[North Korea and East Asia] North Korea's Pursuit of Peace Through Nuclear Tests

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North Korea announced that a hydrogen nuclear bomb (hydrogen bomb) was successfully detonated on January 6, 2016. Its bomb along with its submarine-launched ballistic missile capability allows North Korea to approach the US and allies undetected and launch nuclear missiles difficult to intercept. I interviewed ISC Advisor Professor Jung Chul Lee of Soongsil University and Chung Yeon Wook, president of the Yongsan Branch of the Justice Party, to hear about the political context and motivation for North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test. Professor Jung Chul Lee traces back North Korea’s hydrogen bomb decision to the US rejection of North Korea’s January 9 (2015) proposal to suspend North Korea’s nuclear tests in exchange for a halt to US-South Korea’s joint military exercises. According to Lee, the December 15 hydrogen bomb test decision was the culmination of a series of escalating actions.

North Korean and Chinese media announced UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s plan to visit North Korea mid-November only for Ban Ki Moon to deny it. Lee believes the visit was cancelled due to opposition from South Korea and the US. Soon after, North Korea tests a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) which the media reports as having failed. On December 9, the US sanctions North Korea. That same day, Kim Jong-un mentions the hydrogen bomb. China pressures North Korea to not carry out such test. In response, the all female North Korean pop group Moranbong cancels its planned performance in Beijing and returns to North Korea on December 12. December 11-12, inter-Korean talks take place but fail. It is then that on December 15, Kim Jong-un signs an order to carry out a hydrogen bomb test. Following this decision, North Korea successfully launches an SLBM on December 21. Then, on January 7, North Korea’s CNA (Central News Agency) announces North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test, allowing it the combined capability of launching a nuclear missile from a hidden submarine making it difficult to intercept the missile.

North Korea again re-iterated their January 9 proposal of suspending nuclear tests in exchange for a halt to the annual US-South Korean military exercises and also added that further sanctions would result in a “fight to the death.”

Nonetheless, North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities don’t appear to be giving it any leverage in achieving a breakthrough in its standoff with the US and South Korea. All three parties are pointing guns at each other; North Korea’s hydrogen bomb simply gives it a bigger gun. Lee believes that’s why US President Obama is simply maintaining its strategy of strategic patience (i.e. doing nothing) as marked by the lack of mention of North Korea issue on his recent state of the union.

Nonetheless, tension exists between Obama wanting North Korea to simply remain quiet as he closes out his term and North Korea’s desire to achieve a breakthrough before Obama leaves office. Thus, as Lee explains, North Korea’s strategy is “to make noise” to bring Obama to the negotiating table. Obama responds by asking “China to pressure North Korea on their behalf, but China does not cooperate actively with the US.

That’s because even as North Korea’s future is intimately linked to its relationship with China, North Korea isn’t simply a junior partner. Lee explains that while trade with China is important to North Korea, China also needs North Korea’s cooperation: “North Korea can provoke South Korea and Japan and release all defectors to mainland China.” In addition, given China’s economic crises and its problems with Taiwan,[ref]Taiwan recently elected a pro-Japanese president.[/ref] antagonizing North Korea would leave China with a problem in both its Southern and Eastern border. Lee predicts that China will simply “manage the situation” without actively sanctioning North Korea.

While US sanctions and isolation impact North Korea’s economic development, North Korea’s government has stabilized over the years, while, in addition to its nuclear capability, its economy also continues to grow. As Chung explains, “Right now in Pyongyang there are traffic jams because there are so many cars. That means that there is money. There are cell phones. These days North Korea is very confident economically.”

Lee and Chung both agree that it is difficult to predict whether or not a breakthrough will happen this year with Obama. North Korea’s proposal to a halt in US-South Korean military exercises or even the removal of the nuclear option would mean abandoning its extended deterrence for South Korea which would inspire the latter to pursue its own nuclear weapons.

The key to breaking the standoff may lie in South Korea. Despite the US’s great influence in South Korea’s policies, a South Korean president willing to engage with North Korea could make great advances in resolving the issue. Chung offers a pragmatic path towards achieving peace and presents a challenge to South Korea’s progressive movements.

His pragmatic approach involves greater inter-Korean exchange that would lead to Southern investment in the North, opening up the possibility of other foreign investment, thus paving the path towards normalization and eventually reunification. A South Korean administration with the will for exchange and cooperation with North Korea would have great potential in instilling a desire for peaceful reunification in South Korea. And it would be difficult for the US to justify blocking such process or desire.

Chung explains, “How do you justify shutting down ping pong or soccer tournaments or elementary school students visiting each other, or tourism to Mount Geumgang? The US can’t block that.” This would pave the way towards economic cooperation with the North offering great investment opportunities not only for the South but also for others around the world including the United States. “Capital goes wherever there is money. It’s the first ones that come in that make the money.”

When I ask that such vision appears to converge towards capitalism, even as the planet and its people are suffering from the contradictions of capitalism, Chung responds, “Well, the National Security Law[ref]The National Security Law is an anti-Communist law that makes statements or actions that appear to be pro-North Korea illegal. It has been used to justify widespread repression against movements opposing the government’s policies and actions.[/ref] will disappear and greater democracy would be realized. People wouldn’t simply be red-baited for criticizing or opposing the government. Just getting rid of that would be a huge boon for the progressive sector. Even if we say that North and South should be allowed to maintain their systems, if within South Korea there is a group of people saying we should go towards socialism, and they get elected, then towards socialism we will go.”