Hotspot Explainer: North Korea

Welcome to this series on geopolitical hotspots! These primers provide a foundation for people who are lost amidst the 24 hours news cycle and want to know the conflict’s players, their motivations, and the factors behind their current political options.  A lot of ink is spilled discussing day-to-day conflict developments and the U.S. response to them. What is often overlooked are the intrinsic geopolitical factors underlying these conflicts. My intention with this series is to provide a primer on different emerging or ongoing conflicts across the globe.

Intrusive Hermit Kingdom 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) has been bestowed the moniker the “Hermit Kingdom” due to the country’s lack of political ties and totalitarian regime, which prohibits the free flow of people, goods, and information in and out of its borders. The Hermit Kingdom has been an irritant to the international community engaging in illicit activities like illegal drug sales, counterfeiting, and weapons trade. These international concerns have intensified since North Korea developed nuclear weapons back in 2006. A rogue state possessing the capability to destroy  millions of people has been, to say the least, unsettling for international leaders.

For North Korea, developing nuclear weapons serves two primary purposes. First, it ensures the regime’s survival by making it too costly for its primary military adversaries, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the U.S. to invade them. Since North Korea is a poor country, its conventional military is weaker than those of the U.S. and South Korea and thus it uses nuclear weapons to balance the power disparity. It is not necessarily paranoid for North Korea to believe the U.S. might overthrow their regime considering President George W. Bush included them in the  Axis of Evil, one of whom (Iraq) the United States toppled.

North Korean nuclear ambitions fuels a second ambition–Korean unification. North Korea’s official ideology is not really communism, but a nationalist ideology called Juche. Juche states the Koreans should be self-sufficient and unencumbered by foreign alliances. Therefore, North Korea’s ultimate aim is to use nuclear weapons to pressure the U.S. and South Korea to sign a peace treaty, removing the U.S. presence from the Korean peninsula, allowing for Korean unification under the North Korean Kim family dynasty.

The Players

North Korea’s political ambitions are unsettling for the Northeast Asia region. Here is a quick rundown of the major actors besides North Korea and their primary interests regarding North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.

South Korea: 

South Korea is North Korea’s southern contiguous neighbor. It is technically still at war with North Korea (North Korea only signed an armistice with South Korea and the U.S., essentially a ceasefire) and knows of the North Korean desire for reunification under the Kim regime’s control. Therefore, it is distrustful of North Korea and wants them to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

However, two major factors constrain South Korea from confronting North Korea. The first is geographic proximity. Since South Korea borders North Korea, it would suffer the most if a war were to break out on the peninsula. Secondly, North and South Koreans do have separate nationalities, but they are both ethnically Korean and have familial links across the border. Ethnic kinship acts as a social restraint on Korean leadership aggressively engaging North Korea.


Japan has historically been concerned with the Korean peninsula’s fate ever since it became a global power in the late 19th century. (And even farther back.) This has to do with Korea’s geographic proximity to Japan, which juts out “like a dagger at the heart of Japan” and allows for an easier means to invasion. Japan’s security anxiety and desire to exploit Korea’s natural resources led it in 1910 to annex Korea. It occupied Korea until the end of World War II resulting in a bitter colonial legacy. The issue of “comfort women” (i.e. sex slaves) during the war is a source of significant tension in the relationship.

Japan and Korea (2)Given this historical animosity, Japan is unable to fully cooperate with South Korea to constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambition. Japan has sought to mend these ties with both  Koreas, but those efforts have fallen flat. In the case of North Korea, the Japanese have rejected compromising with North Korea due to their kidnapping of Japanese for slave labor. At one time, Japan may have desired a divided Korean peninsula since a unified Korea, nursing bitter memories towards Japan, could pose a security risk for Japan. That interest is gone now though due to North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, which poses a threat tens of millions of Japanese.


The U.S. is the only principal player in the North Korean nuclear crisis who does not have territory in Northeast Asia. What it does have are several military bases and enduring security alliances with both South Korea and Japan, which bind it to the region. Even though it is uncertain whether North Korea can strike the U.S. mainland, there is no question its ballistic missiles can reach U.S. bases throughout the Pacific imperiling the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and civilians.

Pacific Bases
Source: Foreign Policy Institute (2013)

Beyond preserving the security of itself and its major allies in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. opposes North Korea’s nuclear program because it is concerned the program will encourage further nuclear proliferation as North Korea sells its nuclear expertise and material to actors with antagonistic aims towards the U.S. and by encouraging South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent.


China is one of the most important players in the North Korean nuclear crisis because it holds the most economic leverage over North Korea. Given its long border with North Korea and its historical links to the Kim regime due to their shared communist ideologies (at least in name), China is the largest trading partner with the North Koreans. That economic relationship has come under strain in recent years due to North Korea’s escalating nuclear and ballistic missile program, but China still retains diplomatic and economic ties with the Koreans.

The reason China retains diplomatic ties and financial support for North Korea is principally about maintaining a buffer zone between the U.S. and China. South Korea hosts U.S. troops and is an U.S. ally. If the North Korean regime were to collapse and Korea were to unify, it is possible U.S. troops could be positioned right against China’s border. To avoid this security dilemma, China tolerates North Korea’s existence even as it becomes increasingly frustrated with the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear weapons program.


Russia’s influence with North Korea has steadily grown since China has become less willing to financially support its erstwhile ally. Although it shares a much smaller border with North Korean than China does, it has invested in energy and infrastructure projects with North Korea. Russia has not unseated China as the principal trading partner with North Korea, but it has increasing financial leverage over them, making them an increasingly important player in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table.

No Quick Fix for North Korea

After laying out who the major actors are in the Korean nuclear crisis, let me briefly draw from these actors’ disparate interests to show the top reasons why the North Korea will not be fixed anytime soon.

Border Security

First and foremost, China, who has the most leverage to affect North Korean behavior, is unwilling to fully pressure the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. As aforementioned, China fears that if North Korea collapses, the Korean peninsula will be unified under a government friendly to the U.S. and willing to host U.S. soldiers on China’s border. The same animating principle which led China to intervene in the Korean War when the U.S. military advanced on the Yalu River endures to this day and prevents China from truly pressuring the North Korean regime.

War is Too Costly

Secondly, North Korea’s main antagonists (South Korea, Japan and the U.S.) do not want to bear the cost of forcibly removing the North’s nuclear weapons program, let alone the Kim regime. In the case of a limited military strike, it may no longer be possible to fully eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities since they are scattered, hidden or have become increasingly mobile.

A full on war would be more effective, but far too costly for South Korea or the U.S. to implement. South Korea’s capital Seoul is only thirty miles or so from North Korean heavy artillery installations. If the U.S. and South Korea were to attack, Seoul would be almost certainly be destroyed along with a sizable portion of its nearly 24 million inhabitants. Even if the U.S. and South Korea were to successfully overthrow the Kim regime with minimal casualties, they would face the daunting task of restructuring and integrating North Korea into the South Korean economy. Estimates vary, but even conservative estimates believe it will cost over $1 trillion to integrate the two Koreas.

Coupled with these economic costs and military casualties would be two major crises: (1) mass refugee flows and (2) securing the North’s nuclear weapons. If the regime were to collapse, millions of destitute North Koreans would pour into South Korea and China. South Korea would barely have the capacity to deal with these migrant flows and China would not want to bear the cost of sheltering millions of people (another reason China is invested in the Kim regime’s stability). The second crisis would be in ensuring any remaining nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of rogue states or non-state actors. If loose nuclear material ended up on the black market, terrorists could use it in a future attack.

Uncle Sam Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

The final major constraint to resolving the Korean crisis involves the U.S. commitment to the Korean peninsula. China’s principal fear with Korean unification is the chance of American troops deployed along its border. If the U.S. were to withdraw its soldiers from South Korea and downsize its presence in Japan, Chinese anxiety may diminish enough for them to pressure Korean reunification seriously. Setting aside the question of whether a Chinese-led Korean reunification project would acceptable to the Koreans, it would go against U.S. long term interests to withdraw.

U.S. troops in South Korean and Japan act as a deterrent against North Korean and Chinese aggression. Part of that deterrence is based on the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal, which it can bring to bear if one of its allies is attacked. If the U.S. were to withdraw its soldiers and security guarantees, Japan and South Korea might consider it prudent to produce nuclear weapons. If this were to occur, it could ratchet up tensions between all the Northeast Asian regional actors. To avoid this nuclear proliferation, the U.S. will remain where it is, and even bulk up its presence, which will contribute to ongoing Chinese apprehension on the Korean peninsula.

Between a Nuke and a Hard Place

The North Korean nuclear crisis has been going on for over a decade. It is likely to persist in the coming years due to North Korea’s belligerent bent on Korean reunification. This persistence exacerbates disagreements between different actors on the Korean peninsula’s political fate. These disagreements remain relatively fixed due to China and Japan’s geographic proximity to the Korean peninsula and the U.S. goal of preventing nuclear proliferation. President Trump may aim for a grand bargain and elegant solution to the North Korean problem, but it is unlikely a deal can be struck that will satisfy the all the actor’s varying interests.


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