North Korea – A Delinquent State?
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 22 Sep , 2017

Diplomacy has failed because North Korea remains determined to build its nuclear arsenal. Resuming talks would achieve nothing, when it is so close to attaining an effective arsenal. North Korea now says that it will denuclearise only after USA and South Korea negotiate a peace treaty with it to end the Korean War formally. The only remaining hope for denuclearising North Korea peacefully lies in convincing it that it must disarm and reform, for continuing on the chosen path could lead to unimaginable consequences for it. Political subversion and financial isolation, through the latest sanctions, have to be backed with secondary sanctions against Chinese financial institutions and other institutions, which have been, on the sly, continuing trade and financial deals with North Korea.

North Korea, the name of this country causes alarm and confusion. Is it a democracy, oligarchy, an autocratic nation – one really cannot give an accurate description; it can probably be best described as a hereditary Marxist monarchy! The supreme leader of North Korea is the youngest in the world; it also has the oldest! The reigning ruler, Kim Jong-un, is in his 30s, while his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, is called as the “eternal president”. To celebrate his grandfather’s birthday, a parade with hundreds of soldiers and truck-mounted missiles, was held with a flypast in a ‘105’ formation, signifying the grandfather’s age! Its present leader calls for ‘peace guaranteed by arms’, for which he is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems to cause destruction on the country’s enemies – Japan, South Korea and USA; the pace of development is alarming and nations are worried about his next move.

The country’s leadership, therefore, has been described as an evil, blood-drenched dictatorship. Any hint of a display of disloyalty or dissent is punishable by confinement to a gulag or death. Kim Jong-un, has put children to death on the suspicion of their parents’ crimes and has had his own relatives murdered on a whim! Such a leader, who is now threatening USA, has to be taken with some seriousness, for the very thought of a nuclear strike is distressing.


In 1910, the Empire of Japan annexed Korea, and it continued to remain under occupation until after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945. The two major nations of the Allied Powers, USA and USSR, divided Korea into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the Soviets occupying the north while the south was occupied by USA. Negotiations on reunification failed, leading to the formation of separate governments in 1948: the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, and the capitalist Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, and swiftly overran most of the country. The US Army, under the sponsorship of the United Nations intervened to defend the South, primarily to stop the spread of communism, and achieved successes to rapidly advance into North Korea. China intervened on behalf of North Korea, as the UN/US forces neared its border, thus shifting the balance of the war again. The Korean War ended on 27 July 1953, with the signing of an armistice that restored the original boundaries approximately. The Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a cessation of hostilities, but no peace treaty was signed between the two nations; technically, thus, the two nations continued to be at war, and are still at war, even after all these years! The truce established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile (4.0 km) – wide fortified buffer zone between the two Korean nations, which currently, is the most heavily defended national border in the world!

North Korea has often announced that it would no longer abide by the terms of the armistice at least six times, in the years 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2013. In 2013 North Korea argued the Agreement was meant to be transitional, and put forth a number of proposals for replacing it with a peace treaty; USA, as alleged by it, did not respond positively. The US position, as expressed in 2010, in a letter from President Obama to the then leader, Kim Jong-il, father of the current leader, states “negotiations for a peace treaty can only be done when North Korea takes irreversible steps towards de-nuclearisation”.

North Korea further argues that the annual US – South Korea military exercises, ‘Key Resolve’ and ‘Foal Eagle’ are provocative and pose a nuclear threat to it. As a consequence of the perceived provocations, North Korea, in 2013, announced its withdrawal from all non-aggression treaties with South Korea, and the closure of the direct phone-line between the two Koreas. As a safeguard against any US led attacks, nuclear or conventional, it also announced its right to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear strike on South Korea, keeping the window open, however, to enter into negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the Armistice.

President Bush, in 2002, branded North Korea as a ‘rogue state’ and a part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, along with Iran and Iraq. Unmindful of the branding, North Korea announced its first successful nuclear weapons test on 09 Oct 2006, and has continued with the tests, notwithstanding the international condemnation. North Korea has not only accelerated the testing, but has now commenced testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) too, with an aim to reach the shores of America with a nuclear warhead. The nuclear tests and missiles test launches have picked up pace after the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. The latest in the series of missile tests on 27-28 July 2017, which reportedly has the range to strike some major cities of USA, right up to New York, has President Trump worried.

Foreign Relations

North Korea was born out of conflict between communism and capitalism; hence, its conflict with capitalist countries like South Korea, and its historical ties with world communism have shaped its foreign relations. Both the Korean governments claim to be the bona fide government of the whole of Korea. The Korean War failed to resolve the issue, leaving a military confrontation between North and South Korea, and the United States Forces in the south, across the DMZ. At the start of the Cold War, North Korea only had diplomatic recognition by Communist countries. In the decades following the end of the war, it established relations with developing countries and had even joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1976. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the years 1989–1991, its foreign policy was thrown in to total confusion; North Korea then made efforts to improve its diplomatic relations with developed capitalist countries. As of 2015, North Korea had diplomatic relations with 166 nations with embassies in 47 of them.

The end of the Cold War was also the time when there were international efforts to resolve the confrontation in the Korean peninsula, especially when the North had withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, and had established a successful nuclear weapons programme by 2006. Six-Party Talks were initiated with an aim to find a peaceful resolution to the security concerns that had thus arisen; the parties involved were South and North Korea, USA, China, Russia, and Japan. The talks, starting 2003, had some apparent gains but were discontinued in 2009, following the UN condemnation of North Korea’s satellite launch, which the other nations perceived as a test of ICBM technology. North Korea refused to accept any invitations to further talks, as also any agreements reached in the earlier rounds; it then resumed its nuclear weapons programme.

Relationship with Some Major Countries

China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950–1953), when Chinese troops flooded the Korean peninsula to aid its ally. Since the war, China has lent political and economic support to North Korean leaders, starting from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. The relationship developed strains when North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006 and China supported the UNSC Resolution, which imposed sanctions on North Korea. With this resolution and others that followed in quick succession, China’s relationship appeared to shift in tone and tenor from being patronising, to one of punishment, but it has also stymied international punitive action against North Korea for its human rights violations. China’s punitive steps have, thus, been restrained, and it continues to have wide-ranging ties with North Korea, including economic exchanges and high-level state trips such as the visit of a senior Chinese Communist Party member to attend the seventieth anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party in October 2015.

The Chinese actions indicate its reluctance to impose any further sanctions, and that it would rather engage the regime to make it mend its ways. The reasons for China’s reluctance seem to reflect national interests within its foreign policy establishment. Some analysts believe that China views North Korea as a strategic asset; the continued existence of North Korea is preferable to China rather than a unified Korea, which then would provide greater proximity to the Chinese border for South Korean and other capitalist and democratic forces. A unified Korea could also create uncertain effects on China’s provincial economic interests, by carrying the risks of large population movements, should the North Korean economy unravel quickly.

Diplomatic relations between North Korea and the USSR, were first established in October 1948, shortly after the proclamation of the new nation. Though the two were close allies all through the Cold War, relations between them have not been the same since the breakup of the Soviet Union; after 1991, the new Russian government under Boris Yeltsin refused to provide support for North Korea, favouring South Korea instead. Relations picked up momentum after Vladimir Putin came in as the Prime Minister and a major ‘friendship treaty’ between the two nations was signed in early 2000. Thereafter, relations have followed a ‘now-on-now-off’ status, with some high-level visits by North Korean ministers, which have not been reciprocated by Russia at similar levels; Russia has also been participant to all the UNSC Resolutions against North Korea, but has stressed to avoid the use of force.

Even though Russia has consistently supported sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear weapons programme and publicly criticized the regime’s belligerent foreign policy, it has also played a significant role in ameliorating North Korea’s economic isolation. The contrast between Russian rhetoric and policy towards North Korea has been most stark in the spheres of infrastructure and energy. As China’s oil supplies to North Korea have been periodically disrupted due to tensions between the two countries, Russia’s importance as an investor in the energy sector has increased markedly. Siberian oil companies have sold fuel to North Korea via a supply route linking Vladivostok to Rajin. These fuel supplies have provided the North Korean regime with vital hard currency, as it has processed Siberian oil in chemical plants and resold it to Chinese consumers!

Notwithstanding the Russian participation in the Six Party Talks, from 2003-2007, on North Korean nuclear disarmament, many analysts have argued that Russia’s influence over the security situation in the Korean peninsula is minimal. Apart from China, Russia is the only other great power, which has direct influence over the stability of the North Korean regime, while maintaining reasonably good relations with South Korea too. It is making sincere efforts to boost its image in the international comity as an influential and major power of the region, as a counter to both USA and China. Since North Korea’s April 2017 ballistic missile tests, Russia has consistently argued that its strategy, to continue favourable relations with both North and South Korea, is more likely to yield results in the Korean crisis than USA’s aggressive posturing.

For the United States, North Korea has long been a secondary problem. Although the country has been an uninterrupted source of impending regional instability, its neighbours, and its own economic limitations, have so far managed to keep it restrained. North Korea’s nuclear program was one of USA’s first major post-Cold War crises. The US general policy towards North Korea has been to manage any arising issue and put off conflict. Deft use of diplomacy in 1994 and subsequent years, whenever North Korea threatened irrational action, has so far avoided any use of force. Confronted with the price of military intervention, the US has preferred declaring moratoriums on the missile testing, isolating North Korea financially and making the occasional diplomatic deal. USA has always expected North Korea to implode, so waiting a while longer has been the more logical approach.

In recent times, however, especially after President Trump taking over reins, the policy has seen changes, since sanctions and severe indictments from UNSC have hardly slowed North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. USA now views North Korea as unacceptable with the probable acquisition of nuclear-tipped missiles that can target its cities. It, therefore, feels that the window for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea is closing. The US missile strike in Syria and the “mother of all bombs” strike in Afghanistan are indicators of US resolve to resort to military action, should other avenues close. Such strikes could also be indicators to North Korea to mend its ways, to China, which is North Korea’s primary economic support, and to Russia that it still carries enough conventional firepower to cause untold destruction, which USA would not hesitate to use, if the need arises.

India and North Korea

As per its policy of non-alignment, while India condemned North Korea as an aggressor in the Korean War and supported the UN Resolutions against it, India did not support the arming of South Korea, and called for a unification of the two nations. India’s support to the country then was more humanitarian, sending medical supplies and food to the beleaguered population.

Surprisingly though, India has continued to maintain reasonably good trade and diplomatic relations with North Korea; both countries maintain embassies in each other’s capital cities; India established consular relations with North Korea in 1962 and in 1973, established full diplomatic relations. India is one of the biggest trade partners and a major food provider to North Korea. As per data available from the GoI, Indian exports to North Korea in 2015-16, were more than $100 mn, while the imports totalled about $88 mn.

It may be of surprise and, some embarrassment, to the readers to learn of technical assistance provided by India. The Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP), an institute located in the foothills of Dehradun and established with the UN in 1995, has been training North Korean students since its inception. The trainees in CSSTEAP have been students, scientists and space agency employees, most of who have participated in the space, missile, and nuclear programme of North Korea. What is discomforting is that the continuation of training was exposed only in 2016 in an annual report, despite the first set of sanctions imposed by UN in 2006!

Where does India fit in this extremely complicated jigsaw puzzle of North Korea? In the preceding decades, the relationship has been frosty, to say the least, between the two nations due to North Korea’s links with Pakistan. Then in 2006, India joined the world chorus in condemning the nuclear test by North Korea; it had its geo-strategic compulsions, for the nuclear test had immensely complicated India’s quest for integration in the then existing nuclear order. Nevertheless, the Indian Government of 2006 did play some deft diplomatic moves to ensure the success of the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Notwithstanding the trade links, cordial diplomatic relations, and technical training, India has always voiced its disapproval of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation record. Regardless of maintaining such a ‘meaningful’ relationship with India, North Korea, however, has been continuing to help Pakistan’s nuclear missile programme and maintain military relations! The current tensions in the Korean peninsula, due to North Korea’s stubbornness in continuing nuclear and ICBM tests have made India take a relook at its relations. The Indian government has, since April of this year reduced its trade with North Korea, and now, has halted all trade, except for food and medicine; as part of the new ban, all military, police, scientific, and technical help is also barred. The Indian Government has also announced the freezing of all funds and financial assets held on its territory by the North Korean government.

The Current Situation

China can apply immense influence over North Korea; it accounts for 85 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade and could shut off its oil supply, but Chinese interests are not the same as those of America. North Korea is China’s ally; even if the Chinese leadership disapproves of the North Korean regime, it would not appreciate unification of the two Koreas, which, in its opinion would lead to the loss of an important buffer. China, therefore has been going slow to exert pressure on North Korea, much to the annoyance of USA. President Trump, in end-July 2017, fired the first salvo in an effort to arm-twist China in exerting more pressure on North Korea, through announcing an examination of US-China trade policies.

On 05 Aug 2017, with an unanimous vote the tougher measures proposed in early July, after North Korea’s first ICBM test, were accepted by the UNSC. This marked a symbolic victory for the Trump administration, which had been pushing China to apply pressure on North Korea, and had signalled its intentions to unleash severe trade measures against China. Would these fresh sanctions discourage North Korea from its continued goal of attaining a deliverable nuclear device? It appears not, for as with all previous sanctions, enforcement is the key issue.

All UNSC imposed sanctions, have had implementation and monitoring as the key issues. Member nations would now have to submit a self-raised report within three months, on implementation measures taken by them to the Security Council. As mentioned earlier, to safeguard their own interests, neither Russia nor China would want to see a collapse of the North Korean government, and both have numerous hidden openings to ensure its continuance. In the past too, Russia and China have passed sanctions, not exercising their veto powers, only to undercut them in practice. This three-month reporting deadline gives them a great leeway, as does the fact that member countries will be self-reporting on implementation.

North Korea’s reaction to the newly imposed sanctions have been on the expected lines. It has escalated its criticism of USA and the neighbouring allies – Japan and South Korea, and is now threatening to attack Guam – a US territorial island in the Pacific Ocean. The Korean State-run News Agency, has been quoted as saying, “Packs of wolves are coming in attack to strangle a nation….they should be mindful that the DPRK’s strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilisation of all its national strength.” (Hindustan Times, ‘Pyongyang threatens Physical Action’, 09 Aug 2017) In a display of its commitment to side with the international community in opposing North Korea’s sabre-rattling, China has carried out live-fire drills with its navy and air force, off the Korean peninsula.

Further Course of Action

For all his eccentricities, Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea, is behaving rationally. He has seen what fate befell Gaddafi of Libya in return for giving up his nuclear programme for better relations with Western nations. For him, the country’s nuclear arsenal is essential for his own survival, and President Trump’s ranting can do little to change his mind.

China would like to carve its regions of influence in the world, along with other great powers. While USA has long considered itself as the guardian of a rules-based world order, which applies to all nations, big or small, since the end of WW II, it is a different issue that the rules have been made by it, and also flouted by it! President Trump appears to scorn this rules-based order, which could make the world a dangerous place if China is permitted to defy the rules, as in South China Sea, as barter for leaning on North Korea.

China would gain if North Korea continues with its nuclear missile tests, and the two Koreas do not unite. It, however, would not gain if Japan and South Korea begin their own nuclear weapons programme, an unlikely proposition though. What USA should do is to reassure its allies of its protection, while addressing China’s concerns too. To that end, President Trump should make it unambiguously clear to China that only the freezing of North Korea’s nuclear programme is its primary objective, and USA is not seeking a regime change. Should the two Koreas move towards reunification, USA, to allay Chinese, and to some extent Russian fears, must announce that its troops along the DMZ would be withdrawn further south of the 38th parallel.

Russia voted in favour of the June sanctions in the UNSC, but vetoed an earlier April statement condemning North Korean tests and reportedly also blocking a 06 July 2017 statement, insisting that the term ICBM not be used. This was considered as a sign of further acrimony to follow, making USA directly warn Russia not to veto further sanctions on North Korea. Russia may provide some cover for China, which does not want to pressure North Korea too much but which also must also be seen to be cooperating with USA.

Diplomacy has failed because North Korea remains determined to build its nuclear arsenal. Resuming talks would achieve nothing, when it is so close to attaining an effective arsenal. North Korea now says that it will denuclearise only after USA and South Korea negotiate a peace treaty with it to end the Korean War formally. The only remaining hope for denuclearising North Korea peacefully lies in convincing it that it must disarm and reform, for continuing on the chosen path could lead to unimaginable consequences for it. Political subversion and financial isolation, through the latest sanctions, have to be backed with secondary sanctions against Chinese financial institutions and other institutions, which have been, on the sly, continuing trade and financial deals with North Korea.

In the current imbroglio, India needs to join hands with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to ensure that the lessons of the North Korean fiasco are properly understood by the Western nations. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has enjoyed the traditional protection of China, whose support is crucial to the survival of his regime. President Trump has been seeking China’s assistance, as have previous governments, with not too much of success. Although China has shown itself as making some efforts, which obviously are clearly not enough. The sharp US-China divergence on North Korea gives India a diplomatic opportunity as it seeks to counter China on several fronts for its support to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism against India. As far as India is concerned, both China and Pakistan should be called to explain their past and present collusion with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme.

As long as nuclear weapons exist and are legitimised in the doctrines and force postures of a handful of states, the “world nuclear order” will never be stable. Force and sanctions cannot deter a country from developing nuclear weapons. If anything can work, it is diplomacy and dialogue. Building of trust is a two-way street. In Korea, the international community seems to have missed the bus. The current GoI made some efforts to thaw relations with North Korea, when, in 2015, a cabinet minister attended North Korea’s independence-day celebrations at the embassy in New Delhi; India should build on it, even though trade ties have come under current sanctions.

There are no magic keys to solve the North Korea problem. Despite the constraints and compulsions that may arise from such an approach, one cannot eliminate every possible challenge, but, at least, the delinquent nation would get a message.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

former Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Training Command.

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