Assessing the Threat of North Korea
Previously published on May 12, 2010
The international community as we know it exists, because powerful players, such as the US, wanted to create a stable, peaceful global relationship between all nations in order to foster growth and prevent disastrous conflicts. Because nations benefit differently from their membership in the international community, those, who do not benefit or wish to benefit more, seek ways of improving their standing on the world stage. Like a child having a temper tantrum in public, North Korea, just as other rogue states, engages in the poor behavior of refusing to follow the will and conventions of the international community as a means of forcing the world to pay attention to their demands.
By acting against the will of the international community, North Korea is also reestablishing its sovereignty, the power of a governing body to exercise its will without interference from other states, and thus, empowering its leadership; however, issues like nuclear weapons make North Korea's behavior extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush Administration's policy of disengagement has left the US with few immediate policy options and allowed North Korea the space it needed to develop nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, its last minute rush to denuclearize North Korea has only reinforced the notion that the West has few options and emboldened Kim Jong Il's leadership as it shows the West will shy away from direct conflict. In turn, North Korea is pushing the limits of the international community by undermining the United States and the West through defiance. For example, imprisoning the US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee illustrates the US has no power as its citizens are subject to North Korean authority. Moreover, now gaining a viable nuclear arsenal equipped with ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, North Korea is becoming more and more secure in its ability to discourage attacks against its territories.
Fortunately, North Korea cannot survive as a power without the support and resources of other neighboring states. Despite China's military and economic influence as the region's strongest power, as well as North Korea's largest supplier of food and fuel aid, the communist nation has been quite weak in dealing with its ill-behaved neighbor. While China is North Korea's friend and wants to avoid the collapse of Kim Jon Il's regime to prevent a massive humanitarian crisis on its doorstep, its reaction is also likely a means of demonstrating China sets the policies in its region, not the West. On the other hand, China's economic power stems from its global economic relationships while it is striving to be recognized as a superpower and global leader. North Korea, therefore, represents a test for national Chinese leaders that could determine whether or not China can be viewed as a superpower by its people and the world.
Since China must demonstrate it controls its own sphere of influence, North Korea has great incentive not to go too far as doing so would be extremely detrimental to the leadership and people of China's neighbor. Should North Korea 's leadership be as reckless as many fear, a major conflict could be brewing over nuclear weapons. Because the conflict will be over such a serious global issue and will be fought on the territories of Western allies, namely South Korea, the West and Russia will get involved, thus a potential conflict between China and the world would add to the chaos. Meanwhile, whether or not North Korea plans to use its nuclear power to intimidate the world, it may help other rogue states like Syria and Iran develop technology to rebel against the international community and build its own alliances. Furthermore, the most significant threat comes from these nations, by either design or incompetence, putting nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.
The West has drawn a line in the sand that North Korea long ago crossed while China has yet to clearly define its tolerance for North Korea's behavior. Should, however, North Korea cross China's line, Asia will see a major conflict potentially including the use of conventional military forces. With such a situation possible, the international community must push China to take action sooner as the Obama Administration needs to prepare world leaders to take action if necessary. Despite its reservations to act, China should also be ready to force regime change on a nuclear power or face a larger conflict resulting from Western intrusion in its sphere of influence. In all likelihood, tensions will ebb and North Korea will try to use the peace process to conceal its nuclear arsenal, but the West must continue to force North Korea to understand its refusal to denuclearize is unacceptable and it cannot benefit from the international community until it does. Moreover, nations like North Korea and Iran obtaining nuclear capacities means the world is one step closer to the failure of nuclear containment and nonproliferation.