A few months ago, an article was published on this website titled ‘Who can stop North Korea?’ Since there have been several important developments, it is time for an update.
It was stated that, humanly speaking, three things could change the course of North Korea. Firstly, its leadership could relent and decide to pursue peace and cooperate with the international community. Secondly, its people could decide ‘enough is enough’, revolt against the regime and cause a leadership change. Lastly, the patience of the international community could run out and military action would force a change of regime or force the regime to cooperate.
So how have events in the past months affected these options? Firstly, it has become increasingly clear that Kim Jong-Un has no plans to stop the development of nukes and long-range ballistic missiles. A few days ago, there was another test of a medium range missile and there are reports that an important production site for plutonium has resumed operations in January. The missile test showed a progress in technology that is discouraging for those who want to believe that North Korea is far from being able to effectively use these missiles to deliver nuclear payloads.
High level defector Thae Yong-Ho, who defected from the North Korean embassy in London last fall, has also stated that he believes no amount of money or aid could ever pursue Kim Jong-Un to give up this nuclear development program, as Kim believes the survival of his regime depends on it. Sadly, Tae is also convinced that Kim jong-Un would not hesitate to push the red button if he believes his power is under threat or he has nothing to lose and his game is over. This is a strong warning to the world to take North Korea seriously as a security threat and not depend on the leadership’s morals or common sense.
As for the revolt of the people, this remains a matter of much speculation. Recently some encouraging news emerged from the semi-legal markets in North Korea, where government officials have been harassing merchants. It was reported that increasingly these merchants are resisting this treatment and banding together against the abuse of power. Interestingly it was reported that merchants vocally appeal to their ‘human rights’. This concept was until recently unknown in North Korea. The use of this term is being held up as evidence that ideas from the free world are penetrating the society and appeal to people.
Again, it was defector Tae, who stated his belief that Kim Jong-Un will not be gathered to his ancestors in peace. He said in a recent interview that he expects the people will ultimately revolt and that this uprising will be brought about by the inflow of information from outside. He also believes that many in the elite are fed up with Kim and would defect if they could. Although this may all sound hopeful, there are two things to consider. One is that although many North Koreans suffer from lack of food and fuel, the people have seen much darker days than these. Even the great famine in the late nineties did not bring about a revolt. So, what will it take? The other point to consider is that a popular uprising may come too late to prevent armed conflict and loss of life on both sides.
So how about the option of military intervention? For many years, this has been a taboo, and only recently has it been put back on the table. A pre-emptive strike would certainly cause a military backlash in the region, and result in great disruption and possible considerable loss of life in South Korea. However, if it is the only way to prevent the North Korean regime from acquiring a full nuclear arsenal, is it worth the risk? This is a question that South-Korea, Japan, China and the US must ask themselves as they are faced with the reality of an untameable North Korean leader.