By Emma Judkins
The rhetoric emerging from the media and indeed from the two heads of states involved – President Donald Trump of America and Kim Jong-un of North Korea – suggest we may be on the brink of a nuclear war. As tensions heighten, these threats must be understood against the backdrop of a unique history.
A brief history of North Korea
North Korea has its roots in struggling to assert its position both regionally and internationally. Having been occupied by Japan from 1910, Korea was divided and again occupied at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The north was occupied by the Soviet Union and adopted a communist ideology. The south was occupied by the Americans adopting an anti-communist ideology.
From 1950 – 1953 the Korean War broke out, when the Communist and Russian supported north invaded the American-backed south. As we can see below, the war ended with the agreement of two separate countries and a demilitarised zone along their shared border.
An authoritarian political dynasty of the Kim family was fortified and is now in its third generation with the current leader, Kim Jong-un, who replaced his late father in 2011.
Influenced by Stalin’s Soviet Russia, military pride has been deeply entrenched in North Korean society (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2017/apr/15/north-korea-military-parade-shows-off-new-weapons-video). While concern for their nuclear power has spiked in recent months, this is, in fact, a long standing international issue. The country has made known its desire to become a nuclear power since 1945; most damningly it rejected the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1963 and 1993, a treaty attempting to prevent any more countries developing nuclear weapons and weapons technology.
The US intervention in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the collapse of North Korea’s main ally, the Soviet Union, in 1991 and American victory in the first Gulf War (1990 – 1991) has led experts to suggest that North Korea believes only nuclear weapons can deter a foreign invasion and guarantee their country’s protection.
US – North Korea Nuclear diplomacy
There have been what seems like breakthroughs, with North Korea committing to abandoning its nuclear programs. However, these are soon followed by a complete U-turn. For example, the Six-Party Talks of August 2003 between China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, US and Norther Korea appeared to be a step forward but subsequently broke down in 2009. Soon after, North Korea did their second nuclear test. Now, North Korea claims it has conducted five successful nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009, 2013 and January and September 2016. Technically, North Korea is able to create a nuclear bomb. However, in order to launch an attack, this nuclear bomb needs to be small enough to fit on to a missile which, despite historic international scepticism, it claims to have successfully achieved.
North Korea’s nuclear position has undoubtedly isolated it from the international community. The UN has responded to these tests through financial sanctions. Before Obama left office he led the imposed sanctions from the UN Security Council which were intending to lessen North Korea’s foreign coal exports by 60%. President Trump has criticised this tactic arguing “strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed,” pointing to their constant advancement in nuclear technologies.
The current crisis
Trump has come to power promising to put ‘America first again’ which concerns North Korea: the state news program, Korean Central News Agency said 'The 'American-first principle'... advocates the world domination by recourse to military means just as was the case with Hitler's concept of world occupation.'
In July, North Korea launched 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBM) for testing. These are primarily designed for nuclear weapon delivery and are long range so are capable of reaching the US. Also, North Korea currently has rockets aimed at South Korea and Japan where thousands of US troops are based.
Trump has taken a different approach to his predecessors but is still implementing extensive sanctions. In July he said was considering some ‘very severe things’ in response to the IBM threat and condemned North Korea for its ‘very bad behaviour’. The crisis then escalated in early August when North Korea released plans of firing four missiles over Japan and into the sea 30-40 km away from the island Guam, home to US military bases. In retaliation Trump has repeated in public that North Korea risked ‘fire and fury’ for threatening the US and has sent many tweets demonstrating that he is prepared to use violence:
North Korea has since postponed this military exercise but has dismissed Trump's threats as ‘nonsense’.
With both sides being so unpredictable, this saga is set to continue.