Why is North Korea Considered Such a Threat by So Many Countries?
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
For over a thousand years before the twentieth century, the Korean peninsula had maintained a political independence and a culture that distinguished them from their neighbours. The peninsula was ruled under consecutive kingdoms until the early twentieth century when Japan colonised the region. Today, the peninsula is separated into two countries: North Korea and South Korea.
This guide will focus on North Korea and how Kim Jong-un became the Supreme Leader. But before that, we will examine why the peninsula split into two countries in the first place.
From cultural homogeneity to two nations
Although the regional differences such as customs and dialect were present over a thousand years ago, the region still maintained cultural homogeneity compared to its neighbours. For example, different Korean dialects were understood by Koreans. However, the same thing can’t be said about the different Chinese dialects for Chinese people.
After a series of invasions by their neighbours at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, the Choson Dynasty limited Korea’s contact with the outside world. For over two centuries, the region lived in peace and harmony until Japan’s brutal annexation of Korea as its colony from 1910 until 1945. Towards the end of its rule, Japan tried to eliminate Korea’s language and cultural identity. However, Japan introduced the peninsula to industrial development by setting up industries such as steel and cement.
After Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the peninsula was split into North and South Korea. The U.S.S.R. occupied the north, while the US occupied the south until an independent and unified Korean government could be established. However, this failed after the emergence of the Cold War between the US and the U.S.S.R. which led to the U.S.S.R. to support North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in an attempt to unify the two Koreas by force. After millions of deaths by 1953, a Demilitarised Zone was established to form a boundary between the two nations.
Kim Jong-un’s rise to power
Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. In 2009, there were rumours about Kim Jong-un being groomed as his father’s eventual successor. In June 2009, he was named head of the State Security Department that is responsible for political control and counterintelligence. Although he had no military experience, Kim Jong-un received a four-star general rank in September 2010.
After his father’s death in 2011, he was appointed as the country’s Supreme Leader. However, this was an unofficial title at the time. In April 2012, his position was validated after acquiring the first secretary of Korean Workers’ Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Chairman of the National Defence Commission positions. In June 2016, the congress of the Supreme People’s Assembly updated the constitution to cement Kim Jong-un’s leadership of North Korea.
North Korea’s tense relationship with the West
In 2016, North Korea conducted nuclear bomb tests and in 2017, they conducted 23 missile tests. With each successive test, North Korea claimed to have upgraded its missile technology. This raised concerns in the Western World, especially with the US who has over 23,000 troops deployed in South Korea.
As a response to North Korea’s frequent missile tests, the US deployed an anti-missile system in South Korea, which is located 155 miles away from the Northern border in the Seongju region. In addition, the US, South Korea, and Japan imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea that targeted companies having anything to do with North Korea’s missile development program, important North Korean figures, and the government’s sources of income.
Kim Jong-un didn’t try to de-escalate the situation. Instead, he fired missiles over northern Japanese Islands, fired rockets across the South Korean border, and conducted a cyberattack on US-based Sony Pictures. Worldwide concerns grow as there are sources that reported 80,000 to 120,000 political detainees in North Korea, while others reported over 150,000 political detainees.
How the West responded to the North Korean threat
In a series of tweets in 2017, and after various North Korean missile tests, former US president Donald Trump threatened to attack North Korea and “totally destroy” it. He called Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man”, and arguably brought the world closer to military conflict with North Korea. However, there were no attacks by either side. On the other hand, the UN kept imposing sanctions on North Korea by adopting different resolutions such as cutting down petroleum imports and limiting crude oil.
Between 2018-2019, Kim Jong-un met different world leaders such as Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping on several occasions. However, North Korea tried evading UN imposed sanctions on several occasions after failed attempts at requesting some sanctions be lifted.
Following a meeting of the UN in 2020, a released joint statement by Belgium, Germany, France, Estonia, and the United Kingdom criticised North Korea’s March 1 launch where they launched two short-range projectiles. It was the first test launch of that year. On March 31st, 2020, North Korea announced that it didn’t want the US ‘to bother’ them anymore however they also said that ‘if the US bothers us, it will be hurt’. Despite several attempts by the US, North Korea rejected all forms of negotiation.
Possible future for Western-North Korean relations
With North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate with the West, it is challenging to predict a fruitful future relationship between the two sides. The West fears the development of the North Korean missile program and the UN continues to impose sanctions on the country. In addition, North Korea is angered by constant outside interference with domestic affairs. Therefore, unless all parties are willing to compromise or reach a mutual agreement, the volatile situation in the region will continue to worsen.
For more information on this topic, check out our dedicated section on Foreign Affairs.