Nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation have been heavily associated with North Korea, more so in the recent decade. The graph below displays the frequency and number of missile tests conducted since 1993 till 2022. It is evident that post-2011, since Kim Jong-un took over, the number of tests increased and continues to do so. In this commentary, I propose a correlation between the number of tests conducted to that of the political approach in the neighborhood and the ever-increasing ‘restlessness’ of the United States. To this, as a consequence, North Korea only oozes resiliency and stubbornness. I further propose that reconsidering the deliberations with a lens of an empathetic approach can do some good.
United States, South Korea, United Nations have ‘tried’ to denuclearize North Korea. Japan has been wary of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation since the latter test-fired a short-range missile in 2005 into the Sea of Japan. Recently, Hwasong-12 an ICBM missile was test fired on Oct. 3, 2022, the second such missile tested since September 2017.
Bilateral and trilateral military exercises, deployment of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and a quest for expanding US deployed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile shield by South Korea and Japan; have all been hardly successful. These developments have been perceived rather as provocations. Nuclear North Korea views them as irritants. In retaliation to it, North Korea has had a sorted reply which has only increased in volume with time, i.e. – a display of brinkmanship strategy- an equivalent to ‘Hey, I am still alive and kicking’.
In today’s time, North Korea is considered a belligerent state. And in reaction to counter the nuclear propagation by them, U.S. and like-minded allies have themselves become like North Korea — displaying the urgent need to equip themselves with defense capabilities and nuclear warheads. A tit-for-tat can be a solution for cooperation on mutual understanding like bilateral economic developments, but a matter of nuclear issues requires hardcore dialogue and discussion. In the case of North Korea, we need somewhat more empathetic approach.
As UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold put it, “you can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.” Considering the objective to disarm North Korea in this light, a passive approach needs to be adopted to a reactive one.
Moon Jae-in, a democrat and the former president of South Korea had an approach of “Three No’s” towards China’s deteriorating relations. It indirectly displayed an attitude in the region to reduce provocative behavior. The three No’s were as follows – no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in a US missile defense system, and no formation of a trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo. Moon Jae-in was in office from May 2017 to May 2022. The data suggest that nuclear tests by Kim Jong-un during this particular phase had reduced to a larger extent. Also, it was the first time in history that a North Korea-United States Summit had taken place. South Korean government was a key harbinger. This proved that dialogue and discussions work. And if mixed with emotional connections could prove worthy. One of the summit objectives was to denuclearize North Korea and I believe that it was farfetched because North Korea had simply reached a point of “no return”.
Official statements like ‘assessing the situation’, reaffirming commitment, condemning the launch, etc ring hollow to the North Korean regime. These have been left behind as mere rhetorics. Dialogue seems to be the best option amongst the worst. Sanctions and more sanctions have hardly dissuaded.
For a layman, a history of the evolution of North Korea ought to be known in order to formulate opinions. They had been subject to colonial imperialism, controlled by the then Soviet Union and China for territorial might. In order to break away, they developed Juche –– an inherently nationalistic concept of self-ness. Juche policies have been since implemented in the political, military and economical spheres. Kim Il Sung, considered the eternal president of North Korea propagated this particular concept of self-reliance. Since then it has been molded according to each Kim’s (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-un) priority at the helm of affairs; but always with an outlook of exercising self-ness. Since 2011 Kim Jong-un, emphasized on the Byungin policy, that of parallel development. It allows for a simultaneous proliferation of nuclear weapons and the economy as a means to surmount and survive.
Current South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol’s foreign ministry spokesperson stated that “Anything that limits our national security and sovereign right is not subject to negotiations.” It can be agreed to, but one needs to dive into history and consider the fact that the Korean Peninsula was essentially one before the proxy war left little trace of the same dividing it along the 38th parallel. On the common civilizational connection and cultural linkages parameter, it will be wise to advocate the idea of a formal discussion on topics of common bonds that can penetrate trust.
In conclusion, a change in the approach needs to be experimented. An empathetic approach to international relations can explain political behavior from a neutral point of view. It can allow the leaders to understand each other’s intentions and trust that the other is being sincere in their approach.
A regard for ‘cosmopolitan empathy’ as suggested by Rhoda Howard-Hassmann can be pondered upon to ease out the steps to discussion. She suggests a “cosmopolitan attitude to global problems by viewing the stranger as having an equal claim to humanity and respect.” North Korea needs to be looked upon from a North Korean lens, which is possible with acquired trust and reciprocation.
[Photo by Roman Harak, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Lakhan Bir Meena is a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU. His area of research primarily deals with North Korean ideology and Foreign affairs.