We Need to Look Beyond Trump and Kim Jong-un and Start Talking About North Koreans

With all the military bluster about whether to just bomb Kim Jong-un and forget about him, the plight of North Koreans has been forgotten.


It’s not Russia. It’s not his failing agenda. It’s not even threats of impeachment. The one story now dominating Trump’s presidency is North Korea. Since Trump took office, the situation between North Korea and the United States has rapidly deteriorated, with both making bold threats about the other. At the mercy of this pissing war between two leaders desperate to assert their toxic masculinity, are millions of North Koreans.

There’s been a renewed push for sanctions against North Korea to try to curtail acts of aggression from Kim Jong-un but Dr. Markus Bell, lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield doesn’t believe these will make much – if any – difference to North Korea’s nuclear program.

“The problem here is that North Korea is on the verge of being capable of launching nuclear missiles and is never, never going to give this up no matter how far the international community goes with sanctions,” says Dr Bell. “These weapons guarantee the DPRK’s security in the face of US aggression.”

“Further sanctions will further erode the living conditions of ordinary North Koreans. Sanctions will neither bring North Korea to the bargaining table, nor will they convince North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program. The North Korean elites have been muddling through for many years and the idea that they would change their course now is preposterous. Nothing the international community does is going to get North Korea to compromise. It’s time to start talking about how we live with a nuclear North Korea.”

“Sanctions will neither bring North Korea to the bargaining table, nor will they convince North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program”

The idea of a nuclear North Korea may feel particularly alarming, but it’s important to remember that just because a state is nuclear they wouldn’t necessarily start a nuclear war. The media story however, is usually focused upon only two scenarios: if the US will bomb North Korea into oblivion or if North Korea will strike first (despite not having the weaponry to do so yet). Dr Bell believes that there are huge areas of concern, but in ways those in the West may not have expected.

“A nuclear North Korea should be a concern for all of us, but not necessarily for the reasons we might assume. The key issues are not that Kim Jong-un has nuclear weapons and is ready to attack the US. The key issues, for the country and for the region, are that of the proliferation of nuclear material and missile technology into enemy state and non-state actors’ hands; the safety of nuclear sites in North Korea going forward; and the possibility that the North Korean leadership will use these weapons to blackmail South Korea into an unfavourable reunification in the future.”

A clear danger then is what would happen if North Korea had nuclear power but could not adequately ensure it was safe in its own state.

South Korea is also a factor that must cause concern. At the heart of the deterioration between the relationship of North Korea and the United States is the strength of the relationship between the US and South Korea. In the event of warfare between North and South Korea (actively, that is) then the US would act as ally to South Korea as a result of the Mutual Defense Treaty signed by the two.

Dr Alex Dukalskis, assistant professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, believes the relationship between the US and South Korea could be a key element to the tensions.

“One theory of why North Korea wants long range missiles that could target the US is because of the agreement between South Korea and the US. Part of the aim I think of North Korea being able to target US mainland or even Guam is to basically make the US president think twice before involving the US in another conflict with South Korea. Would he or she risk Los Angeles being targeted by a nuclear weapon in order to defend South Korea? Well, I don’t know. That’s the seed of doubt North Korea would want to plant.”

Such a tactic would arguably play against the current president who would have set his own trap. Trump’s entire presidential campaign was based around the slogan “make America great again” which had roots in American isolationism, and putting ‘America first’. Trump’s strong rhetoric against North Korea will do nothing to soothe tensions if North Korea is committed to its nuclear program whatever the cost. Kim Jong-un though may well be willing to test how committed to past treaties the US president is, given Trump’s promises to look out for Americans. If North Korea is a nuclear state then it will surely diminish any role the US has in its actions. What could ultimately be at stake, is America’s global political capital.

Dr Dukalskis believes the concept of a fully nuclear North Korea would offer a complicated picture. There could be more stability due to the fact all sides know that avoiding nuclear war is in the interests of everyone, but lower scale conflict could become a stronger possibility.

“There’s a thing people who study nuclear weapons talk about and that’s the stability/instability paradox. The basic idea is that if two states have nuclear weapons you’ll have stability at the macro strategic level. In other words, they won’t go to war or they won’t launch nuclear weapons at each other but at the lower level you’ll have more instability,” says Dr Dukalskis.

“You might have more skirmishes or more low scale fights. The reason for that is that both states kind of know that the situation won’t escalate because otherwise that would risk nuclear war, so they feel free to engage in smaller scale conflicts. It’s kind of why during the Cold War the USSR and the US didn’t fight each other directly but had all these proxy wars because they felt confident it could be contained.”

“The basic idea is that if two states have nuclear weapons you’ll have stability at the macro strategic level”

North Korea sees a strong nuclear force as a way to stay safe. It’s not alone in that belief. In 2016, one poll by OBR found that the majority of Britons backed renewing Trident. If the UK requires a nuclear deterrent then are the ambitions of Kim Jong-un so ludicrous? There’s also precedent to back up the fears that abandoning a nuclear program could do more harm than good down the line – Libya and Iraq took the same path and have both suffered conflict since. Dr Dukalskis too mentions the Ukraine that gave up its nuclear power after the fall of the Soviet Union, but “has just had part of its territory hived off by its neighbour”. Ukraine is still receiving little support or attention from the global community, who largely have had no answers in how to deal with an aggressive (and nuclear) Russia.

Dr Dukalskis feels that a fully nuclear North Korea would arguably have wider ramifications for Asia than the West.

“If North Korea develops even more you might see more lower level stability in North East Asia, that would be a concern. There are already rumblings about Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. More than half of people polled in South Korea think South Korea should consider having its own nuclear weapons. Some nationalist Japanese politicians have been calling for at least reminding North Korea that Japan can also have the technical capabilities to make nuclear weapons. Part of this is in a regional context. Where this ends I don’t know.”

What could develop is the real possibility of an arms race. Nuclear weapons may give a sense of security but these nuclear missiles have been used before and they could again. There is always that possibility.

Doctor Ra Mason, lecturer in International Relations and Japanese Foreign Policy at the University of East Anglia, believes that Japan is taking a pragmatic approach to the rising tensions as it observes North Korea from close proximity.

“It [the rhetoric] is largely seen as bluster, but Japan watches on nervously – especially as the level of rhetoric, particularly on the US side, has now exceeded post-War precedents.”

However, Doctor Mason believes that Japanese citizens could also do more to try to push for change to break tensions.

“Japanese citizens have little to worry about, but should be doing more to lobby their government for a less affirmative stance towards the Trump administration’s rhetoric.”

Every day activism then is still required even with the talk of nuclear apocalypse. He also believes that North Koreans themselves have been overlooked in the midst of the war of words.

“North Koreans are being badly forgotten, given their dire socioeconomic situation and lack of political agency.”

Dr Dukalskis agrees that North Koreans have been forgotten in the media. The focus is obsessively latched to the personalities of Trump and Jong-un.

“For a long time there’s been a focus on the nuclear program and not a lot of thought about ordinary people in North Korea. Any time there’s military tension it’s easy to demonise the enemy.”

“For a long time there’s been a focus on the nuclear program and not a lot of thought about ordinary people in North Korea”

However, Dr Dukalskis also is quick to point out that the lives of US citizens aren’t exactly on the priority list for North Korea. On both sides, there’s an element to seeing each other just as an enemy or force of power which naturally comes when rhetoric focuses upon military might. Such thinking isn’t just happening between these two nations. The vote to increase sanctions on North Korea is due to the aggression of one man, but it’s ultimately the citizens of North Korea that will pay the price.

“The theory of sanctions is that it puts pressure on the population and the population then pressurises the government and the government then changes,” says Dr Dukalskis. “The problem is there’s no mechanism in North Korea whereby the population can pressure the government. It’s a very repressive place. There aren’t channels for people to articulate their preferences upward to the government and to the government to then act on them. If you put the squeeze on ordinary North Koreans that’s going to harm ordinary North Koreans, but it’s very unlikely that it’s going to lead them to pressure their government to do much of anything just because it’s not the way people there think and there aren’t natural channels there for them to do that.

“My own view is that widespread blanket sanctions are going to be more harmful for ordinary North Koreans and probably not have much of an effect on the nuclear program.”

Dr Dukalskis focused his research upon the lives of North Koreans and understands all too well the realities for the citizens there. If sanctions won’t work then there has to be an alternative policy towards North Korea. There is perhaps a radical solution; one that is the very opposite of punitive punishments against millions of innocent North Koreans.

“One school of thought basically argues that the thing the North Korean government fears the most is openness. That would call for a radically different approach to sanctions. That would call for more trade, more engagement, removing all barriers and kind of calling North Korea’s bluff. One of the things North Korea benefits from is this environment of threats and vigilance against an external enemy. The more there’s sanctions it makes it easier for the government to present themselves as the protector of the people.

“In fairness, the North Korean government doesn’t really need much threat to manufacture it but if it’s there then of course, they’ll use that argument more and it’s more plausible.”

Increasing trade to North Korea may seem radical but countries who trade together rarely engage in conflict with each other. Furthermore, why should North Koreans be left to suffer with sanctions, particularly ineffective sanctions? What can arguably help to challenge Jong-un is empowering North Koreans, and helping to increase democracy and the free flow of information in the state. In North Korea, communications are monitored to the point where unauthorised international phone calls are illegal. Dr Dukalskis highlights the work that some grassroots organisations are doing to smuggle in phones and to send radio signals. All of these actions are designed to empower North Koreans but “North Korea is notoriously hard to work in and with so smuggling in phones or beaming in signals is illegal, it’s highly risky, it’s difficult to measure the impact”.

Solutions though can also come from organisations and not just state departments. While we talk of nuclear weapons, there’s a real risk that ordinary North Koreans are being forgotten and their lives completely erased. North Korea has some of the harshest laws on the planet, and the state is often portrayed in hyperbolic tones by those in the West who have taken little time to understand the complexities of the region. If North Korea was bombed, Kim Jong-un would not be the one who would face the fall out. It would be the civilians of North Korea who were born there by chance. This is too serious a situation for the egos of men. The situation requires serious work by committed politicians, activists, journalists and aid workers. We cannot forget that at the end of any threat, are the lives of civilians.

One thought on “We Need to Look Beyond Trump and Kim Jong-un and Start Talking About North Koreans

  1. It is Russia, because it looks like that is going to be Trump’s downfall… …but excessive mishandling of North Korea will hasten it. A new President is unlikely to take the same course against North Korea, because most people know that violence will only make the situation worse.

    Liked by 1 person

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