Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Over the past few weeks, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen to levels not seen in years, perhaps decades. The latest escalation in militaristic rhetoric and conflict preparation began soon after North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Feb. 12. That underground test, North Korea’s third in less than a decade, was seen as a sign of the country’s continued defiance of international condemnation. If the test succeeded in “miniaturizing” a nuclear device for missile deployment, which is not likely but possible, the test would mark a turning point in North Korea’s nuclear program.

The United Nations Security Council vehemently opposed North Korea’s actions and approved tough sanctions on March 7, affecting banking, trade, travel and the import of luxury goods. Unlike previous sanctions, this latest response gained unanimous council approval, with China voting in the affirmative to condemn the actions of North Korea’s regime, which it has strongly supported for decades with public rhetoric and food and fuel aid. Many national security experts say that this is a sign that China’s patience with North Korea’s defiant acts is wearing thin.

Following the approval of new sanctions and the start of joint Korean-American military exercises in the region, North Korea promptly declared null the armistice agreement between the North and the South that has kept peace on the peninsula since the end of hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. At a border outpost in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), North Korea has turned off the phone that provides a direct line of communication between the two sides. In 2003 and 2009, the North also declared invalid the armistice in response to military exercises.

Just prior to the Security Council vote, North Korea also threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States. Most experts agree that the North does not yet have the capability to deliver nuclear warheads with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It is more likely that the North has the ability to strike South Korea, Japan and even American bases in Guam with mid-range missiles. Even so, the security alliance between the U.S. and both South Korea and Japan would obligate an American response to any aggression from the North. There are 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea alone.

Last week, North Korea barred hundreds of South Korean employees from entering the Kaesong joint industrial complex, one of the few areas of cooperation between the two sides that also employs 50,000 North Korean workers. Furthermore, the North Koreans said they would be restarting nuclear operations at its Yongbyon complex, which was shut down in 2007 as part of the aid-for-disarmament negotiations known as Six Party Talks. At the end of the week, North Korea informed diplomatic missions in Pyongyang, including that of Russia, that it could no longer guarantee their safety and security.

The United States has responded by deploying anti-missile defense systems to Guam. It has also postponed an ICBM missile test to avoid escalating tensions. The U.S. commander in South Korea has canceled a trip to Washington to monitor the situation on the peninsula.

Although the escalation in rhetoric and war preparations is grave and serious, many experts believe that Kim Jong-Un is simply trying to consolidate power within the hawkish military and bolster his domestic legitimacy. Some argue that North Korea’s actions are all too familiar and it does not have the capability or will to follow through.