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A primer on what's going on right now in North Korea

Sep. 13, 2017
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As if we needed yet another constant source of anxiety, these days: the United States’ strained relationship with North Korea has been in the headlines with alarming regularity in the past few months following Donald Trump’s election. Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is nothing new, it now poses a greater threat with the rationality of both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump being called into question. As tensions mount, the ability to analyze new information regarding North Korea’s nuclear propensity and the United States’ response to it becomes increasingly important. 

But in order to fully understand what’s going on now, we need to start from the beginning...

What is North Korea’s deal, exactly?

North Korea is a communist dictatorship presided over by Kim Jong-un, a leader widely regarded as ruthless, unstable and even suspected to have had a hand in the assassination of his own brother. Since rising to power in the wake of his father Kim Jong-il’s death, Kim Jong-un has relied heavily on propaganda to promote his image as a fearless leader who commands the respect and adoration of his people, much like his father before him.

The primary source of information the rest of the world has about life inside North Korea comes from defectors, or those who escape. Escape is very difficult, especially when the citizens of North Korea do not have access to things we take for granted—like telephones, GPS systems or even basic understanding of current events. The media, which is controlled by the government, does not report information but instead supplies a constant stream of propaganda and is used as an instrument of fear to rally support from the citizens for their leader. If caught trying to escape, people are tortured or killed as punishment. Each citizen must serve a mandatory military draft; 7 years for women and 10-12 years for men. The people are instructed to believe that the rest of the world is their enemy and poses a threat to the only way of life they have ever known.

Okay. So how did we get here? 

The political rivalry between the United States and North Korea has endured since the end of World War II, when Korea was split in two, with American troops occupying the south and Japanese forces occupying the north. Kim Jong-il’s reign was punctuated by severe famine in the 1990s, and many North Koreans volunteered for military service at the promise of food rations.

In 2002, it was discovered that North Korea was developing Uranium-based weapon programs, prompting the U.S. and their allied Asian nations to halt oil shipments to North Korea. By 2009, North Korea began testing their nuclear weapon technology by firing long-range missiles and conducting underground tests, which was met with condemnation from the United Nations. North Korea then refused communication regarding the matter and continued to develop and test more weapons; this program is still currently underway. In December of 2011, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died, and his successor Kim Jong-un rose to power in April of that year.

What’s going on with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal?

United States and Russia are the world’s leaders in nuclear weaponry, with each country possessing about 7,000 weapons. It is estimated that North Korea currently has between 30 and 60 weapons at their disposal, although due to the North Korean government’s extreme secrecy it is hard to know for sure. Experts cite North Korea’s willingness to flex their nuclear capacity at the slightest hint of conflict as a key clue in determining the true size of the dictatorship’s arsenal. 

This year, North Korea has demonstrated the ability to launch a long-range missile capable of reaching U.S. soil and threatened to attack the U.S. territory of Guam, which is a small island near the Philippines. Last week, North Korea conducted its 6th nuclear test, prompting the Trump Administration to decide whether or not to pursue military action as previously suggested. 

Among North Korea’s very few political allies are China and Russia, both of which have expressed frustration with the current situation. China’s president Xi Jinping has been in communication with Donald Trump regarding North Korea, and the two leaders reportedly agree that they cannot tolerate the threat of attack posed by North Korea. Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been uncharacteristically vocal about the danger of messing with North Korea, warning that playing into the military histeria is counterproductive to reaching an amicable solution.

Backing down from earlier comments in which he suggested that the U.S. would take military action by unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, Trump is now saying that another solution would be preferable to full-blown nuclear war. That being said, he has yet to produce any type of plan for action and has indicated that he is unwilling to negotiate.

As such, Trump and his advisors are struggling to produce a set of realistic options to deal with the threat posed to the United States by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Currently, the drafted course of action includes freezing the assets of Kim Jong-un, banning exports of textiles and oil to North Korea and banning North Korean workers from generating income overseas. When asked whether or not the United States could be expected to take military action soon, the President responded, “We’ll see what happens. Certainly that’s not a first choice, but we’ll see what happens.”