National security generally refers to measures taken by a state to ensure, maintain, and promote its stability, diplomacy, economic, political and military power, and/or counteraction against terrorism. However, it’s evident that states pursue national security for different reasons, especially in North Korea. The Democratic Party of North Korea (DPRK) is an independent state located in the northern half of the Korean peninsula in between China and South Korea.
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North Korea has a population of 25 million people; 12% of whom live in the capital city, Pyongyang. For 70 years, the Kim family has ran North Korea under what some may call a strict, single-party regime, meaning that only one sole political party has power in the N. Korean government. However, it is hard to fully the measures taken by North Korea when one is looking from the outside in and when the entire world is giving narratives on how to feel. To truly understand North Korea and their position on national security and terrorism, history must first be examined.
The root of North Korea’s position on National Security and its issues with it can be traced all the way back to the hegemonic power struggle between North America and the Soviet Union, formally known as the Cold War. In 1950, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, started the first major proxy war of the Cold War by leading an invasion into South Korea backed by the Soviet Union. The United States joined in support of South Korea and China joined also in support of North Korea, officially starting the Korean War. The war was an extremely bloody one, claiming millions of lives and lasting three years long. When the war finally ended, it ended with an armistice and the separation of the two Koreas by a demilitarized zone (DMZ); they are still separated by a DMZ to this day. Technically, both countries are still at war to this day since a peace treaty was never signed. North Korea continued to receive foreign aid from the Soviet and had a trade agreement with China after the war and, in result, North Korea’s economy flourished; they were better off than their South Korean counterparts. This, unfortunately, didn’t last forever. The Soviet Union’s economy began to decline, causing them to halt their foreign aid to North Korea completely, which also resulted in the immediate decline of the North Korean economy as well. Even worse, the United States eventually began to pour foreign aid and military troops into South Korea, slowly advancing South Korea’s economy far beyond the North’s and it continues to steadily grow even to this day. Today, North Korea’s economic struggle continues, as they are unable to further develop our economy given the outcome of the Cold War and the change in the structure in the international system. They are still very poor and have been faced with decisions that could put their independence at stake.
North Korea is faced with such decisions because they have to choose where to focus the little money they do have. Given the vulnerability of the regime, it is no surprise that North Korea has made its national security its utmost priority, more specifically, its military and nuclearization. Through its Songun policy that has been officially implemented since 1994, the North Korean government allocates most of its funds to militarization and the development of nuclear weapons. The rest of the world is not very fond of North Korea’s pursuance of nuclear weapons, especially the U.S. and South Korea. However, despite the negative light North Korea’s nuclearization receives, many researchers, like Youngwon Cho, have found for it to actually be a rational decisions that any country in North Korea’s shoes would have made. In Youngwon Cho’s Method to the Madness of Chairman Kim: The Rationality to North Korea’s Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons, Cho deeply examines the reality of the North Korea’s predicament. He finds that the reality is that North Korea isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons simply because they are mad, but because they have no other choice to. Cho emphasizes the vulnerability of North Korea’s situation given the issues of the giant gap between the economic and military capabilities (Cho, 2o14, page 8) of North and South Korea and the belligerent posture of the United States toward a number of states perceived to be behaving outside of international norms and sustained U.S. hostility towards North Korea in particular (Cho, 2014, page 9).
He makes an interesting statement, While North Korea may be fanatic, it is fanatic for its continued existence, not for a non-existent afterlife (Cho, 2014, page 8). Other scholars, like Victor D. Cha and David C. Kang, also offer similar rational perspectives of North Korean nuclearization. Nevertheless, North Korea’s prioritization of its national security and nuclearization is the best and most effective way to level the playing field between them and their obviously more powerful enemies (US, South Korea, et al). If the Kim family wants to sustain their regime, nuclear weapons are surely their best bet to keep other countries back. North Korea is very committed to their nuclear weapons program, but denuclearization has been considered once or twice by the regime. North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 agreeing to put an end to its plutonium weapons program in exchange for foreign aid but the agreement fell through in 2002. There was also a time where five countries (China, US, South Korea, Japan, and Russia) sat down with North Korea during a Six-Party Talk to negotiate on denuclearization and for a while it seemed to work. Yet, North Korea unhesitantly walked out on it over technical complications in 2009. The current president of the US, President Donald Trump, sat down with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un for the first ever sitting between American and North Korean leaders in hopes of denuclearization. Yet, it is unclear how effective that negotiation may turn out to be.
Moving along, terrorism in North Korea can take on two perspectives. The North Korean government may view the U.S. as a terrorist threat to the continued existence of their regime. Contrarily, North Korean citizens may view the North Korean government as a terrorist threat. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), North Korea is considered to be among the world’s most repressive countries (World Report 2018: North Korea). The HRW World Report 2018 reports that North Korea has committed multiple crimes against its citizens including (but not exclusive to) murder, public executions, forced labor, rape, and discrimination. North Korea has been investigated numerous times by the UN Council of Inquiry and has sat down with human rights institutions like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), but the regime still refuses to acknowledge its human rights violations.
North Korea’s nuclearization is a rational and understandable approach to the protection of its regime. Yet, how can the country truly develop and flourish if it continues to allocate the majority of funds to its nuclear weapons and military?
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