North Korea in 2016 has kept the world busy, with the recent hydrogen bomb and long-range ballistic missile testing, plus a satellite launch, depending on which Korea you ask. They have also broken several UN resolutions by this launch, which resulted in Japan (within minutes after the launch) had their defence ministry take the decision not to shoot the rocket down. It also resulted in South Korea, Japan, and the United States calling upon the UNSC to have a meeting, where the act was condemned and sanctions were extended.
With 2016 only just beginning, what will North Korea do next?
The actions of North Korea also brought the United States congress together, passing a bill to increase sanctions on North Korea, with a whopping 418-to-2 vote. The United States has a tumultuous relationship with North Korea as this year an American student was arrested for “perpetrating a hostile act” during a new year’s trip. The official press release by North Korean was almost two months after his arrest, stating that he was trying to steal a banner and smuggle it out.
There are 13 cases of US citizens being arrested in the country, raising the question whether or not the US should forbid its citizens to travel there. In comparison, Chinese tourists by far outnumber Western tourists, yet there are no famous cases of Chinese tourists being arrested. Albeit such a prohibition would be unlikely, as critics argue that would be “un-American” in regards to citizens freedom of choice. Instead North Korea may use this incident as part of the political game. As in the past North Korea have used its foreign prisoners to get senior US officials to visit the country. Most notably were Bill Clinton and his meeting with Kim Jong-Il. Perhaps Barack Obama could be the next?
In regards to recent North Korean aggressions perhaps they are a prelude for the upcoming Workers Party Congress. An event which, to many peoples’ surprise was announced to be held this May, has had a disruption of 36 years. This event is officially one of the most important aspects of their political system. Creating a common enemy to strengthen nationalism and Kim Jong-Un’s legitimacy as leader will likely result in more nuclear testing being conducted. However, North Korea is one of the worlds’ poorest countries and their response to sanctions is to show strength towards an outer threat. This creates less focus on internal problems. Perhaps the fate of that US student might be a pawn too late to play.
North Korea’s relationship with the South has also been turbulent in 2016. The joint industrial region Kaesong, just north of the border between the two Koreas, has been closed as a form of retaliation by South Korea. This co-operation project was one of the few remains of the ‘sunshine policy’ that the former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung won a Nobel peace prize for. The South Koreans working and providing salaries for over 54.000 North Korean workers have been deported, and their assets have been frozen. Just like this conflict, it might remain so for a long time.
North Korea also isn’t becoming friendly with Japan anytime soon, as there is still bad blood from the Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century. The hatred towards Japan is perhaps worse than that of the United States. This makes Japan a likely target for North Korean aggression, especially since they actually did fire missiles into the Sea of Japan in March. Concern have increased and Japanese media is reporting on North Korean activities almost every day. Even Russia, a former ally, and still an important trade partner to North Korea, seems to have tired of North Korea’s antics. They have recently warned its neighbor that continued threats over nuclear strikes could lead to military intervention.
The fact that North Korea is situated in one of the most populated areas in the world increases the potential damage of their threats. During an UPF lecture Berndt Grundevik pointed out that North Korea has approximately 13,000 artillery pieces by the border pointed at Seoul, which if fired would take a minute to reach the capital of 25 million. In this situation South Korea is already a hostage of the North. North Korea on the other hand sees South Korea as being occupied by the United States, and this is what stands in the way of a reunion between the people.
With Kim Jong Un’s apparent disinterest in diplomacy and the new sanctions approved, the negotiation about denuclearization seems further away than ever. The sanctions themselves may make things worse, as the effect could be devastating on the repressed population of North Korea. Whatever the outcome of these reactions, the Workers Party Congress in May, and the sanctions, it is likely that the tensions will continue, making the rest of the year a busy one, for all parts.