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A Crossroads in Korea

David A. Welch
Balsillie School of International Affairs and Centre for International Governance Innovation
February 12, 2016

North Korea's recent nuclear test (which the regime disingenuously claimed was a hydrogen bomb) and its ballistic missile test (which the regime disingenuously claimed was a satellite launch) — both in flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions — have fundamentally altered the security situation in East Asia. There is a palpable sense that matters have come to a head. The only question now is whether Kim Jong-un will finally have succeeded in galvanizing decisive action against him, or demonstrated once and for all that he can get away with anything. Either way, the regional security implications are profound.

Apart from North Korea itself, the key players in the drama are China, the United States and South Korea. All three have declared a nuclear North Korea "unacceptable." What makes it unacceptable, at the end of the day, is Kim Jong-un. A run-of-the-mill leader would not be a concern. Indeed, a run-of-the-mill leader of a small, impoverished state would not be pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies in the first place.

Part of what makes Kim unusual, of course, is the bizarre state in which he was socialized and that he now leads. The aptly named Hermit Kingdom is the world's most isolated, most heavily militarized, and most paranoid. It is also the most totalitarian, and its supreme leader enjoys almost god-like status.

But times are changing in North Korea. Cracks have begun to show in the totalitarian armor. Thanks in part to North Korea's expat workers and in part to the increasing willingness of North Korean police and border guards to take bribes to feed themselves and their families, news of the world outside is now circulating widely. Returning workers come back with eye-opening stories. Defectors manage to find ways of communicating to the loved ones they left behind. South Korean dramas on DVDs, USB drives and cellphones bootlegged from China increasingly circulate among the masses. As a result, fewer and fewer North Koreans believe that they live in a utopian Juche paradise. They are catching glimpses of a better life and are increasingly eager for a piece of the action.

This puts Kim Jong-un in a bind. North Korea's inefficient, antiquated economy cannot deliver food security, let alone consumer goods. Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, seems to have been willing to use parts of his nuclear program as a bargaining chip to leverage outside economic aid, but the new Kim on the block has shown no interest in this, preferring (so it seems) to press ahead relentlessly.

It is unclear what Kim hopes to accomplish by means of his single-minded pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and that in and of itself is a concern. We do not fully understand Kim's mindset. All possibilities are worrisome. If he is driven by a simple infatuation with achievement and glory, he would not necessarily seek to use the capabilities he will eventually develop against others, but neither will he make progress in satisfying North Koreans' economic needs. Presumably, at some point disgruntled senior political and military officials will try to confront him, triggering a domestic crisis that could easily spiral out of control. If instead he is driven by the desire to put himself in a position to extort what he needs from the outside world, he will almost certainly find that North Korea has already exhausted everyone else's indulgence. The most likely outcome in this case would be an extremely dangerous game of chicken. A third possibility is that Kim intends to achieve what his god-like grandfather failed to achieve: the forcible reunification of Korea. This would mean war.

All of these possibilities are worrying. Hence the growing feeling that it is time to take decisive action against Kim sooner rather than later. If Xi Jinping can be brought on board, there is at least a chance that Kim can be brought to heel, because China can, if it wishes, turn off North Korean access to vital supplies. If Xi cannot be brought on board, do not be surprised if the United States and South Korea take matters into their own hands.

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David WelchDavid A. Welch is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the CIGI Chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and and a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His 2005 book, Painful Choices: A Theory of Foreign Policy Change (Princeton University Press), is the inaugural winner of the International Studies Association International Security Studies Section (ISSS) Book Award for the best book published in 2005 or 2006, and his 1993 book, Justice and the Genesis of War (Cambridge University Press), is the winner of the 1994 Edgar S. Furniss Award for an Outstanding Contribution to National Security Studies.

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