BQExplains: The North Korea Threat
A man watches a television screen showing a news broadcast on North Korea’s unidentified ballistic missile launch at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

BQExplains: The North Korea Threat

When BRICS leaders arrived for the five-nation summit in Xiamen on Sunday, little did they know that North Korea was all set to shake the world by conducting its sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet.

Later that day, Kim Jong Un’s regime claimed it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb that can fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), moving one step closer in enhancing its ability to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. On the same day, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported an earthquake in the north east region of North Korea due to the nuclear explosion.

On Monday, South Korea said it detected that North Korea was continuing to prepare for another possible ICBM firing. South Korea’s spy agency said there was a possibility it could be launched into the Pacific Ocean, and that the isolated state was able to conduct a nuclear test at any time, the Yonhap news agency reported.

That’s what prompted the country to beef up its security and sanction the deployment of six U.S. Missile defence systems.

The heads of state of the five BRICS Nations (Source: BRICS 2016 website)
The heads of state of the five BRICS Nations (Source: BRICS 2016 website)

Meanwhile at the Xiamen summit, the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) nations deplored the nuclear test and said, “We express deep concern over the ongoing tension and prolonged nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, and emphasise that it should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue of all the parties concerned.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said that North Korea was “begging for war” by conducting such a nuclear test and demanded the strongest sanctions to reprimand the Kim Jong-Un regime.

“Only the strongest sanctions will enable us to resolve this problem through diplomacy,” Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a meeting of the UN Security Council. She said the U.S. will circulate new draft sanctions measures and wants the council to vote on them September 11.

President Trump went to the extent of calling North Korea a “rogue nation” that had become an embarrassment for China. He also tweeted that the US was mulling cutting trade ties with any country doing business with North Korea.

How Did It All Begin?

John Nilsson-Wright, senior research fellow at international think tank Chatham House, told BloombergQuint in an interaction that one would need to go back to the Korean war in 1950 to understand when this conflict began.

That’s when North Korea invaded South Korea, starting a war that lasted three years. “At the end of World War II, two states had emerged- South Korea backed by the U.S., and North Korea backed by the then Soviet Union...,” he explained.

The war wasn’t just between the Korean states, but it also included the United Nations Command representing the U.S. and its allies and on the other side supporting North Korea was Russia and China, he added. Since the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953, the war between North Korea and South Korea has been temporarily suspended but it is still unresolved, and that’s what has led to the conflict in the Korean peninsula.

The conflict today reflects not only the legacy of that bitter war but also the ambitions of North Korea to become an independent nuclear state. North Korea has had its eye on acquiring its own nuclear assets since the 1960s, but it’s only in recent years that North Koreans have been able to make real progress advancing towards that ambition of becoming a credible, independent nuclear power. 
John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House

The Chinese Angle

Since the Korean war, China has remained an ally of North Korea. In material terms, 90 percent of the energy and food provisions come from China, and the world’s second largest economy is North Korea’s biggest trade partner.

BQExplains: The North Korea Threat

China also shares an 800-mile border with North Korea and considers the “isolated state” to be an economic and strategic backyard, and hence, are averse to do anything to undermine the political stability of Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Nilsson-Wright explains, “They (China) worry that any undue pressure on Pyongyang might lead to the collapse of the regime creating, in turn, a strategic power vacuum in the North that will be filled by the U.S. and its allies creating a strategic challenge to China on its 800-mile border to North Korea.”

That’s not the only concern for China. The Chinese are also worried that anything that tipped North Korea into chaos would lead to a mass exodus of people from the North, which has a population of nearly 23 million people. This could prove to be a major security threat to the Chinese government.

How Did The U.S. Get Involved?

That seems to be the key question since on the face of it, the conflict seems to be between North Korea and South Korea. It’s understandable why Japan is concerned, considering its geographical proximity to the conflict, and the fact that it does not possess its own nuclear weapons.

To understand why the U.S. is in the cross hairs of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader”, Nilsson-Wright said that one needs to dig as deep as the Cold War.

“In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. assumed a global role that was uncharacteristic for it given that in the pre-1945 era had flirted with the idea of isolationism... That America was replaced by a much more out looking U.S. after 1945. Under the leadership of Harry Truman, the Americans decided that it was in their strategic and economic interests to have a presence in the Far East.”

The U.S. had defeated Japan in World War II and occupied the country for seven years and helped Japan recover from the ravages of the war. But from as early as 1945, American troops were also at the forefront of the liberation of colonial Korea, the Korean peninsula that had been occupied by imperial Japan. “It was the need to protect interests of South Korea and also by extension Japan, America’s most important base in east Asia and not only from the North Korean threat but also from the broader threat of international communism,” said Nilsson-Wright.

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