March 11, 2013

Big Trouble in North Korea

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North Korea’s recent and bizarre diplomatic actions have once again brought the Juche nation into the international spotlight and reignited tensions within the Korean Peninsula. Most notably, the isolated country conducted its third nuclear test in February, held a quasi-diplomatic meeting with retired NBA player Dennis Rodman and ended both its emergency hotline and nonaggression armistice with South Korea. It is evident that North Korea is unstable, irrational and unpredictable and together begs the question: what risks should South Korea continue to absorb and accept?

The series of events, besides the Rodman visit, is resultant of North Korea’s deteriorating relationship with the international community after its third nuclear test on February 11. After detonating another nuclear weapon underground, North Korea was swiftly criticized and condemned by the entire international community, including its benefactor-ally, China. Throughout the following month, the United States guaranteed new economic sanctions against the North Korea. In response, North Korea publicly renounced American “aggression” with threats of a preemptive nuclear strike and an ironically ridiculous propaganda video featuring President Obama covered in CGI fire and theme music from an American videogame, the Elder Scrolls IV.  Throughout February, North Korea also antagonized South Korea with threats of engaging in preemptive war and ending the Korean armistice and emergency hot line.

As another, concurrent chapter in the book of Pyongyang’s unpredictability, Kim Jong-Un welcomed Dennis Rodman to the peninsula during this international crisis. After spending several days in the Orwellian paradise, Rodman had only good things to say about the young ruler, who he now considers a “friend.” For example, Rodman told reporters, “I hate the fact that he’s doing that [violating human rights], but that fact is, you know what, that’s a human being, though. He let his guard down one day to me, a friend.” Rodman also commented on the young leader’s evident aversion to war, stating “He wants Obama to do one thing, call him […] He said, if you can, Dennis, I don’t want to do war. I don’t want to do war. He said that to me.”

On March 7, after a month of Sino-American negotiations, the United Nations Security Council approved new economic sanctions against North Korea, which target cash transfers, diplomatic travel and luxury goods. Despite Kim Jong-Un’s best intentions (according to Dennis Rodman), North Korea has thus responded with threats to “mercilessly” punish American aggressors and render Seoul into a “nuclear sea of fire.” Pyongyang also declared it “will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor,” referring to the United States. Amidst this blistering rhetoric, South Korea and the United States have begun to conduct joint military drills in case of a military conflict. On March 11, in response to the military drills and economic sanctions, North Korea officially ended its emergency hotline and 60-year armistice with South Korea.

Clearly, Kim Jong-Un and North Korea have displayed erratic, dangerous behavior that must be carefully analyzed and responded to. While fiery propaganda is a relatively normal occurrence from the Juche nation, nuclear tests and overt displays of aggression are not. It seems that any actions taken by South Korea or the United States to hedge against the militaristic nation only spawns harsher reactions from Pyongyang. Many observers, such as Victor Cha, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggest that Kim Jong-Un is attempting to secure power and support from the military by demonstrating devoted opposition to South Korea and the United States. However, despite Kim Jong-Un’s ridiculous and volatile leadership, experts agree that disregarding North Korean’s perpetual escalation is incredibly dangerous.

To further add to the strategic quagmire, China has been virtually useless in procuring internal, peaceful reform within North Korea. Like a mother upset with an unruly child, China has harmlessly scolded Pyongyang with slightly augmented sanctions but continues to openly and fully aid support the Korean dictatorship. While China may presently serve to stabilize North Korea, it has done nothing to slow down the growing radicalization, and as an agent of long-term security, the People’s Republic appears to be failing South Korea.

With economic sanctions, defensive exercises and international condemnations serve only to drive North Korea to greater extremism; the United States and South Korea are left with few, peaceful options to deal with the growing Korean liability. Clearly, these recent events within North Korea have demonstrated that Pyongyang’s motives are unknown, its leadership is laughably irrational, and its future actions are entirely unpredictable. Thus, the two questions are, what is happening in North Korea, and what exactly can South Korea do? While the exact answers are unknown, what we do see is that South Korea’s continued adherence to its relatively “normal” diplomacy with North Korea must be fundamentally altered to ensure the long-term safety of its citizens. Should South Korea simply watch and wait, silently hoping that Seoul is not annihilated by a preemptive nuclear strike?

For over 50 years, South Korea has played a symbolic “game” with its radicalizing neighbor, reacting and adapting to the the Kim family’s constant escalation. This diplomatic game is uniform and symmetric, with each Korean nation having the total support of its ideological super-power. Somehow, South Korea must break this tireless cycle and ensure that the current and future frenzied autocracy of North Korea halts its unacceptable, nuclear threats. In an ironic echo to John Badham’s “War Games,” it seems that South Korea’s only winning move is to no longer play this diplomatic game, even if it means rebuking scorching rhetoric with calculated force.

Original Author: Kyle Ezzedine