Nukes and North Korea

This was the final essay I wrote for my class.

The North Korean nuclear standoff is a complex political situation made worse by distrust and deception. North Korea does not trust the western powers and is willing to do anything to protect its regime. China supports North Korea because it wishes to maintain its economic relations, but it does not trust North Korea with nuclear weapons. The western powers do not trust North Korea to uphold any nuclear agreements, and their concerns are further motivated by North Korea’s denial of its human rights violations. This situation is best described by two opposing views of international relations. While North Korea and China are operating out of self-interest and a desire for power, the western powers are striving to maintain world order. However, even China is beginning to recognize the necessity of working with other countries to maintain peace. Thus, although North Korea is acting from a realist view, the overall situation is best described from the liberalist view.

North Korea’s main concern is self-protection. It feels threatened by the other countries who consistently question and challenge its authority, so it feels justified in its retention of missiles and nuclear weapons. “Kim Jong-il is trying to maintain the existing order, to strengthen his regime based on personal authority, and consolidate control of military forces with the goal of preventing an overthrow of the state” (Vorontsov). The country is certainly not operating out of an interest for the greater good of the global community or even its own citizens, so its leaders must be operating with the sole interest of obtaining power. The western powers are concerned that this interest will lead to a dangerous imbalance of power that will allow North Korea to begin threatening and dominating other countries. However, the response by the west – and particularly by the United States – does not seem to be helping the situation. “The [U.S. war]ships’ deployment angered North Korea, which said it proved Pyongyang was right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself or use in a pre-emptive strike” (“Xi-Trump”). This is a clear example of a security dilemma; North Korea’s desire for self-protection threatens the western powers, and their response to the threat further encourages North Korea to defend itself. Yet there is no way to know what havoc the volatile country would wreak if there was no response to its actions, so the West does not seem to have any other option except to react against the threat in order to maintain the balance of power. This clearly demonstrates that North Korea’s struggle for power in its realist view is met by a liberal response from the western powers who wish to maintain stability in global politics.

China’s position in the North Korean conflict is rather complicated. It has historically operated from the realist perspective of self-interest, but has recently began recognizing the necessity of working with other powers to maintain the stability of the region. “[China’s] support for North Korea ensures a friendly nation on its northeastern border and provides a buffer between China and the democratic South, [… so] Beijing has consistently urged world powers not to push Pyongyang too hard, for fear of precipitating regime collapse and triggering dangerous military action” (Albert). For many years, China refused to do anything to jeopardize its relationship with North Korea because of the two countries’ strong economic ties. However, as the situation becomes worse and tensions increase, China is beginning to recognize that this advantage will be lost if the region falls into turmoil. As a result, “China has proposed North Korea suspend tests of missile and nuclear technology to ‘defuse a looming crisis.’ Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that in exchange, the US and South Korea could halt annual joint military drills, which consistently infuriate the North” (“China Calls”). China’s attempt to moderate negotiations between North Korea and the other world powers demonstrates that it recognizes the value of cooperation between countries. Although China is clearly still operating out of self-interest, it recognizes that the situation is not a zero-sum game, so the best way to help itself is to help the other powers as well. In this way, China is upholding the liberalist view.

China is now willing to work with the western powers to limit the strength of North Korea, but it is still not entirely willing to lose its economic ties. “Though Beijing, Seoul, and Washington agree that a denuclearized North Korea is a top priority, differences remain over how best to strip the country of its nuclear threat” (Albert). The western powers want to punish North Korea by cutting off economic ties, but China is reluctant to do so. This is likely because although China is beginning to embrace the liberalist view, it is still reluctant to give up the realist view. It realizes that stopping North Korea is in the best long-term interest of all countries involved, but it still does not want to be the one to temporarily lose in the process.

The main priority of the western countries involved is to prevent North Korea from doing anything brash. Their concerns are certainly justified based on the recent actions of the state. “North Korea’s government has continued its aggressive and erratic behavior, as demonstrated by recent military and cyber provocations, and continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles” (“Global Conflict”). Because of its refusal to work with other countries, world powers are reluctant to send aid to North Korea. “[T]he North’s provocative acts like the recent missile and nuclear tests are making it difficult for international aid groups to raise funds for the recovery” after a major flood (Cheol). The country will not allow workers to enter and offer their help, and there is a concern that any monetary aid given to the country will go to the government rather than the flood victims. As a solution, “The United States has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid, diplomatic benefits, and normalization of relations” (Albert). However, it seems highly unlikely that the country will agree to such terms. North Korea clearly believes that the world operates on a zero-sum game, so it is not willing to do anything that might give another country an advantage and thereby diminish its own power.

North Korea’s strict adherence to the realist view of politics is arguably what has brought the other world powers together with a more liberalist view. Because of the horrific measures to which North Korea has gone to obtain its control, the other powers perhaps now realize that a selfish pursuit of power is not justifiable. North Korea has violated the international human rights law in numerous ways, and such actions are inexcusable. A report detailing North Korea’s human rights violations “documents ‘extermination,’ murder, enslavement, torture, rape and persecution on grounds of race, religion and gender [… and] also criticizes the political and security apparatus of the North Korean state, saying that it uses surveillance, fear, public executions and forced disappearances ‘to terrorize the population into submission’” (Mullany). To make matters worse, North Korea denies that these problems even exist, which stimulates further distrust in the country. When the country will not even admit to its internal atrocities, there is no way other countries can trust it to keep a promise to end all nuclear development. Then the only way to prevent a global disaster is for countries to band together against North Korea so that it does not dare to do anything brash.

Overall, the North Korean nuclear crisis is best understood through the liberalist view of politics. Although North Korea itself is operating from the realist view, the rest of the world powers have joined together in an effort to prevent North Korea from causing further damage. These countries are not fighting against each other for power; rather, they are working together in an effort to benefit the world community as a whole.

Works Cited

Albert, Eleanor. “The China–North Korea Relationship.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 26 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

Cheol, Lee Yeon. “Amid Nuclear Tensions, North Korea Struggles to Secure Flood Aid.” VOA. VOA, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 07 May 2017.

“China Calls on N Korea to Suspend Missile and Nuclear Tests.” BBC News. BBC, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.

“Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, 8 May 2017. Web. 08 May 2017.

Mullany, Gerry, and Nick Cumming-Bruce. “China Faults Report Blaming North Korean Leader for Atrocities.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.

Vorontsov, Alexander V. “North Korea’s Military-First Policy: A Curse or a Blessing?”     Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 06 May 2017.

“Xi-Trump Call: China Urges ‘peaceful’ North Korea Solution.” BBC News. BBC, 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 06 May 2017.