Ever since it launched a nuclear program, North Korea is testing more than bombs and missiles; it is testing world leaders’ patience, and its neighbors’ nerves.
North Korea became the eighth nuclear nation in October of 2006. A recent barrage of tests in April and July of 2009 reminded everyone that North Korea plays by its own rules.
North Korea is a totalitarian and isolated nation separated from neighboring South Korea by more than sixty years of hostility, warfare, and bloodshed. However, despite that relatively recent history, the people on the Korean peninsula share over a thousand years of a common culture, language, and family ties. What was the cause of the division? The conflicts of World War II are still being played out on the Korean peninsula. When the Allied forces defeated Japan in 1945, they ended 35 years of colonial Japanese rule. Yet the Allies had no cohesive plan for Korea, and the end result was that they split it in half, along the then-random and now-famous 38th parallel. The north was occupied by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States. The division, which separated the country as well as families, was intended to be temporary but it was solidified by hostilities between the two superpowers during the Cold War.
From 1950-1953, war erupted on the Korean peninsula. South Korea was backed by the United States and North Korea was supported by the newly communist People’s Republic of China. The brutal conflict ended in a stalemate, and since then, the countries have had separate destinies. In the 1960s, South Korea began to flourish economically, and democratic reforms followed. But the break-up of the Soviet Union meant an end to important monetary aid to North Korea. During the 1990s North Korea experienced poverty and widespread famine from which it has still not recovered. However, the authoritarian regime of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Il, remains and China is its only ally.
Since North Korea announced its nuclear intentions in 1993, diplomacy has been sticky, especially since Kim Jong-Il likes to play a game of brinksmanship. Some, such as former U.S. President Clinton, advocate talking with and providing incentives for North Korea to halt its nuclear program. President Bush cited the failure of Clinton's policy as a reason not to hold direct talks. President Obama has imposed economic sanctions and threatened to forcibly stop and inspect North Korean ships until North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program and facilities. All agree that China is a key player in exerting any pressure on North Korea.
Some in the United States hope to wait out the bankrupt regime in North Korea, but China, Japan, and South Korea fear the floods of refugees that would follow a collapse of Kim Jung-Il’s government. If North Korea points nuclear warheads at South Korea, what would it mean for people on the Korean peninsula? Are decades of hostilities and differing political systems stronger than centuries of shared history and blood ties? How might people in South Korea feel about developing a nuclear program in defense?
North Korea’s test results aren’t usually stellar. A July 2006 missile test exploded about one minute into flight, and the October 2006 nuclear test fizzled below expectations. Even the most recent 2009 launch resulted in an improperly separated missile. While some laughed at these failures, others warn that North Korea can learn to construct a nuclear weapon and a reliable delivery missile that could reach nearby Japan or even the west coast of the United States.
Equally worrying is that North Korea is estimated to have enough to make about a bomb a year. This means they may soon have a surplus and will seek to sell weapons on the black market, especially since they are an extremely poor nation.
If the purpose of the tests is to keep the world on edge, North Korea is succeeding.
Authors: Janie Dam and Heather Clydesdale