One of the reasons why it is so hard to write about North Korea is the association of the words - "unprecedented", "nuclear" and "crisis" that has been used generously to describe the issue pinned firmly under the world's spotlight.
With world leaders oscillating on their stance, it would be wise to wait and see how the summit in Singapore on the12th of June pans out. Till then, let us take up these terms one by one.
Calling the situation "unprecedented" is a gross misrepresentation. Korea has a long history of being invaded, prior to the Korean War, it spent 35 years under the oppressive colonial rule of Japan, where dissent and freedom of expression were routinely crushed. If we are to understand North Korea today, we must first understand the Korean War, sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War”.
In 1945, with the surrender of Japan in World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to jointly manage Korea until it could become independent, with the United States occupying the southern half and the Soviets occupying the northern half. Despite the fact that Korea was one country, two states were founded: the right-wing anti-communist Syngman Rhee was appointed the president of South Korea, and Kim Il-sung became supreme leader of North Korea. Both forces engaged in disputes and altercations along the border several times, until 1950, when Kim Il-sung, believing he could reunify the whole country under his leadership, launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea. So the US decided to intervene in what would have otherwise been a small-scale civil war and instead turned it into a showdown of communist-capitalist ideology. The Korean War was a catastrophe, with more than 100,000 civilians arrested, killed, and left in mass graves. The United States dropped more bombs and napalm during the Korean War than it had during the entire Pacific campaign of World War II. By the war’s end, the North had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks that plunged them into Stone Age.
This is why the propaganda seems to work, this is why an oppressive regime is surviving for the past 3 generations and this is why even after the harshest of sanctions, North Korea has managed to persist.
People often forget that North Korea is at the mercy of three great powers and their influence. China and Russia share a border with North Korea and the United States has had long-standing security relationships both with South Korea and Japan. Neither a destabilized nor a powerful North Korea is good for Chinese aspirations in Asia, which leaves North Korea with no effective allies. The United States has more than 23,000 troops stationed in South Korea (and another 39,000 in Japan) and given Washington’s destruction of North Korea in the war, as well as Washington’s history with overthrowing numerous governments and invading and bombing multiple countries, it’s not hard to understand Pyongyang's obsession with WMD's (weapons of mass destruction).
Should we really be afraid of North Korea's nuclear capabilities? To understand this we need to take a closer look at the history and rationale behind the North Korean nuclear program. In the 1950s, the Soviets helped the North Koreans build their first nuclear research reactor. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the North Koreans saw the threat of their country being absolutely powerless against the outside. Since then, four U.S presidents with four different strategies have achieved next to nothing.
North Korea sees its nuclear program as the only way to secure lasting independence. The regime knows that despite their troop strength it’s militarily is inferior to that of its neighbors. The North Koreans are surrounded on all sides by countries that have invaded or occupied them in the past, also in living memory, there is the time the United States killed a quarter of the North Korean population and left almost no structures standing in Pyongyang. In light of U.S. military aggression against countries that choose to resist our global order such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons seems like the most logical thing it could do. It’s not the North Koreans who have betrayed past agreements, but the United States. The Agreed Framework traded the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for normalized economic and diplomatic relations with the United States. However, the United States failed to uphold its end of the agreement almost immediately. They never met the obligations set in the Agreed Framework and then moved at such a slow pace that there was no chance of meeting the timelines set in the Framework.
With nearly 1.2 million active personnel, North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest standing army (after China, the United States, and India). It has thousands of artillery pieces positioned near the demilitarized zone and could fire rounds into densely populated areas. Pyongyang relies on its military to discourage the United States and its allies from taking military action against the north. This status quo has maintained the balance of power in the peninsula, however as the technological gap widens and many of the North Korean systems turn obsolete, the regime is working towards the development of long-range ballistic missiles, namely the KN-8 and KN-14 which it claims could reach in North America. It is uncertain whether their claims are true because these missiles have not yet been tested.
By being able to reach the continent of the United States the North Koreans want to instill doubt in the minds of the allies that the United States is not willing to risk domestic territory in order to defend Seoul. United States has deployed the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea which gives the Pacific Alliance a layer of protection against ballistic. The possibility of stationing nuclear weapons in South Korea could lead to proliferation and North Korea could prompt Japan to go nuclear as well, altering the balance of power in Asia.
A military strike will only reinforce the belief among North Koreans that they need nuclear weapons to make sure that they maintain their sovereignty and their independence.
After a volley of tweets between Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart, the upcoming summit was the last eventuality that anyone could expect. In a move dubbed "Cowboy Diplomacy", Donald Trump's strategy of bullying and outright provocation has miraculously resulted in improvement of the relationship in the peninsula. At the Olympic Winter Games in South Korea, the two countries walked in together at the opening ceremony and put together one combined Korean ice hockey team. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un's sister met for a diplomatic meeting where she invited the President to a meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. After years of tension over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, Kim and Trump agreed this month to hold the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader. The summit is a step in the right direction and Pyongyang announced that it is suspending its ICBM and nuclear tests, and is closing down a nuclear testing site as a sign of good faith. Footage of the event broadcast by South Korean media showed explosions throwing huge clouds of dust and debris as they destroyed tunnel entrances as well as multiple wooden structures around the site. However, the success or failure of the summit can only be speculated at this moment.
The best case scenario might be the normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, including the lifting of sanctions and acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. This would cause a permanent rift in the China-North Korean alliance, isolating China as it would lose its only buffer from U.S influence and guarantee the survival of the Kim regime. Trump said one thing that could come out of the summit is an agreement formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which was concluded only with a truce, not a peace treaty.
In contrast, a failure of the summit might lead to a dangerous escalation in the region. North Korea will most likely resume nuclear and long-range missile tests, while the US might feel compelled to take military action against nuclear and missile targets. Such a scenario might also bring North Korea closer into China’s fold and will most likely see the weakening of US-South Korean military alliance.
However, the worst case scenario remains to be a total nuclear war at a scale we've never seen before. Over 371.8 million people live in the region in question, and millions more could feel the effects of the fallout and food shortages. We live in an age when we can set the world ablaze with the push of a button, albeit not a big red one. Typical warheads are 20 to 50 times more powerful, and it's hard to estimate how many will suffer due to numerous variables -like the wind, weather, and the timing and precise location of the explosions- but it will certainly be the world's biggest catastrophe at the very least. Unlike the previous historic summits, the level of preparation for the Kim-Trump summit is appallingly poor. The lack of preparation, coupled with the fickle character of the key protagonists, might yet lead to an abandonment of the summit. However, if the deliberations actually produce an agreement, it would be a significant breakthrough.
North Korea is at a flashpoint, prone to turning into a crisis but unlike Syria, it cannot be the sole focus of the world's attention. The upcoming summit shall not talk about the totalitarian regime, Media control, Religious freedom, Prison camps and conditions, foreign detentions, forced labor, women's rights or children and malnutrition. Still, if it can avert a nuclear showdown in one of the most populous regions in the world, I'd call it a success.