North Korea: An overview of the current tensions

This piece was written in response to Tembusu College’s recent forum titled “Will There Be Another War on the Korean Peninsula?”, which took place on the evening of Tuesday, October 17 of this year. Our Rector Professor Tommy Koh hosted Mr Lim Ju-Seong, Counsellor (Political) at the embassy of the Republic of Korea, Ms Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, Charge D’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States, and Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large at the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You can find more about it here.


Nuclear war is an almost unimaginable concept to grasp: millions of deaths in seconds, billions of dollars of infrastructure and technology annihilated in an instant, and a radioactive scar that remains for generations. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate game changer as nothing else compares regarding destructive capabilities and their use is regarded as such a taboo that they have only been used as a weapon twice in history: on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the near 200 countries in the world, North Korea will be the least desirable to possess such weapons. But that is the current situation.

The number of nuclear weapons that North Korea possesses currently is enough to wipe off Seoul, Tokyo and the US military outpost in Guam. The great fear and endless discussion of a possible conflict with North Korea are understandable given what exactly is at stake. It is hard to gauge the likelihood of war, as we have seen cycles of escalation and heightening tensions leading to nothing in the past 60 years. In the recent Tembusu Forum on the possibility of a war with North Korea, there was hope amongst the panel and the audience that war would not occur, and that as uncertain as we were, this is probably the right mindset to adopt.

North Korea emerged out of an agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of World War Two. Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1876 to 1945, was divided along the 38th parallel between two occupation zones after World War Two. This artificial border would harden through the Cold War dividing the Korean peninsula and nation-state into two, both geographically and ideologically. Whereby South Korea remained within the sphere of influence of the United States, North Korea become a communist dictatorship under the influence of the Soviet Union. It remains a communist dictatorship, developing an oppressive state apparatus which subjugates its population to an alarmable level, even within the Communist world. The state propaganda depicts the United States and Japan as imperialist powers and asserts the North’s commitment to the unification of Korea. The mainstay of the North Korean regime is its nuclear weapons, and they are used as a tool to maintain its grasp on power. Although it is still undeniably a Communist state, the Kim regime removed all references to Marxist-Leninism and Communism in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. It now officially adopts the ideology of Juche and songon, a military-first policy usually translated as “self-reliance”.

It is in this background that the current tensions arose between the Kim Jong-un led North Korean regime and almost every other international actor. The present issue began with a report by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency that North Korea has developed weapons capable of reaching the American mainland, posing a direct and imminent threat to U.S citizens. The tensions intensified when North Korea’s foreign minister called a missile launch at the U.S mainland inevitable. This subsequently led to Donald Trump threatening North Korea with “total destruction” and directly insulting Kim Jong-Un as “little rocket man”. Along with this verbal skirmish, both North Korea and the United States have undertaken military tests and exercises to the effect of further intensifying tensions. The climax of this was North Korea launching two ballistics missiles over Hokkaido, Japan.

The present state of relations between North Korea and the bloc of countries led by the USA has been seen as unprecedented. It is also true that the international reaction to the dispute has been surprising. China has always been North Korea’s closest ally, providing support and enabling the regime. The primary reason for this is because China has a stake in the continued existence of the North Korean state.  It does not want millions of North Korean refugees fleeing into China as a result of the collapse of the state. It also does not want US troops approaching the Chinese border. If China would fight an extraordinarily bloody war for the existence of the North Korean buffer back in the 1950s, its present support for North Korea is understandable. However, the current actions of North Korea are apparently sufficiently intolerable for China to agree to implement the most stringent sanctions ever imposed upon North Korea. These sanctions, however, are contingent on China keeping up its end of the bargain.

However, despite all this, war is still probably unlikely to occur, even if there are a few caveats. Many consider Kim Jong-un as an irrational actor – as an inexperienced, megalomaniacal and deluded individual. The entire nature of the North Korean regime and its devotion to the Kim dynasty has always been portrayed as a joke. There are stories that Kim Jong-il, the father of Jong-un, could control the weather, learned to walk as a three-week-old baby, and chastised his high school teachers for teaching wrongly. Continuing this cult of personality, Kim Jong-un is even said to be a child prodigy who could drive at 3 years old. These ludicrous stories and the over the top language of North Korean officials paint a picture of a deranged ruling class, mad enough to start a war it can’t win. However, for a government which acts so seemingly irrationally and self-destructive, they are probably one of the least suicidal dictatorships of all time given their track record. The Kim dynasty has outlived almost all other dictatorships from the Cold War era and has survived every American administration since the Cold War.

In fact, if there is one thing that characterises the North Korean regime, it is its immense desire and skill at surviving. In comparison to the wealth and power of the United States or South Korea, North Korea is a joke. The only equalising element is not only North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, but the perception that they are willing to use it, even if it would mean the end of the regime. In International Relations parlance, this is known as the“Madman Theory”, an invention of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger used during the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In the “Madman Theory”, a government acts unhinged, seemingly ready to attack at any moment, unconcerned with its own capabilities to win. North Korea’s seemingly erratic behaviour, through the lens of “Madman Theory”, is actually a strategy meant to induce caution in its rivals as North Korea’s threats seem all the more realistic the crazier it acts. This serves to ward off any attempt at regime change as the calculated loss of human life and economic damage would deter the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The North Korean regime knows that any use of nuclear weapons would mean the end of the regime as the military retaliation by the United States would inevitably enact regime change. Thus, the threats of war from North Korea should not be seen as serious policy. The regime is concerned about survival – a hot war would not be in that interest.

In the case of the United States, Donald Trump has been extraordinarily belligerent and provocative in his private tweets and in official speeches. However, similar to North Korea, this can be interpreted more verbal brinksmanship than actual intentions – this is very much evident in the leaked transcripts of behind-the-scenes phone calls. No regional ally of the United States, be it South Korea or Japan, desire war due to the direct threat of nuclear and conventional weapons unto their countries. Furthermore, starting a war could likely lead to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers stationed in bases in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific. The economic impact would also be immense and would undoubtedly damage the stock market, the constant growth of which has been touted as a symbol of success for the Trump administration. Current and former top officials in the Trump administration have also emphasised the desire not to go to war. It is in the interest of both sides to flex their power and make provocative statements as a sign of strength to avoid the appearance of weakness, but it is in neither’s interest to go to war.

However, there is always the possibility of miscalculation or a mistake. A North Korean missile test could possibility land in the wrong area, or a military exercise could be interpreted as an attack. Furthermore, there could be an excellent incentive for the United States to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program before a missile capable of directly hitting the mainland is developed. An unfortunate series of events may conspire in unexpected and unplanned ways. These factors all ensure that the possibility of war can never be dismissed, even if it is ultimately unlikely.

Although war may not occur, this recurring conflict is probably not going to end anytime soon. One of the reasons for the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya was it giving up nuclear weapons in 2003, enabling for outside powers to intervene in the 2011 civil war without the fear of retribution. The ruling class of North Korea understands this that nuclear weapons are the ultimate insurance policy and they consider regime change as equivalent to death – just as the fall of regimes in other countries usually lead to the violent deaths of the once-oppressors in Iraq, Libya, and Romania. The enforced isolation of the regime also is unlikely to give way to the pressures of globalisation; although they will allow tourists into the country for hard currency revenues, their imperative concern will ultimately be survival. This is a regime that has been willing to subject its people to famine to preserve their independence and imperatives. Unfortunately, the nightmare of our current crisis does not seem to be ending anytime soon.


About the Author

Raymund is a Year 2 Political Science student. He loves both non-fiction and fiction books, movies and listening to Jazz during a rainy day. He wants to know more about the world and about himself.