In January 2016, North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test which went against international rules. This test was the fourth overall, and the first time that North Koreans claimed a hydrogen, or thermonuclear, explosion. Less than a month later, North Korea launched a long-range missile on a ballistic trajectory, indicating they may now have the technology necessary to target any nation on Earth. These latest threats from North Korea are but a continuation of the nation’s aggressive foreign policy, and according to the Central Intelligence Agency, this demonstration of technology indicates that North Korea has become a legitimate threat to international security.
History of the North Korean Conflict
World War II
During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union liberated the Korean peninsula from the Japanese. Both nations claimed the right to determine the kind of government the Koreans would have, and tensions between the Americans and the Soviets began to rise. In 1948, the two sides agreed to divide Korea into North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. After only two years of peace, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to reunify the country.
International forces from the United Nations, led by the United States, fought back against the North Koreans and the Chinese. The conflict continued for three years, largely as a war of attrition that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. By 1953, both sides were tired of fighting, so they agreed to a ceasefire and the creation of a wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
As a result of North and South Korea never signing a peace treaty, the war in Korea remained as both nations continued to conduct military maneuvers along the DMZ. North Koreans attempted to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-Hee in the 1960s, while South Koreans were quick to attack any North Korean unit that approached too close to the southern border of the DMZ.
Into the 21st Century
Tensions between North and South Korea appeared to be on the decline in the early 21st century. South Korea’s President Roh Moo-Hyun crossed the DMZ in 2007 to discuss updates on the ceasefire with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il. In December 2011, tensions between North and South Korea began to rise again with the death of Kim Jong-il. His son, Kim Jong-un, ascended to the office of Supreme Commander of North Korea at the age of 28, and has shown no signs of compromise. According to media reports, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, North Korea has become far more militaristic and unstable, renewing conflicts with both South Korea and the United States.
The Current Threat
North Korea represents three immediate threats to international security. Due to advancements in technology, these threats also extend to the digital landscape.
North Korea has invested heavily into the tools of cyber warfare. North Korean agents have been able to hack into the phones of high ranking South Korean government officials, and they have also stolen data from a number of major US companies. Despite these successes, cyber attacks are a relatively new strategy for North Korea, raising concern among military officials from a number of countries about how quickly North Korea’s cyber warfare tactics are developing.
North Korea’s most imminent threat is considered to be an invasion of South Korea. The North Korean military has more than a million men in uniform, with at least as many in reserve, and thousands of tanks and advanced air technology that could help the North Koreans achieve a swift victory.
A North Korean invasion could pose serious threats for international relations and distributions. South Korea has mutually viable relationships with a number of countries and key international organizations, such as the United Nations, G-20, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, World Bank and the World Trade Organization. A North Korean invasion of South Korea could threaten these relationships, and result in economic imbalances and strained public relations for South Korea.
North Korea is known to have the industrial capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. According to news reports, North Korea’s claims of nuclear weapons are highly credible, and the nation’s multiple tests of ballistic missiles demonstrate that a North Korean nuclear attack is possible. These recent tests have also provided insight into the advanced level of technology that North Korea has at its disposal. North Korea’s newest missile, the KN-14, has been estimated to have a range between 5,000 to 6,200 miles, causing concern in not only the United States, but internationally as well.
Dealing With The Threats
On a global level, the international community is known to have limited options to handle the situation in North Korea. For example, the option of using economic threats to deter North Korea’s foreign policy is not viable as North Korea is already under some of the strictest sanctions in history. Also, due to North Korea’s close relationship with China, specific actions could strain many international ties with China.
The conflict with North Korea is one with deep roots and will require the intricate management of relationships in order to effect change. The international community will need to work together to assess current threats and decide on potential solutions to the ongoing conflict.
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Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation, World Nuclear Association
Profile: North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, BBC News
North Korea: Overview, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)
Pentagon Confirms New North Korean ICBM, The Washington Free Beacon
CIA Chief Says North Korea a “Growing” Danger to U.S., Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)
A US Army general says North Korea has some of the worlds best hackers, Business Insider