Monday, February 20, 2006

Nuclear Crises in North Korea

This was a final paper for an Asian Politics class I took in college.

It’s difficult to ignore the Korean peninsula these days. It’s constantly in the mainstream US news, as President Bush calls the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil”, the DPRK attempts to build Nuclear weapons, and the whole region is gripped, worrying that the war between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea might renew. Much of this is at best over blown hyperbole, or at worst straight up propaganda. In the rush to paint the North Korean government as a terrorist state, the US has ignored it’s own short falls, and instead pushed the peninsula closer to war.

With the end of World War II in 1945, Japan lost it’s hold on Korea, and the victors of the war, the US and Soviet Union, occupied different halves of the Korean peninsula. For the first time in over a thousand years, Korea was divided. The US moved to back right wing movements and dictators like Rhee in the south, while the Soviet Union supported former Guerrilla fighters like Kim Il Sung, who became a dictator in his own way.

The outbreak of violence between the communist north and the capitalist south led the DPRK to control the majority of the peninsula, but the US pushed the DPRK’s army north, occupying up to China’s border, until China intervened on North Korea’s behalf. At one point, General MacArthur of the US forces, threatened to use a nuclear weapon against North Korea and China, in order to guarantee victory. In the end cooler heads prevailed, and an armistice was signed, fixing a “Demilitarized Zone” or DMZ at the 38th parallel. Officially, the war never ended, as no peace treaty or truce was ever signed. The armistice is like a temporary cease fire.

Today, the stalemate between the DPRK in the North and the ROK in the South, continues. While the ROK has opened up to elections and allowing some dissident parties (an anti-communist law is still on the books), the DPRK passed the torch like a monarchy- from father to son. Today Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il Sung, rules the DPRK.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with China taking a more free market approach, the DPRK has found itself with less deterrence to a possible attack. While the ROK still has the continual support of the US, which has been openly belligerent and threatening to the DPRK. This is why many believe the DPRK has embarked on a nuclear weapons program, to act as a deterrent. David Kang and Victor Cha pointed out that the DPRK didn’t cross the 37th Parallel at the height of it’s power during the Cold War, why would it today? They continues to talk about how both the US and the DPRK are trying to deter the other from taking military action, but that North Korea, even with it’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons is “not a threat to start an unprovoked war. North Korea was never in a preeminent position relative to the South, and the real question for the pessimists is why they continue to believe that a nation that is far behind and falling farther behind might still attack.”

Even though the North has opened up a bit and created a free trade zone for western investors, it still can’t even begin to compete economically with the South, let alone militarily. Hy-Sang Lee discusses this and points out that if North Korea were to attract western investment it would have to do more, “The special zone was designed to entice capitalists to invest there, without requiring the political steps to make the country a peaceful and transparent place to commit capital to (pg. 8).” It seems without a socialist benefactor the DPRK has to either compromise, continue to be weak or find a deterrent of some sort.

Part of the reason why North Korea is so far behind is because, with the collapse of so many of it’s socialist allies, it’s economy has been unable to keep up with the export oriented, US backed economy of the South. The South has a high GDP, thanks to the creation of a number of sweatshops producing goods for countries like Japan and the US. These sweatshops were created as part of a policy fixated around pleasing foreign investors like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The government of Kim Young Sam from 1993 on promoted a policy of segyehwa or globalization. At first this policy seemed to be an economic miracle, until “the South Korean economy fell prey to a sudden collapse in November 1997, alarming the entire world. (Moon and Lim, pg. 211)”

This collapse showed how these policies are not always popular with the people of South Korea. When the International Monetary Fund came in to “bail out the government, the IMF forced the government to implement Structural Adjustment Programs. This did not sit well with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, an illegal union in South Korea, which declared a general strike which shook the South Korean economy, as detailed in the movie the Fourth World War and in several articles by David Bacon.

The North doesn’t have strikes as often as the south does, perhaps because there is not such a great income gap. There is not a rich elite in North Korea. The top party leaders end up doing some of the grunt work as well. As James Ho are and Susan Pares in North Korea in the 21st Century state “Each Friday, ministry officials will leave their desks and engage in productive labor.” This is not to say that North Korea is the classless society real communists dream of though. Hoare and Hoare also point out that one’s rights and status is often defined by loyalty to the party.

North Korea is spending money and resources on it’s nuclear program that could be going to other vital necessities and commodities. Hoare and Pares discuss how “shortfalls in fuel and electricity have long been a constant aspect of daily life in the DPRK.” While they point out some of the things that might play a role in that- flooding of coal mines, wasting electricity on unnecessary monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il, this author feels that nuclear weapons are ultimately an unnecessary thing and put an undue strain on the economy.

What is so infuriating for countries that are developing Nuclear weapons is the double standard used by the west. Israel is allowed to have nuclear weapons, but Iran is called a rogue state for seeking to build nuclear power plants. Pakistan is a dictatorship with nuclear weapons that the US considers a trusted ally in the “war on terror”. Perhaps most infuriating for North Korea is the fact that the US is the only country to ever us nuclear weapons on cities, killing millions of people, plus the fact that a leading US general threatened North Korea with nuclear bombardment, and yet it’s North Korea that is vilified and turned into the scapegoat for the world.

David Kang and Victor Cha said in Nuclear North Korea: “Kim Jong-Il is a brutal dictator who has impoverished a nation in order to sustain a massive military machine. He presides over horrifying human rights abuses and concentration camps. Due to its bungled economic policies, as many as one million North Koreans may died from starvation in the past decade.” But one could argue that George W. Bush and the US are guilty of the same crimes. The US military budget is by far the biggest expenditure for the government, to the point where money for school, health care and social security is being reallocated to build bombs to drop on other countries. Just think of how many homeless people could be fed in the US with the money spent on our military. As for human rights abuses and concentration camps, just look at the Prison Industrial complex, and the civil rights being stripped away under the Patriot act and at Guantanamo Bay.

I point all this out not to excuse any bad things the government in North Korea has done, but to point out that to only focus on one countries fallacies, and not on the fallacies of the government threatening that other country, is to take sides in a conflict where neither side is right.

I believe that all countries should disarm their nuclear stockpiles. There are no excuses for allowing such dangerous weapons to exist. No one wins with nukes, it’s impossible to do anything productive with them. But as long as one country holds onto them as a threat over other countries, small countries like North Korea feel the pressure to create nuclear weapons to use as a deterrent.

As an American, I can’t tell Koreans what to do, but I do have a say in how the US acts and the US should unilaterally disarm it’s nuclear stockpile. I believe that once the US ceases it’s aggressive posture, and disarms it’s nuclear arsenal, Koreans, like many other countries, will have less of a reason to have their own weapons of mass destruction.


Bacon, David. “Korean Workers Shut Down the Chaebols”

Big Noise Films. “The Fourth World War”

Cha, Victor and Kang, David. “Nuclear North Korea: a Debate on Engagement Strategies.”

Hoare, James and Pares, Susan. “North Korea in the 21st Century: an Interpretative Guide”

Lee, Hy-Sang. “North Korea: A Strange Socialist Fortress.” from “Understanding Korean Politics: An Introduction” Ed: Soong Hoom Kil and Chung-in Moon.

Moon, Chung-in and Lim, Sunghack. “The Politics of Economic Rise and Decline in South Korea.”

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