Watch North Korea

A little nation presents a big challenge to American superpower.
From the August 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

“Dangerous as Saddam is…I can hardly overstate my concern over North Korea,” reported cia Director George Tenet to Congress. During this same February briefing, Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency chief, said, “North Korea remains the country most likely to involve the United States in a large-scale regional war scenario over the near term…. War in Korea would be incredibly violent and destructive…. North Korea presents a challenging dilemma: a ‘failing’ state with rising internal pressures, diminishing conventional military capability, but posing an increasing regional and global threat by virtue of its expanding wmd [weapons of mass destruction] and long-range-missile capabilities.”

The U.S. enters the new millennium unclear how to handle North Korea. Will America be able to diffuse the escalating tension on the Korean peninsula?

Rising Internal Pressure

Bordering Russia, China and South Korea and facing Japan, North Korea has long occupied a pivotal and often tense position at the hub of East Asia. It is a country born of international war. Created in 1945 following the allied victory, U.S. War Department officials decided to make the 38th parallel the dividing line between the Soviet and U.S. occupation zones in what was previously one Korea. Ten million people have remained separated from relatives since the line was drawn.

For the past five years, impoverished North Korea has been ravaged by famine and natural disasters: Combined, these have reportedly claimed the lives of 2 million people—nearly 10 percent of the nation’s population. International relief has been offered, but withdrawn. Why?

In addition, the past five years in Southeast Asia have not only brought devastating natural disaster, but also financial and political adversity.

North Korea has deep historical ties with both the former Soviet Union and China. Though relations with each have fluctuated somewhat throughout history, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union, both countries have had great influence on North Korea’s development. The Soviet Union in particular has provided North Korea with much of the technology and support that has built its significant military force. Together all three nations find a common enemy in Western society, namely America.

In June, Chinese President Jiang Zemin met with North Korea’s second-in-command, Kim Yong-nam. The Chinese showcased their economic turnabout based on expanded foreign trade. North Korea is desperate for revenue and trade to turn around its ailing economy. Its leading trading partners are Russia and China. Without this commerce, the nation would implode, unable as it is to sustain itself from within.

It is precisely this blossoming diplomatic and economic relationship with China which deeply troubles the United States, South Korea and Japan. The North Koreans invest one quarter of their gross national product on the military. With increasing capital from the sale of military hardware, additional funds are flowing toward defense research and development. This is why international aid has been stopped. At a time when its people are desperate for relief, leadership in Pyongyang (capital city of North Korea) bewilders the world with this threatening behavior.

Surprisingly, North Korea fields the world’s fifth-largest military. Nearly all troops are massed on the border with South Korea. The mislabeled “Demilitarized Zone” (dmz) hosts over one million North Korean soldiers, poised, ready to invade the southern peninsula. The strategic importance of the peninsula has already led to one war this century.

The Korean War ended, not with a peace treaty, but with a United Nations-brokered armistice in 1953. The republics of Korea are still technically at war with one another.

Though the South Koreans have less than half as many soldiers as their northern brothers, they have a special ally. The United States stations over 37,000 combat troops along the South Korean border. Backed by the most technologically advanced weapons systems, the combination of U.S. and South Korean troops defend the South with confidence.

Since the 1953 armistice, violent skirmishes have defined this hair-trigger climate. The threat of war is perhaps nowhere more real than right here. One of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, the dmz is a lit stick of dynamite about to explode.

Regional and Global Threat

The threat of war has forced Korea’s neighbors to position themselves in an attempt to maintain security. Japan, for example, depends upon Korea’s stability. “The [Korean] peninsula has traditionally been Japan’s first area of security concern. Japan can never feel truly secure if some other power is sitting across the straits from it (George Friedman and Meredith Lesband, The Coming War with Japan, 1991). This fact has been emphasized recently as Japan shows signs of unease in response to North Korea’s test firing of a missile over Japan last August.

South Korea has nurtured a consistent relationship with the United States for security and economic development. Rapid economic success combined with Western influence has radically changed the South Korean climate both politically and culturally.

In the Communist North, lack of economic expansion has stymied this nation, which nonetheless remains strongly allegiant to its leadership. This similarity to the Chinese makes the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk) a sensible target for Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia.

Though racial and historical ties have long run parallel between the peoples of North and South Korea, the past five decades, with the passing of a full generation, have widened the gap between them. North Korea is still eyed with caution by its East Asian neighbors as well as the United States.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

During the 1980s and early ’90s, North Korea developed a complete nuclear fuel cycle, including plutonium production capability, at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. Nuclear power plants have supplied much-needed energy, but they have also furnished nuclear material to the military for undisclosed purposes.

Concern spread worldwide when North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993. This situation was further complicated when the North Koreans removed 8,000 fuel rods from the Kumchangri experimental nuclear reactor in May 1994. The North Koreans claimed to be “cleaning up” their reactor. The Clinton administration warned about the possibility that the fuel rods could be processed into weapons-grade plutonium, enough for five or six nuclear bombs. Concerned officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) were denied access to verify this “cleaning project,” so the U.S. immediately moved to impose severe sanctions on North Korea until inspectors were given full access. The Koreans responded with volatile rhetoric, including the threat to turn Seoul (South Korea’s capital) into “a ring of fire.”

The situation was later diffused with the U.S.-dprk Agreed Framework, an agreement signed in Geneva. It stipulated that North Korea would terminate its nuclear program by 2003. Its entire nuclear research program was to be made “transparent” to the iaea for inspection. In exchange for their openness, the iaea and United States, in collaboration with South Korea, Japan and the European Union, committed to support two light-water reactors to replace existing nuclear energy-producing stations. These new reactors do not produce nuclear weapons byproducts.

The benefits that North Korea gains from this agreement are obvious. They promise again to do what they had already agreed to years ago in freezing their nuclear program, and gain plenty of assistance in response. Despite this agreement, doubts about North Korea’s adherence to its nuclear-freeze pledge abound. “It is often said that by playing its nuclear card skillfully and bargaining in a tough manner, North Korea not only brought the United States to the bargaining table but exacted major concessions from Washington—and through Washington, from others” (Peace and Security in Northeast Asia, pp. x-xi).

Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea kills security in Asia.

Also, North Korea also continues its chemical warfare program. “Today, it can produce nerve, blister and blood chemical warfare agents, and it maintains a number of facilities involved in producing or storing chemical precursors, agents and weapons” (Defense Intelligence Agency Report, December 1995).

Further, the North Korean military has routine exercises in nuclear, biological and chemical (nbc) training, and is equipping all military personnel, including reserves, with full protective gear for nbc-contaminated battlefields. U.S. intelligence authorities believe North Korea possesses up to 2,500 tons of chemical weapons, in addition to their known arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons.

The possession of weapons of mass destruction is frightening, but more worrisome is North Korean willingness to market these weapons, along with the missiles to deliver them. North Korea rates as one of the world’s most active arms suppliers.

Ballistic Missiles

North Korea has publicly pledged to develop, test and export ballistic missiles. Because the U.S. denounces ballistic missile proliferation, this public advertising chafes the Clinton administration, especially since North Korea deals with unstable nations such as Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The irony of their begging for international relief to ease the sting of a severe, five-year famine, while increasing their military research and development budget is frustrating many nations. Japan, South Korea and the United States have all revised plans for relief aid in the wake of ballistic missile testing.

It is suspected that North Korea is preparing to test-fire the Taepo-dong 2 missile this month. With a 3,750-mile reach, the Taepo-dong 2 could strike portions of Alaska if launched from North Korea. It also widens the potential target list in Europe.

In response to the expected test, the U.S. has dispatched a specialized spy ship to the Yellow Sea to track and analyze the missile test. According to Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant secretary of defense, “Watching North Korean weapons and missile programs is a top priority for all U.S. spy agencies” (Department of Defense Briefing, June 30).

To complicate matters further, Aviation Week and Space Technology has reported on North Korea’s development of the Taepo-dong 3, a missile capable of striking virtually any target within the continental United States.

Much like the balance of power achieved during the cold war, the Korean peninsula remains “peaceful” due to overwhelming force on both sides.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung visited President Clinton in July to seek support for the development of a new missile capable of reaching the capital of North Korea.

Though Kim sought White House approval to develop this missile, U.S. intelligence agencies fear that South Korea is already testing a missile with much greater range. South Korea has grown increasingly uneasy about living under U.S. constraints on their defense. Recent debacles in Iraq and Kosovo haven’t increased confidence in U.S. assistance. South Korea and Japan are reconsidering their own security concerns in light of China’s growing dominance and aggressiveness and the U.S.’s shrinking will to decisively protect its allies.

Japanese Concern

The staunchest critic of North Korea’s ballistic missile testing is Japan. According to the BBC, Japanese Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga stated that “the Japanese constitution might allow a military strike against North Korea, if necessary, ‘rather than just sitting and waiting for death’” (Stratfor Intelligence Report, September 1998).

The Japanese government endorses a missile defense system, going so far as to support the U.S.-conceived Theater Missile Defense (tmd). Japan has increased diplomatic initiatives with Washington regarding this security project. (China vigorously opposes tmd because it would cast its umbrella over Taiwan.)

Japan has good reason for concern. Last August, North Korea fired a multi-stage ballistic missile over Japan. Immediate criticism thundered from Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. But North Korea maintained that the missile was used to launch a satellite into low earth orbit. U.S. officials initially insisted the launch tested a new ballistic missile, but later capitulated to the North Korean explanation.

Regardless of its purpose, the successful launch sends a clear signal to the international community: North Korea is more advanced in its rocket technology than was suspected by Western intelligence agencies.

It is believed that the dprk has between four and eight missile production facilities and ten to twelve launching bases. North Korea’s defiant attitude toward the international community, which is increasingly supported by China, indicates an ominous sign for Southeast Asia.

The U.S., which has relied on deterrence for 50 years, is now incapable of countering Communist influence in the region. If the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese unify politically, there will be little room left for the U.S. And without a strong U.S. presence, Japan may choose to rearm. Taiwan and South Korea risk being swallowed by Communist expansion. The balance of power is tilting awry in this strategic territory.

Final Outcome

Emboldened North Korean politicians have offered to initiate top-level talks with South Korea if it is willing to sever ties with the United States and remove its anti-Communist legislation. However it is highly unlikely the South would evict the U.S.

Meanwhile, as China dominates growing portions of Asia, North Korea is wisely seeking to ally itself with this emerging power. China’s fresh, aggressive diplomacy and newly forged relationship with Russia appear to be pushing the U.S. out of Asia.

Perhaps the greatest fear is that North Korea will be forced to act in desperation. Wracked by famine, isolated from the rest of the world, North Korea could turn brutally survivalist. Instability and desperation can easily make a deadly combination.

Repeatedly, analysts following the Kosovo war have pointed to the fact that Kosovo and the ongoing Iraqi bombings have stretched U.S. military resources very thin. The possibility of the U.S. being able to sustain a war on another front anytime soon has been openly cast into serious doubt.

Events in Korea may escalate to war. If they do, any lack of a clear-cut U.S. victory would help China. China already stealthily dominates much of the region, particularly following its takeover of Hong Kong last June. Any further retreat by the United States puts Southeast Asia closer to Communist uncertainty.

Even if war does not erupt, North Korean arms trading and weapons proliferation are a grave concern for every human on earth. Irresponsible trade practices with rogue nations, while providing temporary economic relief, in fact bring the world ever closer to Armageddon.