Sunset in Korea


A week ago, North Korea successfully gained the world’s attention again after testing a hydrogen bomb eliminating any doubts the country is a nuclear power. While there are questions as to its efficacy in delivering these weapons, the United States and the regional actors involved must once more deal with a regime that is deliberately threatening the region. Previously, this conflict escalated around a month ago with North Korea threatening Guam with President Trump promising “fire and fury” before other domestic events took the president’s attention. Yet this article is not about how President Trump is going to tweet the US into war, as was done in Pushing Forward but rather looking at recent history to see how the world allowed North Korea to come so far. There are many people responsible for North Korea’s survival, as well as its ability to develop nuclear weapons which can be traced largely to 1994.

After founding North Korea ruling the country for over forty years, Kim Il-Sung died leaving his son Kim Jong-Il as ruler. At the time, little was known outside of North Korea over how Kim Jong-Il would be yet the United States and South Korea nevertheless made rapprochements with the regime. In the same year, the United States signed an Agreement Framework with North Korea to cancel its nuclear weapons program agreeing to inspection by IAEA in exchange for assistance in developing light-water nuclear reactors and normalization of relations between the two countries.

Seen as a diplomatic coup, the hope was that this framework would eventually lead to eventually softening the North Korean regime. Yet it was increasingly obvious to the Clinton administration that North Korea was pursuing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Eventually, the agreement was discontinued in 2002 when President Bush officially labeled North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Despite President Bush’s words, the administration did relatively little beyond issuing official statements when North Korea left the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005 testing its first bomb in 2006. Looking back, the nuclear program was at best delayed, North Korea simply used this agreement to buy time for their weapons program.

While the United States has its fair share of blame, South Korea should also be aware of the actions they’ve taken to unintentionally strengthen the regime. In 1998 South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung instituted the Sunshine Policy, a series of actions dedicated to reducing tensions between the two countries through closer economic interactions.The president, who received a Nobel Prize for his policy, had clearly noble motives to diminish tensions between the two countries. Unfortunately, his idealism clouded the reality that North Korea’s existence depends on subjugating its southern neighbor. To be fair, South Korea was strongly assertive in their national security as was shown in their proportional retaliations to North Korean aggression in 2002. Yet despite attempts by South Korea to improve the situation, a paper by the Unification Ministry in 2010 found that there were no positive changes from North Korea’s behavior. If anything, North Korean behavior was more aggressive as was seen through their attack on the Cheonan as well as aggression on a disputed island the same year.

The problem with the policy that both South Korea and the US develop is the false belief that the dictatorship’s days are numbered. There is the common belief that North Korea, as a totalitarian dictatorship, cannot survive for long, as well as the fact that Kim Jong-Un is unstable. While there are signs that the regime is not as strong as people say, the truth is that Kim Jong-Un has a firm grasp of power and like his family is a master manipulator. His persona has been crafted that easily manipulates foreigners to give him what he wants from foreign capital to the political rhetoric that solidifies his grasp on the Korean people. To truly deter North Korea from moving further in its weapons program, the United States needs to begin by acknowledging that this country, regardless of its massive human rights abuses, can and will survive for many years thanks to its near-isolation and totalitarian rule. With that in mind, the US can develop an assertive policy towards North Korea that seeks to end its nuclear program preferably with Chinese support. Only by understanding that this regime will not be overthrown soon can the US develop solutions to weaken their program further.

President Trump did not handle his first confrontation well with Kim Jong-Un though he shouldn’t be blamed that he didn’t stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. The quagmire that President Trump faces is truly an amalgamation of poor policy choices made by both American and South Korean administrations since the 1990s. It remains to be seen how the South Korean president, who served as chief of staff in Dae-Jung’s presidency, will deal with this disturbing situation, but it is important to note that the Sunshine policy, as it stands, should not be resumed. This crisis didn’t start with him but if he pushes the country to the brink, this crisis will scale to a war on his watch.

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