Truman National Security Project

North Korea 101: A Brief History of Tensions

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Tensions have been running high for weeks between North Korea and the West. While fluctuations in relations with Korea are not new, the current situation presents new risks towards peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. As tensions grow, even a small border skirmish risks igniting a full-scale nuclear war.

So what exactly is the current standing between North Korea, South Korea, and the US? Read on for an explanation:

The situation today

After a successful underground nuclear detonation on February 12, North Korea passed a threat threshold that set in motion a series of events that, unless stopped, has a real potential to lead to war in the Korea peninsula.

Kim Jong-un’s recent assent to power has meant that he may be looking for an opportunity to test his mettle. Many observers believe that his survival hinges on a successful nuclear and missile program, secretly backed by China. His determination has led to heightened concerns over consequences of a North Korean nuclear power. The United States, eager to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons technology, faces a tough challenge in dissuading Kim Jong-un. Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the United States would be “ready partners” if North Korea abandoned their nuclear program. However, President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have also stated that they were “not going to reward provocative behavior.”

Today, tensions appear to have simmered down. South Korea has proposed talks to re-open the closed Kaesong Industrial Complex (jointly run by both the South and North). North Korea has also removed medium-range missiles from two coastal sites. Both actions indicate that neither side is actively seeking a war.

As North Korean deploys and envoy to China, the possibility of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table for talks propagates. However, so-called “Six Party Talks” involving Russia, China, Japan, North and South Korea, and the United States are still a long way away.

How did we get here?

The current crisis dates back to the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. After a war that lasted 3 years, 2 days, and 1 month, North Korea and South Korea signed an Armistice Agreement, but never a peace treaty. In the years since, North Korea has promised to abandon the Armistice Agreement at least six times—and four times within the last decade.

Confrontations over North Korea’s nuclear program began over two decades ago. In 1994, President Bill Clinton came close to launching a strike on North Korea’s small nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. After a long-standing crisis, North Korea was able to “trade” their nuclear program for economic aid and trade concessions. A similar stand-off took place during George W. Bush’s Presidency.

For President Obama, there is one key difference in his approach to North Korea: the leadership has changed in Pyongyang. Not much is known about Kim Jong-un’s intentions. The combination of old goals and a new leader has made the situation in the Korean peninsula difficult to predict. Some experts contend that much of the reason for the recent increase in hostilities is due to the simple problem of miscommunication. Especially since China, who has the power to act as a broker between North Korea and the West, has been noticeably absent.

Who’s in charge in North Korea?

That would be Kim Jong-un: North Korea’s de facto leader.

The youngest son of Kim Jong-il and grandson of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un inherited the title of Supreme leader in 2011. Hailed as the “Great Successor”, little is known about Kim Jong-un. Educated in Switzerland and a graduate from the Kim Il-sung Military University, he was not initially believed to be the preferred successor. After media speculations about a relationship with an unknown woman, North Korean state media announced his marriage to Ri Sol-ju.

As North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un has reaffirmed his countries commitment to building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Indeed, in his first-ever speech, he noted: “Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolised by imperialists.”

Kim Kyong-hei: Kim Jong-un’s aunt.

The youngest sister to the late Kim Jong-il, she holds multiple government titles and has held several posts in North Korean politics. She has widely been seen as a mentor to Kim Jong-un and was promoted to a 4-star general in 2010.

Chang Song-taek: husband to Kim Kyong-hei and close friend of Kim Jong-il.

Mr. Chang is a member of the Korean Workers Party and rose to political prominence along with his wife Kim Kyong-hei. He is the vice president of the National Defense Commission, the politburo.

Hyon Yong-chol: Chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army.

Promoted in July 2012 in a sudden rise to prominence, it is widely believed that Hyon Yong-chol’s promotion was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to reassert his control over the army. He served on the committee for Kim Jong-il’s funeral in 2011.

Choe Ryong-hae: Korean People’s Army Vice-Marshal.

Mr Choe is a long-time friend to the Kim family. He was promoted in April 2012 to several posts including director of the Korean People’s Army politburo and vice-chairman of the Worker’s Party. Mr. Choe was an economics graduate and had no military experience prior to his promotions.

Choe Yong-rim: North Korean statesman.

Once a trusted advisor to Kim Jong-il, Choe Yong-rim remains an influential figure.

Kim Yong-nam: Chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Kim Yong-nam holds the highest political rank second only to Kim Jong-un. He is responsible for North Korea’s foreign policy and is the country’s travelling representative.

Why should the US care?

The bad news is that North Korea, theoretically, has the weapons technology to reach the United States. The good news is that the Taepodong-2 missile, capable of reaching Alaska, has only been tested, once…and failed. Nonetheless, the parallel development of nuclear weapons capabilities and ICBM technology makes for a worrying combination.

But the North Korean threat also endangers US interests in the region. The stability of the Asia-Pacific region and the strength of South Korea’s economy are inextricably linked. In fact, the heightened rhetoric from North Korea has already claimed a victim in the form of economic cooperation. The Kaesong Industrial Region on the North-South Korean border, a key manufacturing base for both countries, is still closed after North Korea shut down South Korea’s border access to several factories.

Furthermore, the current crisis has implications for the US relationship with China. China is the principal supporter of North Korea and even fought with North Korea during the Korean War. China’s role in managing North Korea has elevated its regional control, but risks weakening its position of regional influence if it proves it cannot control the Kim Jon-un. If China does not help reign in its antagonistic neighbor, it could sour relations with the United States.

What’s going to happen in the future?

Spikes in tensions between North and South Korea are not new. If history is anything to go by, the current crisis may very well de-escalate and let “normal” relations resume. Although, indications from both President Obama and South Korean President Park that North Korea could not use their nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip adds an element of uncertainty about the prospects for negotiations.

The danger, however, is if North Korea is allowed to continue developing nuclear weapons. The current crisis has shown that an overly confident North Korea is a real danger to stability in the Korean peninsula, especially if China’s influence in containing their nuclear ambitions proves ineffective. A nuclear-armed North Korea would immediately endanger South Korea and the region. Whether or not both sides will come to any sort of agreement remains to be seen.

Conclusions

Rising tensions in the Korean peninsula are well documented—and well-worn—throughout recent history. However, a new leader in North Korea and renewed challenges has shown that the current crisis may not be solved in the same way as before. The risks for miscalculations that can lead to war are great.

In sum, the current heightened tensions needs to be handled as a priority and not to be taken lightly. Time will tell whether or not the current crisis will be another bump in the road—or a much more serious situation.

Fredrik Bolinder is a member of Operation Free