Mitigating North Korea: Security Policy at Home and Abroad

In North and South Korea conflict still rages and poses a security threat to neighboring nations and the United States.

Setting the stage: A brief history

North Korea Security StudisPrior to WWII, Japan had controlled Korea for 35 years. After an Allied victory, the Soviet Union and U.S. agreed to occupy Korea until the country was ready to govern itself. Elections were intended to be held, but the Soviet Union did not comply. The country split into two nations along the 38th parallel. A communist state was permanently established in the northern half of the peninsula, while the southern portion adopted a more democratic form of government, forming North and South Korea, respectively.

Reunification was discussed, but tensions along the 38th parallel grew. In 1950, border skirmishes escalated into full-on warfare. South Korea was backed by the United Nations while China and the Soviet Union sided with North Korea. Atrocities were committed on both sides, although North Korea arguably employed more harrowing tactics; by some estimates, civilian deaths totaled more than half a million. In 1954, a cease-fire armistice was finally put into place, establishing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the border of the two Koreas. The Korean War never officially ended, and the two countries are still technically at war.

Since the armistice, the two Koreas have engaged in isolated––and sometimes fatal––border incidents. North Korea claims the country’s nautical borders extend further than is recognized by other countries; North Korea is almost always the instigator in these skirmishes. Recent incidents have occurred that received sizeable media coverage. The first was the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, followed by the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. Then, in December 2012, North Korea launched a satellite using long-range missile technology. The country recently conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013.­­­­

The Hermit Kingdom

Kim Il-sung, the first North Korean leader, instituted a policy based on a philosophy known as Juche, or self-reliance, that has largely shaped North Korean policy to this day. The cult of personality around the Kim family (Kim Il-sung was succeed by his son Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded his son and current leader, Kim Il-eun) keeps the North Korean people isolated and indoctrinated. A heavily controlled media paints a glorified picture of life inside North Korea, despite the fact that the country’s people are starving and are heavily reliant on foreign aid for food.

Military comes first in North Korea. Though they cannot feed their people, the country has one of the largest militaries in the world. North Korea has more than 1.1 million active soldiers and between five and seven million reserve forces. It is estimated that roughly 25 percent of the nation’s GDP is funneled into military spending.

North Korean leaders are not the insane despots we see in farcical television. The regime is calculating and painfully aware of its precarious hold on power. The leaders of North Korea fear for their continued existence and know it is paramount to keep their people isolated and in the dark if they want to maintain in control—something that is becoming increasingly difficult in this modern, technological era. For that reason, the Kim family’s image is meticulously crafted, resulting in notoriously reclusive and secretive leaders. It is this combination of humanitarian crisis and military threat that makes North Korea such a unique problem for today’s policy makers.

The Problems with Policy

north vs south koreaThe two Koreas, China, Russia and the U.S. all have a vested interest in what happens on the Korean peninsula. Seoul and Tokyo are just a couple of the large cities within range of North Korea’s conventional missiles. As the major players on both sides of the fence in the Korean and Cold War, Russia, China and the U.S. continue to have relationships with North and South Korea.

Essentially, there are three major goals at hand when dealing with North Korea: denuclearization, peace and stability (meaning no collapse of regime). However, the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia don’t always agree on the priority of these three objects.

Since 2003, the countries have engaged in six-party talks with the aim of denuclearizing North Korea. The talks came as a direct result of North Korea pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an agreement with the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. North Korea has sold missiles and missile technology to Iran and Pakistan in exchange for fuel and nuclear technology.

The talks have seen little gain, largely due to the fact that North Korea has always been adept at playing its enemies and allies against one another. There are plenty of sore spots between the other five countries for North Korea to exploit to its advantage.


Russia has taken a bit of a backseat when it comes to North Korea. Russia feels that the only way to make progress is through diplomacy. The country is content to do no more than have a seat at the talks, and feels that it is not in a position to effect change in the area. In 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev did sign a decree to put U.N. sanctions into effect. However, Russian experts on Korea, including Alexander Zhebin of the Center of Korean Studies Institute, feel that “Russia has nothing to lose by not participating in the negotiations.”


Since North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2009, Japan has taken a hard-liner approach with the country and has cut off all aid. In tandem with the U.S., Japan has developed a missile defense system. Japan grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of results seen from diplomatic measures and the six-party talks. Some Japanese believe that Japan should make a pre-emptive strike, but this action would arguably go against Japan’s solely defensive defense stipulation that was put in place with the peace treaty that ended WWII. Japan has pulled back its relationship with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and fully supports U.N. Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which impose and further economic sanctions on North Korea, respectively.


China is often criticized for taking a conciliatory approach in its relations with North Korea. Although China sometimes condemns North Korea’s actions in U.N. hearings and agrees to U.N. sanctions on the country, China’s pronouncements on and relationship with North Korea are contradictory. Despite North Korea’s aggression toward South Korea, China continues to host North Korean leaders and send their own diplomats to parlay with North Korean officials. Trade between the two countries has also increased over the last decade, even though China professed to uphold U.N. Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. China’s actions have strained its relationship with Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

There is logic to China’s policy on North Korea, however. Above all, China values stability on the Korean peninsula. If conditions worsen for the North Korean people or if the North Korean regime collapses, China would face an influx of immigrants that it would not be able to handle. China may also see similarities between itself and North Korea, as the countries share a history through their alliance and sacrifice in the Korean War, a communist governance and a self-perception as weaker countries who can stand up to larger powers.

Analysts believe China may feel uneasy due to the alliance formed between the U.S. and South Korea in their efforts to contain North Korea. As the two democratic nations become more tightly joined, China can’t help but feel it may be the next target once the North Korean issue has been resolved. That said, China is becoming increasingly exasperated with North Korea, and along with Russia, has joined the U.S. and South Korea in condemning North Korea’s most recent nuclear test.

South Korea

security studies North KoreaFrom 1998 until 2008, when President Lee Myung-bak took office, South Korea instituted a “Sunshine Policy” toward the North. The intent of this policy was to offer food and humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea in order to help them see the light in terms of what is going on in their country. Several analysts on South Korea feel that the country should return to the Sunshine Policy, especially since the people of North Korea are gaining more access to information and media that was previously not at their disposal. South Korea’s new President, Park Geun-hye, took office on February 25. Park’s reaction to North Korea’s recent nuclear test will be crucial. During the election campaign, she spoke of North Korea, saying, “I plan to break with this black-or-white, appeasement-or-antagonism approach and advance a more balanced North Korea policy.”

United States

As President Barack Obama enters his second term, the U.S. has a few options on how to handle North Korea; none of them, however, are very promising. Pyongyang has been calling for bilateral talks with the U.S. for some time. North Korea continually claims that their nuclear weapons development program is in response to a “hostile” U.S. policy. However, if President Obama were to sit down with Kim Jung-uen, he would do so at the risk of alienating South Korea, America’s staunchest ally in the region.

Alternatively, America could impose an even harsher punitive plan by removing humanitarian aid from the table. The big pull for North Korea to return to the six-party talks is to negotiate for food and fuel aid in exchange for scaling back nuclear programs. Were America to remove this option from the table, however, the North Korean people would suffer, and there is no guarantee North Korea would divert resources away from the military and into caring for its people.

A third option would be to accept North Korea as a nuclear state. This could, theoretically, cause a domino effect whereby other countries could use the allowance as a precedent to develop their own nuclear arms. Obviously, this would be detrimental to the NPT agreement, especially because North Korea has already backed out of it.

The last, and probably most prudent, course of action would be to maintain the six-party talks and attempt to de-escalate issues as they occur. North Korea is notorious for belligerently walking out of talks, but does continue to return due to economic concerns and pressure from Russia and China. With the influx of cell phones and other illegal technologies into the hands of North Koreans, it may be only a matter of time before the propagandist and ideological Kim family can no longer hold on to power.

Whatever the path, the most important necessity is to take a comprehensive strategy to North Korea, wherein the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are on the same page. That, however, may prove more impossible than any other task set before the countries attempting to mitigate the international threat that is North Korea.

North Korea will continue to present a challenge for the foreseeable future. Students studying security policy should have a working knowledge of the threats and issues posed by the Hermit Kingdom, as it largely shapes foreign policy in the U.S. and abroad. Dr. John G. Hatzadony, director of the graduate program in security policy studies at Notre Dame College, adds, “The North Korean nuclear test brings all sorts of questions with it. ‘Do we believe them? Does this change our policy toward them? How does this affect U.S.-China relations?’ These are the questions students in programs like SPS will be confronted with day-in and day-out in the government, and we need to prepare them as the next generation of security policy leaders. ”

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