A quick glance at the Korean peninsula shows not only an unique geopolitical spectacle but also one of the most bizarre twists in history. After the Korean War, the country was divided with an imaginary line along the 38th parallel in what was to become one of the hottest buffer zones of the Cold War. A 4km demilitarized zone separates not only two ideologies and two economic systems, but also family members that once belonged together. Traumatic and bewildering, the Korean War ended in a stalemate, an ongoing experiment that proved half a century is enough to fracture a society and antagonize its halves.
For a population of 25 million, North Korea ranks surprisingly as having the fourth largest army in the world (1.2 million). Only China, the United States, and India can deploy more soldiers. Stranded somewhere in the military mindset of the last century, the North Koreans are preparing for a conventional war that might as well never come.
North Korea and its nuclear ambitions have remained in the headlines for the last couple of years, especially since Kim Jong-un assumed leadership in 2011. Young and often unpredictable, the Supreme Leader has made a habit of threatening the U.S. and its allies. Nonetheless, there are virtually no certainties regarding the country’s ability to wage a very destructive war.
Until now, North Korea has conducted six nuclear underground tests, of which the last (September 2017) is claimed to have been a hydrogen bomb. The increase in frequency and maximum yield appears to indicate that the regime in Pyongyang is determined to expand its capabilities even further. Paired with launching ballistic missiles, it shows that the Asian state might be a formidable adversary in the future.
Although ambitious, North Korea’s nuclear scientists still have a long way to go. Some experts question whether they were able to devise warheads small enough to be mounted on a missile. Another topic for debate is if Pyongyang switched to uranium enrichment, which is easier to carry out in secrecy. As always, there are two big question marks attached to a country’s nuclear program. First, who provided the technology and brainpower? While China and Russia might pose as the usual suspects, rumors indicate that Pakistan and India were also indirectly involved. Second, how to stop the arms race before anyone gets hurt? Through diplomacy or through more concrete measures?
Isolated on the international stage, North Korea relies on China, its main trading partner and strategic ally for minimum leverage. However, Beijing is not always happy to put up with all the nonsense coming from the peninsula. In today’s world, alliances stand for something more substantial than sharing the same ideology. The two nations might have fought side-by-side in the Korean War but the current context is far more complex.
The North Korean situation has become even more troublesome since Donald Trump was elected President. A fan of “take it or break it,” Trump went as far as to develop a personal feud with Kim Jong-un, calling him names (Rocket Man) and threatening to respond “with fire and fury” to any provocation. Surprisingly, the tone has softened and the two leaders appear to be close to a historical meeting scheduled for May. At this point, it is hard to say whether the North Korean leader is just trying to buy more time.
There should always be hope for a successful outcome, but not by cutting back on realism. Twitter, President Trump’s favorite way of making public statements, is not exactly a premium diplomatic cable. From the comfort of the keyboard, the President puts his followers on an emotional rollercoaster more powerful than anything else that happened in American politics before.
The delicate topic of North Korea has always been on the table of U.S. Presidents. While President Obama was rather neutral on the issue, the previous two presidents had quite different approaches. Bill Clinton went as far as to deliver oil and provide financial aid to North Korea. Things took a 180-degree turn with George W. Bush, who was not shy to mention North Korea as part of the axis of evil, alongside Iraq and Iran.
Now we’ll see if President Trump’s tough approach will work. North Korea remains a very big threat not only to the United States, but to the entire world and everyone hopes for a peaceful outcome.