Examining the North Korean Crisis

Since its most recent nuclear test on February 12, 2013, there has been a lot of attention to and activity around North Korea. The test – it’s third and most “successful” to date – elicited a predictable response in the passage of additional U.N. Security Council sanctions the. But the fact that the sanctions passed unanimously – with China’s consent – is significant, although it is still unclear if this marks a shift in Chinese policy toward North Korea. In short, the North’s latest behavior seems to have raised the game with respect to the stability and security in Northeast Asia.

North Korea responded to the sanctions by stepping up its rhetoric and “public relations” campaign against South Korea and the United States. But in addition to heating up its rhetoric even more, the DPRK also took small but tangible actions like severing communications links and formal statements of abdicating the Armistice Agreement. With joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises underway, the region is in a potentially volatile state.

Throughout this situation with North Korea, Ploughshares Fund grantees, as well as our own staff, have been monitoring developments and providing expert insights.

Our grantee Joel Wit is an expert on the DPRK (North Korea’s official name). He recently published an article in The Atlantic titled “It's Not a Hermit Kingdom, and 4 Other Myths About North Korea” that looks to better inform us on how to read the actions taken by The North. Wit’s article cautions that “[y]es, we should be taking Kim Jong Un's recent threats seriously. But first, we have to lose the comic-book caricature of his country.” In his analysis, many of the commonly held “wisdoms” about North Korea, while some may be partially true, generally do not hold water, and in order to make sound policy decisions the U.S. must take the DPRK seriously. Wit concludes:

None of this analysis is meant to dismiss the horrific realities of an authoritarian North Korea, which is guilty of a multitude of human rights violations. But painting a black and white, comic book caricature of North Korea only increases the chances that we will continue pursuing misguided policies.

In reference to the recent B-2 flights over South Korea as part of the joint military exercise, Paul Carroll  is quoted in The Raw Story’s article, “New U.S. strategy could push North Korea over the edge,” as saying, “[t]here certainly seems to be an element of ‘let’s show we’re taking the gloves off this time’ about the US stance.”

Just prior to the B-2 flights, The North cut several military hotlines claiming that war could break out at any moment. While we must be cautious about this hyperbolic language, Joel Rubin noted on during an ABC interview that, “cutting off communication entirely does escalate [the situation] to a level we haven’t seen.”

In the following weeks, and perhaps months, the U.S., DPRK and the international community must proceed cautiously to avoid a miscalculation that could lead to circumstances spinning out of control and triggering a shooting war. This is the real danger – a war, if it comes, that Joel Wit believes “would make the devastating civil war in Syria pale in comparison.”

Photo: Joseph A. Ferris, III