North Korea’s third nuclear test has provoked the expected condemnation from the international community. With sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s state already pretty severe, the usual dilemma of what punishment to impose on the North Koreans without resorting to military might is confounding leading statesmen.
As mentioned before on this blog, there is likely to follow a period of diplomatic brinksmanship before the North Koreans extract an alleviation of certain sanctions in exchange for a promise to dismantle its nuclear programme. Talks and posturing will rumble on, maybe even with the return of the Six-Party Talks, before the next nuclear test is undertaken and the process is repeated.
North Korea’s leader has cause to feel vulnerable. His state is isolated, shorn of allies, internationally castigated. Yet it also suffers from a historical vulnerability that has always plagued the Korean Peninsula.
Strategically located between China, Japan and Russia, Korea has historically been highly sought after. With excellent sea access, and the resulting trading benefits that brings, in addition to particularly fertile farmland, it has been desired and conquered by countless foreign warriors.
As early as the second century BC, Korea was invaded by the Han Dynasty of China, which established a series of vassal kingdoms across the peninsula. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols invaded, forcing the Goryeo Dynasty into a defensive treaty to maintain a degree of independence. Even the long-lasting Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) suffered frequent invasions from Manchuria and, in the sixteenth century, Japan, each time surviving in a weakened condition.
By the late 19th century, the economic and industrially-stagnating Korean Peninsula became the target of China, Russia and, once again, Japan. The imperial might of the Japanese won out and by 1910 Korea was under foreign occupation, a pitiful state which would remain until 1945 and the Japanese defeat in WWII.
After WWII, with the great powers once again manoeuvring for influence in the Far East as part of a new Cold War, Korea became a battleground once again. Between 1950 and 1953, the Soviet-backed North, with help from China, fought the American-backed South into a bloody stalemate. The separate paths of the two Koreas since then is well documented.
Given such a history, in which Korea has been lusted after and fought over by regional and world powers alike, often to the detriment of the local populace, you could forgive its leaders for being hesitant in their foreign policy. Of course, the South Koreans sought to banish their sense of vulnerability through economic development, capitalist expansion and rising living standards. South Korea’s position as the world’s 15th largest economy is testament to the success of its developmental path.
The North Koreans, on the other hand, have adopted a fierce nationalism in which the country’s status as an international pariah, condemned by history, is frequently used to justify the militaristic trumpeting, nuclear threats and vicious propaganda that has come to symbolise the country. Such methods, North Korea’s leaders argue, are a necessity in the face of a world historically hostile to its people.
Whether the development of a miniaturised nuclear warhead to fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile will satisfy the North Koreans that their country is at last safe from foreign “imperialism”, it is hard to say. What is obvious, however, is that its Kim Jong-Un and his people who will decide the future of North Korea; not the foreign powers that have historically done so.