The struggle of major powers around the world to keep North Korea’s military growth in check has been exposed recently as the authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un visited a weapons factory.
January of this year has experienced some of the most intense periods of missile testing on record by the North Koreans. The testing of two ballistic missiles this Thursday brought the total up to six tests for the month. These tests portray how the rogue state has been able to increase its weapons ‘wishlist’ which the country’s leader proposed in a party congress in January last year. As this continues, the risk faced by countries with strained relations with the nation are at more danger in case a conflict begins.
The tests and the lack of keeping the North Korean military development in check have brought to light the possible inefficiency with the international communities dealing with the issue. The main response to the North Korean threat by the international community was to impose sanctions, led by the US. The UN has also imposed sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This liberal viewpoint of using supranational organisations such as the UN is the most efficient to deal with disputes between states or with threats that one state may have internationally as they are able to leverage a country into negotiating and co-operating, whilst maintaining peace. Furthermore, collective action, based on agreement from one side, would be more effective than states just trying to deal with an issue individually. This has proved successful to a degree as economic sanctions have led and them having a closed state system has led the North Korean economy to be very poor and for large proportions of its population to be impoverished with very low standards of living. However, as North Korea is an autocracy, Kim isn’t accountable to the people and arguably, in the viewpoint of classical realists, his very fear of losing power from these foreign powers’ actions makes him act to try and make himself more secure. Furthermore, he would argue that it is his country’s right, in search of more security, to develop its military.
The US responded to the testing of missiles by imposing new sanctions in an attempt to reduce the country’s military development. However, this has ensued anger from Beijing and Pyongyang. The Chinese foreign ministry has criticised this US move claiming that it is a deliberate act yet it will “only worsen the confrontational mood”. This links to the principle of the security paradox where actions made by one side in order to try and secure themselves from threats lead to a similar reaction making a rise in tensions overall. Chinese support for North Korea has undermined the international effort to try and use less direct measures to pressure the state to comply with international standards.
There has also recently been outrage internationally as North Korea is to chair the UN Conference on Disarmament later this year. North Korea remains the only state to have withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Experts argue that the distraction of major powers of other foreign policy issues has left North Korea with an opportunity to go with its agenda without as much notice. Interestingly, a more direct, confrontational and more unilateral approach by the Trump administration seemed to lead to more progress. Although the threat of war increased at the start, both sides eventually held historic meetings between leaders. Even though it led to no real compromises, it did ease tensions.
Written by Florian Mihindukulasuriya Thiserage
Research compiled by Louis-Daniel Oloyede