The International Community’s Response to North Korea’s Nuclear Missiles Program: Thinking Outside the Sanction Regime

By Lexi Rubow, Assistant Contributor

On Tuesday, February 12, 2013, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) launched its third and most powerful nuclear test. The test was executed in response to increased United Nations sanctions, following North Korea’s successful rocket launch in December 2012. The explosion was twice as powerful as the most recent nuclear test in 2009 and was ten times more powerful than the first test in 2006. The explosive power of the test was 10 kilotons and caused a 4.9 magnitude earthquake. In comparison, the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II was 12-20 kilotons. US officials are currently determining whether the explosion used plutonium, or enriched uranium—a signal that North Korea’s technology has advanced. This is significant because North Korea’s plutonium deposits are limited, but its uranium deposits are plentiful, and the uranium enrichment process is easier to conceal. Further, there have been reports that the explosive itself was smaller than that of past tests. The main concern is whether North Korea will be able to manufacture a nuclear explosive that is small enough to fit on the “Unha-3” rocket that was launched in December 2012 and could be used to target the United States.

The test was perceived as an act of aggression and defiance by most of the international community. After the attack, President Obama met with South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak and issued a statement referencing the United States’ “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea, reminding North Korea that an attack on South Korea would be viewed as an attack on the United States. This alliance has been in place since the United States’ participation in the Korean War in the 1950s, but is rarely discussed, much less openly threatened. Further, South Korean and American forces have been carrying outlarge-scale military drills, deploying destroyers and submarines, and demonstrating cruise missiles to show their military readiness. President Obama has also expressed its intent to protect Japan and, together with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has agreed to seek action from the United Nation’s Security Council.

Newly appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, expressed a willingness to take action: “If you are going to say things, they have to mean something. And to mean something you have to be prepared to follow up, and that’s exactly what we are prepared to do.” Some sources are skeptical, however, speculating that the current international bluster is no different than that following previous tests and will likely not meaningfully advance a solution.

For its part, the United Nations held an emergency session regarding the test and issued a statement condemning the acts and expressing concern for North Korea’s nuclear program’s impact on regional stability. The UN has experienced difficulties in achieving more than strongly worded statements, however, due to a deep divide between China and Russia, who are more friendly towards North Korea, and those countries that want to impose stricter sanctions, such as banning import of specific high-tech items used to create nuclear weapons, limiting banking transactions, and imposing more stringent inspection of ships bound to and from North Korea. There are signs that China’s relationship with North Korea is beginning to sour, particularly after the most recent test, which ignored China’s “appeals not to conduct the country’s third nuclear test.” There is also some speculation that the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will be less patient with North Korea than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. However, despite the Chinese citizens fear of increased radiation exposure and the Chinese government’s realization that North Korea may not return its sentiments of brotherly love, Xi Jinping will have to balance this internal and international pressure with the risk of instability and mayhem that would result if North Korea were to collapse.  Further, even if China does agree to stronger sanctions and thereby ease the UN gridlock, some analysts speculate that North Korea’s economy is so closed that sanctions from China may not have very much leverage or may just enhance the Chinese-North Korean black market trade.

Past sanctions directed at North Korea have not been particularly successful, as North Korea has historically responded by increasing its military development, both in retaliation and as a bargaining chip for economic aid. For example, in 1994, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and produce nuclear weapons. The United States then entered into negotiations with North Korea discussing an Agreed Framework, wherein the international community, led by the United States, was to provide large amounts of capital, as well as enough oil to support the entire nation’s energy needs. Meanwhile, North Korea was supposed to use this capital to transition its energy grid from nuclear to light water reactors. The U.S. stopped shipments of oil in 2002 upon suspicion that North Korea was instead using the capital and other international support to develop a uranium enrichment program. North Korea viewed this as a breach of the Agreed Framework and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and continued to build up its nuclear program. After North Korea’s first successful nuclear test in 2006, the United Nations passed a resolution calling on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programs, and the United Nations’ member countries agreed to trade and travel sanctions. North Korea used this international attention to enter into six-party talks with China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States, where it promised to shut down its reactors in exchange for foreign aid. In 2009, however, North Korea tested a rocket, which led to harsher UN Sanctions. In response, North Korea performed a second, stronger, nuclear test.

The statements made by the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korea-run news agency, also indicate that sanctions may fan the flames of defiance and retaliation rather than pressure North Korea into compliance. The nation does not show any indication of bowing to pressure, stating that “concession leads to defeat in the face-off. Key to ultimate victory is to steadily increase the military capability in every way.” The UN Security Council’s resolution on sanctions is described as “armed blackmail against the DPRK,” and the most recent nuclear test was characterized as “frustrat[ing] the brigandish campaign of ‘sanctions’ launched by the U.S.” Further, the nation has repeatedly threatened “second and third high-intensity counteractions” if the United Nations and United States continue sanctions. While sanctions are certainly not welcomed by any nation, the vitriol spouting from the Korean Central News Agency indicates that North Korea will likely break before it bends.

In light of the fact that increased sanctions may potentially escalate, rather than diminish, military tension with North Korea, the international community may wish to explore other options, such as those that encourage long-term stability and change from within.  Modern wars are typically fought not against nations, but against leaders. The goal is not necessarily the traditional use of ground force against state militaries to cause one side to capitulate but rather a regime change that must largely come from within a nation. For example during the war in Kosovo, in addition to traditional aerial attacks, NATO also tried to counter Milosevic’s nationalist and ethnocentric propaganda by flying aircraft over Yugoslavia and broadcasting its own propaganda. While some of NATO’s operations were controversial (particularly the bombing of Radio Television Serbia), the idea of stimulating internal regime change by providing outside media may be important to stability in the Korean Peninsula.

An underground market for outside media has already begun to thrive in North Korea. Particularly popular are Korean dramas and American TV dramas, usually smuggled in from China on memory sticks and played on black market computers or televisions rigged to watch foreign broadcasts. These dramas have created a shift in the way that North Koreans evaluate their lives and country, as they compare their living situations with others’ lives in the United States, China and South Korea and find North Korea to be lacking. As stated in the Huffington Post:

“North Korean viewers living in tiny two-room homes and struggling to feed their families can see houses with bedrooms just for children, and dinners with endless food. They see everyday people casually complaining about policemen and politicians. Scenes like that are provocative in a country where defectors say criticizing the ruling family can send entire families to sprawling prison camps, and where bicycles are considered luxury items for many.”

This black market, and the resulting thirst for consumerism, has created an increasingly conspicuous bourgeois class in North Korea. It is questionable whether these black market entrepreneurs are a danger to the government, since they, like bourgeois classes elsewhere, have a stake in preserving the status quo. However, the existence of this market indicates a rare glimpse of resistance to the North Korean regime of enforced austerity and obedience.

The question remains how the international community can encourage this nascent cultural transition. Since North Korea is not currently engaged in any military conflict, the approach NATO took in Kosovo is too heavy handed. An aircraft flying over North Korea would be misinterpreted and would likely spark military conflict. Further, the current political and cultural climate is much more critical of perceived American cultural imperialism. While the level of economic sanctions appear to be a point of contention in the UN, deciding how to expose North Korea to outside culture — and which culture should it be — seems to be even more controversial. Another option may be to increase international protections for those individuals smuggling media into North Korea. However, this is also a dangerous endeavor, since it may be difficult to condone one sector of the black market without inadvertently condoning other criminal behaviors.

Despite the logistical difficulties of these alternatives, as the United States, United Nations and other international entities grapple with how to respond to North Korea’s most recent round of nuclear tests, they should consider alternatives to the typical sanctions routine which has thus far only increased tensions and the probability of forceful retaliation.