By Sietse Goffard
            INTRODUCTION                           vain. North Korea under Kim Jong-un has
                                                   remained one of the most enigmatic and
    The beginning of 2013 drew global              autocratic nations on the planet. There has also
attention back to one of the world’s most          been little resolution of tensions with the West;
challenging dilemmas in foreign affairs: the       since 2012, diplomatic standoffs, nuclear
situation in North Korea and the country’s         activity, and missile tests carried out by the
troubled diplomatic relations with the West.       rogue state have made the North Korean
The US has long held a vested interest in the      situation all the more complicated.
Korean peninsula and in the broader East
Asian region. It is no secret, however, that        EXPLANATION OF THE PROBLEM
North Korea represents one of the largest
obstacles to America’s diplomatic engagement                  Historical Background
with East Asia. The relations between the two
countries throughout the past several decades           Officially named the Democratic People’s
might best be described as extremely complex,      Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea has
constantly fraught with tension, and always        been one of the most persistent and
unpredictable — but nonetheless supremely          troublesome problems in American foreign
fascinating.                                       policy since the end of the Cold War. The US,
    The relationship between the US and            in fact, has never had formal diplomatic
North Korea took an important and interesting      relations with North Korea. In some respects, it
turn in December 2011, when then-Supreme           is not hard to see why — the latter’s
Leader Kim Jong-il passed away after ruling the    classification as an autocratic, totalitarian,
nation for 17 years. In his wake stood his young   communist, and “rogue” state inevitably leads
and inexperienced son Kim Jong-un, who             to tension between the two countries. Attempts
immediately took over the helm as the              at bilateral negotiation have proven consistently
country’s third Premier since its inception.       difficult throughout the past couple decades.
American political leaders and pundits alike       This reality seems unlikely to change anytime
hoped this transition might be an opportunity      soon.
to bridge long-standing tensions with the nation
and reintegrate the regime into the global
community. Their hopes, so far, have been in


Overview of North Korea and the Post-World          established its own right-wing leadership. In
War II Environment                                  1948-1949, Soviet forces withdrew from North
                                                    Korea while American forces did the same in
    North Korea is an impoverished nation of        the south. Kim Il-sung, who had become North
approximately 23 million people, bordered by        Korea’s first head-of-state, used the opportunity
the Republic of Korea (informally, South            to consider invading and annexing the country’s
Korea) to the south as well as China and Russia     southern neighbor. Backed by Mao Zedong in
to the north. It is flanked by the Yellow Sea to    China as well as Joseph Stalin in the Soviet
the west and by the Sea of Japan to the east.       Union, the Supreme Leader ordered soldiers
    North Korea in its current state was            past the 38th parallel in June 1950. The Korean
established at the conclusion of World War II       War had just broken out.
in 1945. Following years of occupation by
Japan, the Korean peninsula was divided into        The Korean War and its Continuous Shadow
two zones, with the 38th latitudinal parallel to    on the Korean Peninsula
serve as the border. As per an agreement
between the two world superpowers, the                   North Korea made rapid and enormous
southern zone was to be temporarily occupied        gains during the initial months of the war.
by the US, the northern by the Soviet Union.        Unprepared          and      therefore     relatively
Yet even though this arrangement was designed       defenseless, South Korean forces were quickly
to be provisionary, it had an enormous, lasting     overwhelmed. Invading soldiers captured the
influence in the eventual creation of two very      capital city of Seoul within the first month of
separate and different Koreas. When Kim Il-         the conflict. Tragically, the brutal killing of
sung was given the responsibility of leading the    civilians by both sides immediately followed.
Provisional People’s Committee for North            Massacres and war crimes were documented
Korea upon the council’s establishment in           only weeks after the war began; it is thought that
February 1946, he was quick to introduce            at least 100,000 men, women, and children
sweeping land reforms and nationalize key           were callously executed in the Bodo League
industries — measures that brought North            massacre during the summer of 1950. Pushing
Korea squarely in line with the Soviet Union’s      the defenders to a small corner of South Korea,
Stalinist-style organization. Negotiations were     North Korean forces found themselves on the
held on the future of the Korean peninsula, but     verge of victory.
they were largely unproductive. Initial hopes for        It was at this point, just a couple weeks after
a unified country were dashed once it became        the first shots were fired, that the US and the
clear that the influence of Cold War politics on    United Nations launched a powerful counter-
Korean affairs gave rise to two very distinct       offensive that would mark a dramatic turning
nations, with two diametrically opposed systems     point in the war. By September 1950, South
of political, social, and economic life.            Korean, US, and UN forces earned a decisive
    The following few years were increasingly       victory at the Battle of Inchon and soon
tumultuous, as political uprisings and rebellions   recaptured Seoul. In the beginning of October,
caused sporadic unrest across the Korean            after some deliberation, they pressed on,
Peninsula. The original plan of the                 passed the 38th parallel, and entered North
aforementioned agreement involved free              Korean territory. Within weeks they had gained
democratic elections in 1948 overseen by the        control over the vast majority of the communist
UN, but these failed to come to fruition.           nation, pushing the North Korean army into
Instead, an official communist government was       the country’s mountainous northern frontier.
declared in North Korea, while the South            As the war raged on, tens of thousands of


civilians on both sides continued to die en           been North Korea’s frustrated attempts to
masse.                                                develop nuclear weapons technology. North
     The conflict then underwent yet another          Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
turn. At the end of 1950, China entered the war       Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state in
in support of its North Korean ally. With             1985. Bilateral talks between North and South
amplified manpower and artillery, North Korea         Korea in 1990 led to a denuclearization
was able to mount an effective counter-offensive      statement. However, US intelligence discovered
that brought the fighting back to the 38th parallel   photo evidence in early 1993 of possible
by the early months of 1951. Forces seesawed          nuclear activity in North Korea. This prompted
back and forth around the territory near Seoul.       the International Atomic Energy Agency
By the summer of 1951, large-scale movements          (IAEA) to demand a special inspection of the
had ceased; both sides were brought to a              nation’s nuclear facilities. In an angry move that
stalemate that lasted for the remainder of the        raised diplomatic tensions and alarmed the
war. Fighting finally ended in July 1953 upon         sitting US administration, Kim Il-sung quickly
the signing of an armistice agreement — but           withdrew from the NPT. A round of bilateral
unfortunately, the end of military combat did         talks began in June 1993 and concluded
not represent a total conclusion of general           successfully in 1994 with the US-North Korea
hostility. Tensions remained extremely high.          Agreed Framework. This settlement stipulated
The border between North and South Korea              that North Korea would freeze its plutonium
was restored to near the 38th parallel, and on        enrichment program, subject itself to IAEA
each side a two kilometer-wide fortified buffer       inspections, replace its existing nuclear reactor
zone was created. Called the Korean                   with light water reactor plans, work with the US
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), this region                 to safely dispose of nuclear fuel, and receive
stretches the entire length of the boundary and       large amounts of fuel oil from America in
remains heavily guarded today. So although            compensation. The Agreed Framework was
military hostilities may be long over, the shadow     clearly a step in the right direction for bilateral
of the Korean War is still ever present on the        relations — in fact, it even led to the easing of
peninsula.                                            economic sanctions during the latter half of the
                                                      1990s despite opposition from Republican
US-North Korean Relations since the War               lawmakers, who viewed the accord as a form of
    North Korean tensions with South Korea                 Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994. Revered
and with the US remained high in the decades          across North Korea, the late head-of-state is still
after the Korean War, but the remainder of the        hailed as the “Great Leader” and the “Eternal
20th century was a period of relative peace           President of the Republic.” Kim Jong-il, his
interrupted by sporadic incidents, diplomatic         eldest son, succeeded him as head of North
flare-ups, and border skirmishes. North Korea         Korea and its armed forces at the age of 53.
stayed closely aligned with China and the Soviet      Kim Jong-il largely continued his father’s
Union. The US therefore kept a watchful eye           policies, restricting capitalism and maintaining
on the communist nation, although since 1994          North Korea’s isolation from the international
there has been no publicly available evidence         community.
that any American administration seriously
considered direct military intervention to
induce a North Korean regime change.
    More disconcerting to the US and its              ‘Seesaw Diplomacy’: On-Again, Off-Again
Western allies in the past two decades have           Tensions with North Korea in the 2000s

                                                          NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 3

                                                            Six Party Talks continued regularly
     Relations with North Korea took another          throughout the middle part of the decade.
turn in 2002 when President George W. Bush            North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in
labeled the country as part of the “Axis of Evil.”    2006, but while the underground detonation
Delays and issues in the implementation of the        attracted international condemnation, the test
Agreed Framework were frustrating Kim Jong-           was thought to be a fizzle. Negotiations
il, and the regime was growing impatient. In          resumed later that year. Substantial progress
January 2003, citing a “hostile” American policy      had been made by 2008, and a partial
that threatened its national security, North          normalization of relations seemed to be in
Korea terminated its freeze on plutonium-             sight. In return for substantial fuel aid,
based nuclear facilities, announced that it was       Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear
withdrawing from the NPT, removed IAEA                facility at Yongbyon. The Bush administration
monitoring equipment, and expelled IAEA               took steps to unfreeze North Korean assets and
inspectors. In March 2003, the regime                 remove the nation from its list of state sponsors
reaffirmed its “sovereign right” to operate a         of terrorism. As North Korean “dialed down”
“peaceful missile program” and rejected an            its rhetoric and adopted more moderate
earlier moratorium on testing short-range             positions, the situation on the Korean
missiles. Calling its denuclearization statement      Peninsula seemed to be making true headway.
with South Korea a “dead document” at                 Mentions of a peace agreement with Seoul were
trilateral negotiations in April of that year,        even floated. And in a widely heralded and
Pyongyang told the American delegation that it        highly symbolic event, the New York
possessed nuclear weapons — the first time            Philharmonic Orchestra visited North Korea to
North Korea had ever made such an                     play a February 2008 concert there. It was
admission. Whether these statements were true         broadcast live on local and international
is uncertain. Even with US intelligence efforts, it   television.
is still unclear if or when North Korea first              But at the end of the decade, a series of
obtained nuclear arms, how many units they            events sparked a resurgence of tensions with
might have developed, and what nuclear fuels          the Kim Jong-il regime. Alleging that the US
were used.                                            administration had not lived up to some of its
     After some hesitation, North Korea agreed        earlier commitments, Pyongyang announced it
to join a round of negotiations called the Six        would restart its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon
Party Talks in August 2003. These discussions         in August 2008. IAEA inspectors, it said, were
involved the six nations most relevant to the         still disallowed from visiting any sites.
crisis: North Korea, South Korea, the US,             Animosity flared up again in March 2009 when
China, Russia, and Japan. No significant              two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna
breakthroughs were achieved during the first          Lee, were arrested on the border between
round of talks in Beijing. North Korea                China and North Korea while filming a
proposed a step-by-step solution, promising to        documentary. Local authorities sentenced the
dismantle its nuclear facility and end missile        two to 12 years of hard labor, a move that
testing in exchange for foreign aid, fuel             attracted an outcry from international protesters
shipments, and a written US non-aggression            and prompted the State Department to call the
treaty. The Bush administration was skeptical;        trial a “sham.” The saga finally ended in August
although willing to promise that America would        of the same year when former President Bill
not attack North Korea, he felt that a written        Clinton flew to Pyongyang on a private mission
pact was “off the table.”                             to secure the release of the two women.


     North Korea again made headlines in 2009       North Korea’s Human Rights Record
when it completed its second-ever nuclear test.
Analysts agreed that the detonation was                  While not a direct threat to US national
successful and larger than the one in 2006. In      security, alleged human rights abuses in North
the same week, the regime also conducted            Korea remain a grave concern to American
short-range missile tests. The international        diplomats and policymakers. Officials voice
community strongly condemned Pyongyang’s            perennial dismay over the reclusive nation’s
actions, calling them reckless and a threat to      abysmal human rights record, which has hardly
global security. The UN Security Council            improved over the past several decades.
responded by unanimously passing Resolution         Reports from the Department of State
1874, which placed further economic and             emphasize that political, civil, and religious
commercial sanctions on the regime. It also         liberties are completely denied; freedoms of
authorized member states to search North            speech, press, and assembly are simply non-
Korean cargo and destroy any goods suspected        existent. Citizens have no right to self-
of being connected to the nation’s nuclear          determination; quite on the contrary, they are
weapons program.                                    subject       to      tremendous      ideological
     Relations took a dramatic turn when, in        indoctrination. In addition, North Korean
March 2010, a South Korean warship named            residents are barred from freely leaving the
the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo — allegedly       country — those who try risk being captured
fired from a North Korean submarine — in the        and summarily detained. Even citizens who
Yellow Sea. 46 seamen perished. Pyongyang           manage to escape are not entirely safe, for
denied being responsible for the sinking; China     emigrants who successfully flee to China are
and Russia concurred and dismissed the              often repatriated and sent back to labor camps,
credibility of an investigation blaming North       where they are punished as defectors.
Korea for the attack. The UN Security Council            Alarmingly, more and more information is
condemned the sinking but did not identify the      being discovered about flagrant human rights
perpetrator. Strong rhetoric erupted from all       abuses in North Korea’s frightening network of
sides, and the US was quick to impose new           at least six forced labor camps and many more
sanctions on North Korea as well as to conduct      political prisons. Former inmates have reported
joint military exercises with South Korea in the    being beaten and tortured harshly. Public
Sea of Japan. The situation only worsened in        executions are ostensibly commonplace. Food
November 2010 when North Korean forces              rations are so pitiful, according to several
pre-emptively fired artillery rounds at the South   interviewed escapees, that prisoners sometimes
Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The attack             resort to eating rats and earthworms for protein.
killed two soldiers and injured 17 others. South    It is estimated that this network of camps and
Korea responded by returning the fire and           prisons      holds      approximately    200,000
scrambling jets across the region. Although         individuals — and satellite photos suggest that
China called for an emergency session of the        the number of labor camps keeps growing.
Six Party Talks, the US, Japan, and South           Meanwhile, experts believe that North Korean
Korea rejected these requests because they          citizens possess very little right to due legal
maintained that North-South relations must          process, or perhaps none at all. Those most at
improve in advance of any multilateral              risk include anyone guilty or merely suspected
discussions. Alarmingly, in a matter of two         of disloyalty or ideological “transgressions.”
years, the hostilities on the Korean Peninsula      Despite mounting evidence to the contrary,
looked suddenly all the more volatile.              Pyongyang refuses to acknowledge the existence
                                                    of such camps, and the situation has not

                                                        NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 5

changed at all under the new leadership of Kim
Jong-un.                                                Kim Jong-il, whose rule as leader of North
      The full extent of human rights abuses in     Korea began in 1994, died of a suspected heart
North Korea is far from known. The House            attack on December 17, 2011. He was 70 years
Select Committee on Intelligence, therefore,        old. Official state media reported his death two
would be wise to devote some attention to this      days later, and an elaborate funeral (televised by
important aspect of the North Korean                international press) was held in Pyongyang on
dilemma. It has been said that human rights         December 28. Kim Jong-il’s death was met with
should be a part of any “grand bargain” or          widespread mourning and grief across the
“negotiation package” that the West forms with      nation; in videos obtained from state media,
Pyongyang. The relatively little information the    thousands of people were seen sobbing,
world does currently know about human rights        grieving, and visibly angered, although some
inside North Korea comes from emigrants who         viewers doubted the authenticity of this grief.
safely managed to cross the border, satellite       International reactions to the dictator’s demise
imagery, and intelligence gathered from sources     were mixed. Governments in China, Russia,
like the US Special Envoy for Human Rights in       Zimbabwe, and Cuba were praiseful of Kim
North Korea. This office was created in 2004 in     Jong-il. Japan and the Philippines were among
order to “coordinate and promote efforts to         other nations that expressed condolences but
improve respect for the fundamental human           stressed the importance of moving forward.
rights of the people of North Korea.” The           South Korea, France, Australia, and the UK
current special envoy is Robert King.               took somewhat firmer positions, emphasizing
      The US government, however, is certainly      that this was an important opportunity for
not the only body to criticize North Korea for      stability and denuclearization on the Korean
its abuses. Amnesty International, Human            peninsula. As for the Obama administration,
Rights Watch, and the UN (to name a few)            the White House said that it was closely
have also condemned the nation because of its       monitoring the situation and reaffirmed its
appalling human rights record. So while this        commitment to “stability on the Korean
aspect has never constituted a direct security      peninsula, and to the freedom and security of
threat to the US, policymakers in Washington        [America’s] allies.” Former President Jimmy
still see it as a matter of chief importance.       Carter, who had travelled to North Korea many
                                                    times, had warmer words and wished Kim Jong-
            Recent Developments                     un “every success as he assume[d] his new
                                                    responsibility of leadership.”
    Since hostilities started to increase a few         Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim
years ago, there has been a dramatic series of      Jong-il, immediately succeeded to the position
new developments in North Korea and US              of supreme leader. The news came as little
national security policy. A change of leadership    surprise. Formal evidence of his selection first
in the communist state — only the second time       emerged in 2010 following his appointment as a
North Korea has had a head-of-state transition      four-star general and vice-chairman of the
since World War II — brought relations              Central Military Commission. He was also
between North Korea and the West into               thought to be the most favored son by his father
“unpredictable territory.” In late 2012 and early   and the most loyal to the regime. External
2013, a spate of belligerent actions by             pundits and observers speculated that the
Pyongyang further increased tensions.               demise of Kim Jong-il might lead to internal
                                                    power struggles or instability at the top of the
Kim Jong-un: Third Time a Charm?                    party. At least publicly, this was never the case.


In the weeks after his father’s death, official      adhering closely to the family ideology, the
state organs rallied around Kim Jong-un and          young dictator has permitted Western
helped consolidate his authority as the              influences such as Disney characters and
“supreme commander” of the Korean People’s           clothing styles to be displayed publicly. He is a
Army and the “sole national leader” of North         fan of basketball and certain American music.
Korea. Close family members and trusted allies       In contrast to his father’s elevated cult-of-
were believed to have helped purge any               personality, Kim Jong-un has also done more to
potential rivals and guide the new head-of-state     cultivate an image of being a younger, more
as he took power.                                    modern, and more accessible “man of the
     At the onset of Kim Jong-un’s leadership        people.” His public appearances are much
(and even still today), some observers               more frequent. Symbolically, his wife has been
continued to believe that the youthful dictator      introduced to the public. Overall it appears as if
could emerge as a regime reformer. Aged 29 or        the new North Korean leader intends to follow
30 — his exact birthdate is unknown and is           the policies embraced by his father and his
believed to be sometime in 1983 or 1984 —            party while ruling with a somewhat more
Kim Jong-un is the world’s youngest head-of-         dynamic personality.
state. International experts also hoped that the         Nonetheless, despite intelligence efforts by
new autocrat, educated in Switzerland and            the US and other allies, fairly little information
possibly France during his childhood, might be       is known about Kim Jong-un or his inner
more amenable to market-oriented reforms and         circles. Foreign leaders and dignitaries rarely
the opening up of North Korea’s society.             interact with him. The House Select
Furthermore, some analysts predicted that Kim        Committee on Intelligence might find it useful
Jong-un’s relative inexperience might encourage      to consider methods of acquiring further
him to bridge old animosities with the West          intelligence about the isolated regime.
rather than exacerbate them.
     However, so far, it does not appear that the    Liftoffs and Launches: Tensions Soar
new autocrat will stray very far from his father’s
positions. As one Congressional briefing aptly            During the months directly after Kim Jong-
puts it, “most analysts conclude that [North         un’s succession, there was actually a glimmer of
Korea’s] outdated ideology and closed political      diplomatic progress. A series of bilateral
system make reforms risky, ineffective, and          meetings between the US and North Korea
reversible.” Kim Jong-un remains relatively          resulted in the “Leap Day Agreement” of
beholden to the established interests of the         February 29, 2012. The plan involved
Communist Party, his inner circle of military        significant food aid from the American
advisors, and the North Korean elite —               government in return for a North Korean
especially given his novice status. Expectations     moratorium on nuclear enrichment and missile
that the dictator will conform rigidly to the        testing. US diplomats verbally warned that any
vision laid out by his father and grandfather —      missile testing and rocket launches would
both of whom are revered as eternal, spiritual       violate the terms of the agreement. Pyongyang
leaders — limit the possibility of serious           took little note.
reforms. Were he to attempt any broad                     On April 13, 2012, North Korea launched
changes, he would almost unquestionably be           a Taepodong-2 missile after announcing its
met with resistance from army generals and top       intentions to do so one month earlier to
party officials. In some important ways, though,     commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-
Kim Jong-un has embraced a slightly different        sung’s birth. US military intelligence
style of rule compared to his father. While          determined that the missile test was a failure;

                                                         NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 7

the second stage crashed into the sea and never        extended to the continental US. And for the
posed a threat to North Korea’s neighbors. In a        time being, it appears that Pyongyang is not
rare move, state media conceded that the               afraid to act provocatively.
missile had failed. American defense forces
were nevertheless on high alert. The rocket was        A Nuclear-Armed North Korea?
mostly produced using domestic materials and
technology, indicating North Korea’s growing                On February 12, 2013, North Korean state
ability to manufacture ballistic missiles.             news reported that it had conducted its third
     Eight months later, the saga intensified. On      underground nuclear test. International
December 12, 2012, North Korea successfully            observers detected unusual seismic activity
launched its own satellite for the first time.         consistent with atomic testing. Investigations of
Pyongyang called the device a peaceful “Earth          the data suggested that the force of the
observation satellite,” but governments in the         explosion (6,000-7,000 tons in TNT equivalent)
US, South Korea, and Japan treated the event           was larger than in North Korea’s two previous
as akin to a ballistic missile test. The regime        tests. Yet what the West found most alarming
celebrated the occasion with elaborate military        was North Korea’s statement that the test had
parades in the capital, but it received near-          involved a “small and light” atomic device. US
universal condemnation from the international          defense officials fear that the regime may be
community, including an unusually pointed              rapidly developing the capacity to fit such a
statement of “regret” from China. The UN               device on a rocket. The combination of nuclear
Security Council was quick to issue a                  warheads and North Korean inter-continental
presidential     statement      expressing       the   ballistic missiles is obviously a prospect that
committee’s belief that the launch had been a          distresses the US government — and it is not an
ballistic missile test. In January 2013 the            outcome anyone in the current administration
Security Council voted to impose new sanctions         is willing to accept.
on the nation, which infuriated the regime.                 In the wake of this most recent nuclear test,
North Korea warned that its weapons program            do any policymakers believe a strike is
would “target” the US, which it called the             imminent? Not precisely. Intelligence officials
“sworn enemy of the Korean people.”                    say that further missile tests would probably be
Meanwhile, scientists have concluded that the          needed before any devices became operational.
satellite, named Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2, is           In addition, analysts generally speculate that
almost certainly dead and unable to                    North Korea’s missile launches of 2012 and
communicate any information, although it will          nuclear test of 2013 were predominantly meant
continue to orbit the planet for at least several      to bolster Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy among the
more years.                                            country’s elite. Continuing the legacy of his
     North Korea’s recent launches represent           father, the young dictator likely wanted to use
major developments in the relationship                 these opportunities as a demonstration of
between the US and the Kim Jong-Un regime.             defiance against the rest of the world —
American intelligence officials noted that the         especially against the re-elected Obama
successful deployment of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3              administration and new leadership of South
suggests North Korea’s increasing capability of        Korean President Park Geun-hye, elected in
firing a long-range warhead. Hawaii and                December 2012.
American military bases across the Pacific are
thought to be within reach. Even more                  ‘Saber Rattling’: A Dramatic Escalation of
disconcerting, authorities believe that it will only   Bellicose Rhetoric
be three or four years before that range is


     One of the largest escalations of the North      mainland” in a series of “merciless strikes,”
Korean crisis so far occurred during the spring       turning the region into a “sea of fire.” The
of 2013. In the wake of Pyongyang’s missile           international community — particularly East
launches and nuclear tests, the regime amped          Asia and even North Korea’s longtime ally
up its belligerent rhetoric following yet another     China — grew increasingly alarmed by the hour.
UN Security Council resolution imposing               Many states with embassies in Pyongyang took
commercial sanctions on luxury goods, cash            precautionary measures and evacuated their
transfers, and diplomatic movement. On March          diplomatic staff.
8, the North Korean government announced it                The situation became even tenser as North
was scrapping all non-aggression pacts with           Korea withdrew all 50,000 of its workers from
South Korea, withdrawing from the armistice           the Kaesong Industrial Zone on April 8. The
that ended the Korean War, and shutting their         initiative began in 2004 and was the only
shared border point. Calling South Korea’s            cooperative economic project between the two
government a “puppet group of traitors,”              Koreas. Not only did the Northern regime ban
Pyongyang asserted its right to carry out a pre-      South Korean workers from entering Kaesong,
emptive nuclear strike. American defense              it also refused to let hundreds of remaining
leaders responded to these latest threats by          South Korean workers return home. The saga
conducting joint naval exercises with South           lasted for weeks and attracted enormous media
Korea and reinforcing the missile defense             attention. Meanwhile, the Kim Jong-un
system already in place across the American           government refused to sit down at the
west coast.                                           negotiating table until North Korea was
     On March 20, the South Korean                    recognized as a legitimate nuclear state.
government reported a cyber-attack allegedly
perpetrated by the country’s northern foe. Just       Latest Round of Missile Tests
a week later, North Korea severed the lone
long-standing hotline between Pyongyang and                As if verbal “saber rattling” were not
Seoul — the last line of communication between        enough, in May 2013 North Korea launched a
the two capital cities. A North Korean                new series of missile tests that Pyongyang
spokesman explained, “Under the situation             described as “regular military exercises.” On
where a war may break out any moment, there           May 18 and 20, the military fired a combined
is no need to keep up North-South military            six short-range projectiles into the Sea of Japan.
communications.” On March 30, Kim Jong-un             By this time, though, the regime’s “one threat
declared a state of war against South Korea and       per day” pattern had slowed down; North
announced that rockets were ready to be fired         Korean officials seemed keener to sit down
at American bases in the Pacific Ocean. Three         with members of the Six Party Talks. The
days later, on April 2, the North Korean              hotline connecting Pyongyang and Seoul was
government declared that it was restarting its        reopened, but the Kaesong Industrial Complex
plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyon for the         remains indefinitely closed at the time of
first time since 2007. During the next couple         writing. Only time will tell if and when the
days, intelligence revealed that the regime had       project will resume.
moved a medium-range ballistic missile to its
east coast for potential testing or firing, just as   Kim Jong-un: Cunning or Crazed?
the North Korean military warned the US that a
nuclear strike could take place “today or                Throughout the months of repeated
tomorrow.” State media issued threats that            provocations, analysts were uncertain of North
North Korea was prepared to “dissolve the US          Korea’s true intentions. Kim Jong-un had no

                                                          NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 9

hesitations in singling out the US and South               American       lawmakers       have     passed
Korea as his two primary enemies — in fact,            numerous pieces of legislation over the years in
state media published photos of the dictator           an attempt to tackle the perennial dilemma of
examining maps that depicted targets on                North Korea. In February 2013, the Senate
mainland America. The regime’s recent                  unanimously passed the North Korea
hostility has therefore been taken very seriously      Nonproliferation and Accountability Act (S
by the US Defense Department. Said one                 298). Sponsored by Senator Bob Menendez
American official, “North Korea is not a paper         (D-NJ) and supported by a bipartisan coalition,
tiger so it wouldn’t be smart to dismiss its           the legislation calls North Korea’s most recent
provocative behavior as pure bluster.” And             nuclear test a “flagrant violation” of sanctions
although the erratic nation has come out with          and international regulations. It also urges
confrontational rhetoric before, the intensity,        members of the UN to impose their own strong
frequency, and vitriol of 2013 have surpassed          sanctions on the rogue state. The bill awaits
anything seen in the past. On the other hand,          consideration in the House of Representatives
most experts found it unlikely that the North          and is not yet law. In the same month, the
Korean government would actually push ahead            North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Non-
with military aggression. Increasingly isolated        Recognition Act of 2013 (HR 673) was
even from old allies China and Russia, North           introduced in the House by Representative
Korea would be fully aware of the dire                 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). This bill proposes
consequences following a military strike on            to go even further; it calls upon the Secretary of
South Korea, the US, or Japan. Rather, in spite        State to re-designate North Korea as a state
of Kim Jong-un’s apparent “madness,” many              sponsor of terrorism. Still under review by
pundits speculated that his warmongering was a         committees, the legislation has passed neither
highly rational attempt to legitimize his rule         the House nor the Senate at the time of writing.
among the people of North Korea. To that                   Congress has also taken action on the
end, his intended audience may have been               appalling human rights situation. In 2004, the
more domestic than international. Ultimately,          North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011)
observers and governments around the world             was passed by Congress and signed into law.
continue to debate the extent to which North           Among its measures were (1) authorizing new
Korea’s threats should be taken seriously. Are         funds to support human rights efforts, (2)
the regime’s menaces to be believed? Would             transmitting informational radio broadcasts to
North Korea ever conduct a first strike against        the North Korean people, (3) requiring the
its enemies? Is the young dictator merely              President to appoint a special envoy on human
solidifying his grasp on power? Or has Kim             rights to North Korea, and (4) permitting North
Jong-un simply lost his mind? The answers are          Korean citizens to apply for asylum in the US.
as unclear as ever, which is why American              The law has been reauthorized by Congress
intelligence plays such a vital role in this crisis.   twice since its adoption and is next up for
    One thing is certain, however. Amidst such         reconsideration in 2017. A 2012 extension to
tensions, the consequences of miscalculation or        the act calls upon China to desist in its forcible
miscommunication on either side are                    repatriation of North Korean refugees. In spite
tremendous. A simple accident, a simple errant         of the millions of dollars in funding set aside for
gunshot, a simple rocket misfire—the slightest         this law, the North Korean Human Rights Act
mishap could tip the region back into war.             has enjoyed only modest success. According to
                                                       the State Department, 149 North Korean
             Congressional Action                      refugees have been resettled in the US as of
                                                       December 2012. Ongoing challenges include


persuading host countries to accept North           their funding if elected. Romney and other
Korean refugees and raising awareness about         conservatives additionally argued in favor of
the program among displaced North Koreans.          applying greater pressure on China to help
    The question of human rights was further        confront the security and humanitarian issues
addressed in the North Korean Child Welfare         on the Korean peninsula.
Act of 2012 (HR 1464). Signed into law by
President Obama in January 2013, it was hailed                       Liberal View
as a monumental step forward for North
Korean children and orphans. The legislation            Liberals agree that US policy towards North
helps reunite family members who have               Korea must be very firm. Most if not all
escaped North Korea. It also seeks to support       Democratic legislators in Congress strongly
orphans in hiding and facilitate the adoptions of   support the imposition of sanctions and
North Korean children living outside their          diplomatic penalties on Kim Jong-un’s regime
homeland without parental care. Jarring             in light of recent provocations. Like President
estimates suggest that 20,000 young North           Obama, liberals stress the importance of
Korean orphans currently live in hiding out of      standing with South Korea and insisting that
fear of repatriation.                               North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons
                                                    program. Cooperation with the UN is also
       FOCUS OF THE DEBATE                          more widely favored among left-leaning
                                                    policymakers, who generally view the UNSC
              Conservative View                     essential in resolving the conflict.
                                                        Although they are quite closely aligned,
    Conservatives take a very tough stance on       liberals and conservatives disagree on the
North Korea and advocate stringent measures         measures necessary to achieve North Korean
to deal with the rogue regime. Republican           compliance. Democrats tend to be more
lawmakers overwhelmingly favor strong               optimistic about the outcome of bilateral
economic sanctions, penalties on companies          negotiations and Six Party Talks. Nobody
that trade with North Korea, and a powerful         disputes the importance of tough economic
and active military presence around the region.     sanctions and military presence around North
A large number of conservatives argue that the      Korea. But in the eyes of most liberal
country should be added back to the list of         policymakers, the provision of food aid and
states that sponsor terrorism (as President         fuel aid should also play a large role in enticing
George W. Bush had done in his “Axis of             North Korea to behave responsibly and
Evil”). They tend to be more skeptical about        renounce its nuclear program. Thus, rather
deals (such as the Agreed Framework of 1994)        than seeing the 1994 Agreed Framework as a
involving food aid or fuel aid in exchange for      form of appeasement, liberals hailed the deal as
promises from Pyongyang to cease its nuclear        a success when it was first signed.
program. Such initiatives, many conservatives
believe, are consistent with a weak and naïve                      Presidential View
US foreign policy. For instance, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney           During his presidential campaign and at the
was quick to criticize the Obama administration     outset of his term, President Obama expressed
for not being firm enough on the issue of North     an early willingness to engage with rogue states
Korea. During his campaign he voiced his            such as North Korea. Exercising a foreign
strong disapproval over the cutting of key          policy known as “strategic patience,” the
missile defense programs and vowed to boost         Obama administration has encouraged North

                                                       NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 11

Korea to return to the negotiating table (even      ruled out the idea of preemptive strikes or
amid the latter’s threats and provocations) while   forcible regime change. A third leading foreign
maintaining diplomatic pressure on the regime.      policy analyst employed by the think-tank has
     President Obama has been fairly consistent     reiterated the need for US diplomats to be very
in his approach to North Korea throughout his       firm and persistent on the issue of
tenure. To be specific, the administration’s        denuclearization.
policy includes the following main elements.
First, the White House insists that Pyongyang       The Heritage Foundation
should commit to denuclearization and take
steps to mend its fractured relationship with           The Heritage Foundation is a conservative
Seoul before re-entering Six Party Talks.           think-tank whose stated mission includes
Second, President Obama favors a mix of             promoting “strong national defense.” To that
“sticks and carrots” — including aid incentives     end, the organization has expressed extreme
along with disincentives like economic              concern over the North Korean crisis. In the
sanctions and arms restrictions — as tools to       past, the Heritage Foundation has expressed its
help apply pressure on the North Korean             “disappointment” over the outcome of Six
government. Third, the president has been           Party Talks, saying that the US has made too
quite adamant in trying to persuade China to        many concessions for minimal compliance
take a tougher stance against its smaller           from the dictatorship. The right-leaning think-
neighbor. Lastly, while being careful not to        tank has additionally criticized President
come off as provocative or aggressive, the          Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for
current administration continues to carry out       not being bold enough against North Korea; it
large-scale military exercises around the Korean    describes recent negotiation attempts as being
peninsula intended to demonstrate the strength      idealistic and insufficiently tough.
of the US-South Korean alliance.
                                                             POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
         Interest Group Perspectives
                                                        Solutions to this topic will require a good
Council on Foreign Relations                        amount of forethought, pragmatism, and
                                                    creativity. Unlike the case with domestic issues,
    The Council on Foreign Relations is a           the US cannot exert coercive control over this
prominent non-partisan think-tank specializing      problem. North Korea’s erratic behavior is
in international affairs. Scholars at the Council   highly unpredictable and, to an extent, subject
on Foreign Relations generally take a more          to the whims of Kim Jong-un, which makes the
moderate approach to the North Korean               situation on the Korean Peninsula especially
quandary than hardline conservative groups do.      volatile. Any solutions will therefore need to be
One leading expert at the institution has           realistic and well planned out. Here are just a
advocated an updated “containment policy,”          few of the various options available to
similar to the anticommunist strategy pursued       Congress.
by the US in the years after World War II. The
group has also proposed applying pressure on                     Economic Sanctions
China to restart the Six Party Talks and bring
North Korea to the negotiating table. Another           In response to North Korea’s provocations,
scholar at the Council has emphasized the           economic sanctions have been the traditional,
importance of diplomatic and military               go-to solution time and time again. Nearly every
cooperation with South Korea, though he has         nuclear test and missile launch is met with a


new round of trade restrictions slapped upon          abandon its nuclear program. In some cases,
the rogue regime by the US or by the UN.              sanctions have even encouraged the regime to
Sanctions are highly supported by liberals and        step up its antagonistic, provocative rhetoric.
conservatives alike because they are easy to
implement, costless to American taxpayers                  A Return to the Negotiating Table
(unlike military intervention), and generally
effective. Types of sanctions in the past have             Returning to the Six Party talks or other
included a ban on luxury items in North Korea,        multilateral negotiations would be a promising
penalties on any companies that trade with the        step, but after the most recent round of
country, and a freeze on overseas assets held by      provocations from North Korea, restarting the
top regime officials. A recent UN resolution          talks would be a significant challenge in itself.
also cracked down on any shipments to                 Seoul and Pyongyang appear to be as distant as
Pyongyang suspected of being connected to the         ever from finding common ground. In a
country’s nuclear program.                            demonstration of authority for his domestic
     When applied correctly, economic                 audience, it is likely that Kim Jong-un would
sanctions can be crippling. However, even with        not concede easily to foreign demands. As the
broad bipartisan and international support,           past has shown, even “breakthrough”
further economic sanctions can only go so far in      agreements at the Six Party Talks have fallen
the case of North Korea. Why? First, one must         flat after nations failed to follow through with
recall that the communist state is already one of     their commitments.
the most isolated and closed-off economies in              There is some hope in persuading China to
the world. Its 2011 imports totaled only $4           diplomatically pressure the North Korean
billion; its exports were worth just $4.7 billion.    regime into denuclearization. The most recent
Accounting for two-thirds of all trade, China is      atomic tests and aggressive rhetoric left Beijing
by far the country’s largest trading partner.         increasingly frustrated with its rogue neighbor.
Hence, because current economic exchange is           Worried by the prospect of a regional conflict,
already so meager, additional sanctions would         China has called for immediate dialogue in
only have a limited impact. The second                order to hasten a peace settlement. As North
possible objection to sanctions is that they tend     Korea’s closest partner — not to mention one of
to hurt the population more than the regime.          its only remaining allies — China would clearly
According to citizens who have escaped,               play a pivotal role in any new negotiations.
residents of North Korea routinely suffer from        Therefore, any serious proposals by Congress
famines, fuel shortages, and squalid living           should strongly consider how other nations
conditions. Per capita income levels are              could play a supporting role in easing tensions
estimated to be a paltry $1,800 per year — a          on the Korean Peninsula and working towards
statistic that places North Korea among the           denuclearization.
poorest countries on Earth. Yet another round              Diplomacy could likewise be a powerful
of sanctions could turn the situation on the          tool in confronting human rights violations in
ground from bad to worse while Kim Jong-un,           North Korea. Six Party Talks have typically
who was recently spotted touring the coast on         focused on the region’s most immediate
an expensive yacht, continues to live a lavish life   security concerns, but negotiations in the future
in opulent palaces. A third and final aspect to       could certainly discuss the growing issues
consider is that the regime has ignored               surrounding human rights, refugees, political
economic sanctions in the past. International         freedoms, and the regime’s suspected network
reprimands have apparently done little to             of forced labor camps. To neglect these
convince the North Korean government to               problems would be a tragic oversight.

                                                         NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 13

                                                  include disruptions to military operations,
    Increasing US Military Presence and           surveillance of suspected nuclear facilities,
            Defense Capabilities                  espionage of top regime officials, or publicity
                                                  campaigns to denounce the communist party
     Numerous policymakers support an             from within. From assassinations to cyber-
increase in America’s military presence near      attacks to spying, everything is possible in
the Korean Peninsula. This move would have        theory. However, it goes without saying that
the dual advantage of demonstrating America’s     North Korea is one of the most secure,
alliance with South Korea and deterring any       isolated, and well-defended nations on the
pre-emptive strikes from the North Korean         planet, so even the most carefully calculated
army. Many experts maintain that boosting         covert operations come with a high risk.
America’s missile defense capabilities should
be another part of the long-term solution.         QUESTIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS
Doing so would be particularly important for
Hawaii, Alaska, and US bases in the Pacific—           Ruled by a new leader and a highly
not to mention the American West Coast,           enigmatic government, North Korea provides
which may come within striking distance of        us with more questions than answers. How to
North Korea in the next few years. Investing in   tackle the predicaments on the Korean
the technologies required to shield the US from   Peninsula is a topic that has stumped presidents
an enemy ballistic missile would obviously be     from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. At
expensive and complicated, but not without        Harvard Model Congress, delegates should
precedent. During the Bush and Obama              begin by identifying what specific objectives the
presidencies, the Department of Defense has       US should set for itself. Should America simply
continued to work on creating a missile defense   try to manage the regime’s nuclear arsenal, or is
program. In April 2013, in response to North      total denuclearization the only acceptable
Korea’s daily threats, the Pentagon moved 14      option? What types of incentives and
missile interceptors to Guam.                     disincentives should be used to encourage good
     Crucially, any military maneuvers must be    behavior from North Korea? Where does the
extremely strategic and careful not to stir up    question of human rights fit in, and how high
unnecessary aggravation. American defense         does it rank on America’s priority list? What
forces should avoid appearing overly aggressive   should the US government ask of China in
in the eyes of the North Korean regime, lest an   trying to resolve tensions around the region?
impulsive Kim Jong-un overreact and launch             In addition, delegates should think about
counter-assaults against the US or South Korea.   how to acquire better intelligence on the
                                                  world’s most mysterious regime. What are the
             Covert Operations:                   true intentions of Kim Jong-un? Based on what
        Gathering Intelligence about the          we know, is the dictator a rational actor or a
        World’s Most Reclusive Regime             crazed and inexperienced belligerent? Just how
                                                  developed is North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and
    Creative and clandestine solutions are        missile technology? Under what terms might
always an option at Harvard Model Congress as     the regime be willing to give up its nuclear
long as they are well planned out! It is well     agenda, and can they be trusted to keep their
known that some US government agencies            word?
routinely conduct missions around the world to
gather intelligence about foreign countries in                  CONCLUSION
secret. Covert operations in North Korea might


     Since the succession of Kim Jong-un in                 Not a novel issue, US-North Korea
2011, the relationship between the US and              relations have been examined extensively by
North Korea has grown much more                        countless political scholars. Copious literature is
tumultuous, tense, and unpredictable. With the         available online about the relationship between
shadow of the Korean War still looming over            the two states and the various negotiation
the peninsula, North Korea’s reclusive                 initiatives undertaken in the past few decades.
communist regime has dramatically intensified          A comprehensive congressional research report
its hostility after years of modestly successful Six   on North Korea provides excellent detail and
Party negotiations. The young and enigmatic            serves as a wonderful source for further
new leader of the nation alarmed the world in          information. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ian
2012 and 2013 when he ordered the launch of            Rinehart authored the document, and it was
North Korea’s first satellite, tested the country’s    updated in early 2013 to reflect the latest
third and most powerful nuclear device,                developments. As for information about North
conducted brazen missile exercises, and                Korea itself, the CIA World Factbook is always
amplified the regime’s already belligerent             a reliable reference. Delegates interested in
rhetoric. While experts remain uncertain about         different types of media might enjoy recent
Kim Jong-un’s true intentions and objectives,          CNN documentaries that focus on the theme of
the international community has taken his              “Inside North Korea.” A number of TED talks
threats and military maneuvers very seriously.         have even been filmed featuring first-hand
In the process, North Korea has exacerbated            accounts of human rights abuses in North
tensions in East Asia and begun to alienate its        Korea.
closest allies. In the meantime, grave human
rights violations continue to occur, and the                            GLOSSARY
people of North Korea have seen no relief
from ongoing repression and famine.
     US policymakers overwhelmingly advocate           ballistic missile – a missile that follows a
a tough approach against North Korea.                  projectile-like flight path with the objective of
Conservative lawmakers and think-tanks argue           delivering warheads to a predetermined target
that heavy-handed sanctions and military
deterrence are the most potent solutions.              covert operation – a (usually illicit) mission that
Liberals have remained a little more optimistic        is so planned and executed as to conceal the
about multilateral negotiations and incentives         identity of the sponsor or permit plausible
such as foreign aid. Yet, even though American         denial by the sponsor
politicians agree that denuclearization is the
ultimate objective, a variety of different policies    Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – an
have been proposed, each one with its own              international treaty signed by 190 parties
merits and flaws. Given how little information is      around the world that has prevented the spread
known about North Korea’s government and               of nuclear weapons and weapons technology
nuclear arsenal, it is unclear how the US              since it entered into force in 1970
administration and its allies should respond in
order to guarantee the best and most peaceful          Pyongyang – the capital city of North Korea
                                                       sanctions – punitive bans and restrictions on
  GUIDE TO FURTHER RESEARCH                            economic trade, or other coercive measures,
                                                       imposed on a country in order to elicit a change
                                                       in its behavior

                                                          NORTH KOREA UNDER KIM JONG-UN – 15

                                                     online 5 Apr. 2013. Accessed 14 Jun. 2013.
Six Party Talks – negotiations involving six         
participating states (North Korea, South Korea,
the US, Japan, Russia, and China) to find a          CIA World Factbook Staff. “North Korea.”
peaceful resolution to security concerns caused      CIA World Factbook. N.d. Accessed 14 Jun.
by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program             2013.
totalitarian – a political system seeking to
control all aspects of public and private society    Column: Banyan. “Are You Listening,
whenever necessary                                   America?” The Economist. Published online
                                                     12 Feb. 2013. Accessed 17 Jun. 2013.
Agence France Presse Staff. “North Korea Cuts        CNN Wire Staff. “World Reacts to Kim Jong-
Off Contact with South.” The Australian.             il’s Death.” CNN. Published online 20 Dec.
Published online 28 Mar. 2013. Accessed 17           2011.       Accessed     14     Jun.    2013.
Jun.                                      2013.                                    Council on Foreign Relations Issue Tracker.
                                                     “The Candidates on North Korea.” Council on
Bajoria, Jayshree. “The Six-Party Talks on           Foreign Relations. Published online 31 Oct.
North Korea’s Nuclear Program.” Council on           2012.     Accessed        22     Jun.     2013.
Foreign Relations. Published online 8 Mar.           
              Cox, Ramsey. “Senate Passes Bill Aiming to
                                                     Prevent North Korean Nuclear Weapons.”
BBC Staff. “North Korea Ends Peace Pact with         The Hill. Published online 25 Feb. 2013.
South.” BBC. Published online 8 Mar. 2013.           Accessed           25         Jun.         2013.
Accessed         17        Jun.        2013.         
Chang, Gordon. “Is Kim Jong-un’s Bluster             The Heritage Foundation Staff. “North Korea.”
Really a Prelude to Reform?” World Affairs.          The Heritage Foundation. Published online
Published online 4 Apr. 2013. Accessed 20            2013.      Accessed      22      Jun.      2013.
Jun.                                       2013.                                                   Kim, Christine. “North Korean Workers Don’t
                                                     Report for Work at Joint Industrial Park.”
Chanlett-Avery, Emma, and Rinehart, Ian.             Reuters. Published online 8 Apr. 2013.
“North Korea: US Relations, Nuclear                  Accessed         21          Jun.        2013.
Diplomacy,     and   Internal   Situation.”
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