch.
There is speculation regarding why these tests are conducted but it is believed by analysts that they are meant to perfect technology and generate political impact. One may assume the latter given that a May launch coincided with the “One Belt One Road summit in Beijing, an important project for Chinese President Xi Jinping” but more importantly for Korea, the OBOR initiatives implications and perceived anxieties for the US of growing power in the region of China and other players. “A February launch happened as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting US President Donald Trump. And the ICBM test came on July 4, Independence Day in the US.” 19
In the Mood to Share?
In 2006 after carrying out its first nuclear test and having earlier withdrawn from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 sanctions were imposed on North Korea by the United Nations which have increasingly been ratcheted up by the Security Council’s subsequent resolutions in the hope to limit both the sale of materials that will bolster the nuclear programme of the country and restrict financial assistance to the programme.
Though this might limit access to sensitive materials and financing for projects the fear abounds that tightened purse strings may compel North Korea to sell technology to other interested countries. This mood to share, if it takes form, can potentially boost financial fuel for its capabilities. According to Eleanor Albert, Editor, Council of Foreign Relations, North Korea has in the past secretly transferred “nuclear-related and ballistic-missile-related equipment, know-how, and technology” with other countries such as “Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, and Myanmar.”
Congeniality & China
The China-North Korea affiliation dates prior to the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894 when Korea was a tributary state of the Qing Dynasty. Later since independence the two have shared military and economic ties.
Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea, fought with the People’s Liberation Army in China during the Second World War. Many Koreans supported the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil war and the Chinese fought alongside the North Koreans against the US and South Korea in the Korean War of 1950 -1953.
“It was a crucial moment in the history of the People’s Republic of China” according to James Reilly, associate professor in North East Asian Politics at the University of Sydney. Mao Zedong feared the unification of the Korean peninsula as his burgeoning nation would have a hostile neighbor. “The slogan in China at the time, Professor Reilly says, was to save Korea and resist America. ‘ It was very much a moment of great pride for Chinese leadership, and many Chinese people.’” 20
Today the official position held by the Chinese is that they do not support North Korea’s nuclear programme and have signed every UN resolution prohibiting this pursuit. Earlier China had resisted wider sanctions but in February this year it said it would stop import of coal from them. “About 90 percent of North Korea’s exports go to China, and coal has been the single biggest export item. But there has been skepticism about China’s ban, with coal ships and train cars being seen going back and forth between the two countries.” 21 China claims it “allowed exceptions for people’s well -being.’ 22
After the most recent round of sanctions by the UN after Korea’s 3rd September nuclear tests, China has restricted its trade of oil, liquefied gas and fabrics. In applying pressure on China to economically exert influence on Korea the world must grasp that “North Korea gets its oil from China out of convenience, not necessity, according to Pierre Noel, an energy security specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. ‘Would it be good news for North Korea if the oil stopped flowing? No. Is it likely to cripple the economy and force the government to change course on their foremost strategic priority? No. There are ample hydrocarbons in North Korea to substitute for those it imports from China.’ ” 23
China is North Korea’s main diplomatic ally and of the 166 countries it maintains diplomatic relations with most of the countries that maintain diplomatic ties with North Korea have their embassies located in Beijing, China rather than in Pyongyang.
Alongside that China is its largest trading partner, and Chinese leaders have gone to great lengths to ensure Kim Jong-un’s regime does not collapse since due to porous borders refugees would foray into China in hordes. Also a unified Korea backed by the United States with 30,000 stationed US troops is too uncomfortable a space to share along its border. 24
In an effort to arrest missile testing by Pyongyag and curb Kim Jing-un’s jingoism, the United States hopes to leverage China’s economic influence over North Korea and though earlier China stopped importing coal from an isolated North Korea, imports of Chinese goods into the country have until recently remained strong. Even now the contracts for fabric trade signed before 11th Sep will be honoured and exports of refined petroleum products would be “limited” from 1 October. 25 Furthermore, as coal exports have reportedly fallen, shipments of iron ore to China have spiked. Previous releases of Chinese customs data showed that China bought the same amount of iron ore in the first five months of this year as it did in all of last year. 26 North Korea’s trade deficit with China has risen to its highest level, suggesting there is little distress in the North Korean economy despite rounds of punitive international sanctions on Pyongyang. President Trump tweeted the day after the missile test that “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter.” China’s commitment to North Korea remains steady and it claims that trade figures should not be used to gauge China’s commitment to UN resolutions. Upon criticism regarding trade of iron ore China maintains that trade of civilian goods does not interfere with sanctions.
“China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for upwards of 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume. Conversely, China’s purchases from its neighbor include minerals, seafood, and manufactured garments. In the first quarter of 2017, China–North Korea trade was up 37.4 percent from the same period in 2016. “China is currently North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” 27
Thus North Korea’s mood towards China remains warm and engaging, dependent and mutually beneficial.
Though China has not masked its disdain for North Korea’s missile tests and remains irked over the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half bother, Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia whom China was protecting, but in the interest of Korean stability China will not undermine the regime. China has always urged world leaders not to push so hard that it might precipitate regime change and enkindle military action. Beyond the issue of influx of refugees, according to the 1962 Sino –North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance if North Korea goes into unprovoked military conflict China is bound to intervention. Trump’s aids have been voicing an end to President Obama’s “strategic patience”. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump said in an April 2017 in an interview with the Financial Times. The U.S. military has stepped up joint exercises with its allies in Japan and South Korea and has periodically dispatched U.S. carrier strike groups near North Korea as a show of force. 28
It would also be pertinent to remember that though China holds sway with North Korea it has not been able to do much despite being included in the Six Party talks to halt North Koreas nuclear programme after North Korea withdrew from the Non Proliferation Treaty. According to former President Jimmy Carter who has volunteered his services to negotiate peace between the two countries, “We greatly overestimate China´s influence on North Korea.” 29 It is also worthy of attention that China’s influence was not needed in 1994, when the US succeeded in getting North Korea to agree to freeze its nuclear weapons programme. Then, neither the diplomatic process nor the ensuing aid-for-freeze arrangement was due to any efforts through China. 30
(Strategic) Patience and the United States
The United States and North Korea have maintained a difficult and adversary relationship as a natural consequence and as an organic hangover from the Cold War. Since the end of World War II, North Korea has displayed sharply differing levels of cooperation on the international stage. According to Socionomist Chuck Thompson, “the nation’s greatest seasons of cooperation with other countries tend to occur during positive mood periods, while its most intense displays of conflict and aggression tend to occur during negative mood periods.” 31 Though he is referring to the Korean Stock Exchange Index in its relation to North Korea’ military and nuclear adventures, we can apply it just as easily to insular and isolated North Korea’s relationship with the outside world in general.
As early as 1952, North Korea created an institute and an academy to facilitate nuclear research.” 32 Over the years North Korea has developed nuclear capability which allows it its usual belligerence and bellicosity in the face of threat and intimidation.
The military strategy of ‘strategic patience’ was adopted during Obama’s tenure for North Korea. It is a war of attrition aimed at wearing down the enemy through disrupted supplies or sanctions and by affecting morale. It avoids directly pitched battles. The United States has engaged China and South Korea in this endeavor through coordinated carrot and stick policies however, perhaps the US has overestimated China’s sway over North Korea. Presently the political tone of the tense relationship between the two countries has been amplified and mutual suspicion has been exacerbated.
“The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed, many years it has failed. Frankly, that patience is over,” Trump said at a press briefing in the Rose Garden. 33
North Korea, carried out a nuclear missile test on the 4th of July. Its mood hawkish and taunting as “Kim Jong-un, following the missile test said it is a ‘gift’ for its July 4 independence day. 34 Further the nation’s state-run newspaper Minju Choson printed that Jong-un’s message to the United States says North Korea will “turn the US into a pile of ash” if Trump tries to stop its nuclear program by force. 35
However, despite all the chest thumping by North Korea it would be logical to assume that North Korea has no immediate plans to launch a war against a coalition force that is building up in the peninsula. Some of the best trained US military, U.S. aircraft carriers, accompanied by fighter jets and warships are there, Japan could soon send troops to protect the Japanese in South Korea if need be, and in case North Korea goes rogue. According to James Holbrooks it would defy common sense for Pyongyang to launch an assault on its neighbor. 36 “Former Pentagon chief William Perry told CNN in November that North Korea would never strike first because, very simply, Kim doesn’t want to die. ‘I do not believe the North Korean regime is suicidal,’ he said. ‘Therefore, I don’t believe they’re going to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on anyone.’” 37
It is ironic that though the two countries just appear war-ready “The US and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. Pyongyang accuses the US, which has 28,500 (30,000 by another account) troops in South Korea, of planning to invade, and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.” 38
The G 20 2017 Summit
North Korea was a frequent topic of discussion At the G 20 summit in Hamburg where the country was referred to as a “threat and a menace”. There was a push by Japan, South Korea and the US for early UN sanctions on Pyongyang as a response to North Koreas latest provocations. A joint statement was issued that through these actions Pyongyang needed to be sent the message that there are serious consequences for its “destabilizing, provocative, and escalatory actions”. 39
“Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking through a translator, noted that the security situation in Asia Pacific region has become “increasingly severe” due to North Korea’s push to develop its ballistic missile and nuclear program. Abe said he wanted to “demonstrate the robust partnership as well as the bonds” between Japan and the U.S. on the issue.’ 40 More recently Shinzo Abe has won early elections on the party promise that he will allow for formalization of the Japanese military and deal with the Korean threat. “As I promised in the election, my imminent task is to firmly deal with North Korea…. For that, strong diplomacy is required.” 41 This is a move away from the post-war pacifist constitution of Japan.
Though earlier the US had stated that China was not doing enough, at the summit President Trump told President Xi Jinping that he appreciated the efforts made by China in the matter. The onus thus far had mostly been laid on China to halt North Korean nuclear ambitions which is too much of a gamble given their history of relations an ongoing trade dependencies. “Xi said during the meeting that “sensitive issues remain” in the China-U.S. relationship and more work needed to be done. But he said he had built with Trump a “close contact.” 42
The hue and cry over Pyongyang’s actions reverberate loudly as the three- country alliance of Japan, South Korea and the US grows in its resolve, its military alertness and the rest of the world sits up and takes notice. Theresa May said “all world leaders condemn the action taken by North Korea” and that she would support any sanctions against them. She also hoped China could do more. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping referred to Pyongyang’s missile test as “unacceptable” and “called for a simultaneous freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile tests and military exercises by the United States and South Korea.” They issued a joint document from Moscow and urged against “any statements or actions that could lead to an increase in tensions.” Putin said that for lasting peace in the Northeastern region of Asia there should be a lasting and comprehensive resolution to the issues of the Korean peninsula. The two also said “Parallel to this, the opposing sides should start negotiations and affirm general principles of their relations including the non-use of force, rejection of aggression and peaceful co-existence.” 43
This whole scenario is not as unambiguous as it appears at first glance. All alliances are steeped in mutual suspicions and geo-political strategic distrust. Though the Cold War has long been over, the echoes of its history still find space in the relationship existing between countries today; for example the one that exists between the US and China. Also the US reckons China has cultivated close ties with North Korea with the purpose of maintaining it as a buffer state. China in turn believes that the US manipulates the North Korean issue for strengthening its alliance network with South Korea and Japan to maintain its presence in the neighbourhood aiming to contain China and subsequently use the triad relationship to deploy its missile defence system in the region. North Korea and China are facing a low point in their otherwise strong relationship because of China’s compromised position firstly after the assassination of Kin Jong-un’s half brother, second, due to reduced coal trade between the two and third due to the onus being laid on China to influence Pyongyang’s nuclear containment by the world community while North Korea seems in no mood to listen. China’s relationship with South Korea is also influenced by sanctions from China after South Korea’s agreement for the deployment of THAAD. This spin in relationships keeps the dynamic in the region potentially volatile.
1. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-13/north-korean-ambitions-put-ally-china-in-a-difficult-position/8705686 by Annabelle Quince for 12 Jul 2017.
3. Encyclopedia of New Zealand – https://www.teara.govt.nz/en/map/34516/korean-war-conflict-1948-1953
8. South China Morning Post http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1296394/democratic-peoples-monarchy-korea-north-korea-changes-ruling-principles Tuesday, 13 August, 2013.
10. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/8292930/Analysis-North-Koreas-bizarre-personality-cult-and-why-it-has-worked-so-far.html By Julian Ryall, Tokyo 31 Jan 2011.
12. Council on Foreign Relations – https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/north-koreas-military-capabilities July 5 2017 by Eleanor Albert.
13. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/03/north-koreas-military-arsenal/ by Ben Farmer 4th July 2107.
14. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship July 05, 2017 by Eleanor Albert.
17. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/29/asia/north-korea-missile-tests/index.html – By Joshua Berlinger, CNN – 18th Sept 2017.
20. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-13/north-korean-ambitions-put-ally-china-in-a-difficult-position/8705686 by By Annabelle Quince for 12 Jul 2017.
21. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-imports-from-north-korea-fall-sharply-a-sign-that-beijing-is-cracking-down/2017/07/13/1ff1f49a-6787-11e7-83d7-7a628c56bde7_story.html?utm_term=.f855e1660c0b By Anna Field – July 13 2017
22. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship by Eleanor Albert – 5 Jul 2017.
23. https://globalnews.ca/news/3817420/china-north-korea-relations/ – by Foster Lug – 20th Oct 2017.
26. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-imports-from-north-korea-fall-sharply-a-sign-that-beijing-is-cracking-down/2017/07/13/1ff1f49a-6787-11e7-83d7-7a628c56bde7_story.html?utm_term=.f855e1660c0b By Anna Field – July. 13 2017.
27. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-north-korea-relationship by Eleanor Albert – 5 Jul 2017.
29. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/869683/world-war-3-President-Jimmy-Carter-would-travel-to-North-Korea-Kim-Jong-Un-for-talks – By Belinda Robinson – 22nd Oct 2017
30. http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2101740/us-ignorant-limits-chinese-influence-over-north-korea by Zha Daojiong 8 JUL 2017.
31. Conflict or Cooperation: In North Korea It’s a Matter of Social Mood – By Chuck Thompson | Excerpted from the May 2015 Socionomist – http://www.socionomics.net/2015/05/article-conflict-or-cooperation-in-north-korea-its-a-matter-of-social-mood
34. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/07/theresa-may-urges-china-rein-north-korea-rogue-states-successful/ by Jack Maidment, 7th July 2017.
36. http://theantimedia.org/north-korea-threat-us/ – by James Holbrooks 19th April 2017
38. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/23/china-to-enforce-un-sanctions-against-north-korea – 23 September 2017.
39. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/826151/Hamburg-G20-summit-US-Japan-South-Korea-UN-sanctions-North-Korea by Ross Logan – 7th July 2017.
41. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41717219 – 23rd Oct 2017.