The global community’s handling of North Korea’s provocations: Beginning of the endgame?

By Ms. Malin Linnea Dahl Innbjoer, SIA Intern (UK-based)

North Korea’s authoritarian regime, nuclear program, human rights violations and closed borders have been the status quo for a long time.

The global governance’s efforts to deal and negotiate with the dictatorship have been somewhat half-hearted over the last decade. However, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its sixth nuclear test (03/09/17), it proved that it was more advanced than expected and a little too close to Japan’s borders for anyone’s liking. A Hwasong 12 ‘nuclear capable’ ballistic missile was also test-fired on Friday 15th September, which flew 2,229 miles before it landed in the Pacific at a range that could theoretically reach the US Pacific territory of Guam, which the North Korean government has been threatening to target.

The response from the global environment and the US has been to implement sanctions on North Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear test, the most powerful one of its type to date. The measures agreed upon at the UN Security Council (11/09/17) were mainly in the form of limiting the gasoline exports and capping crude oil supplies to North Korea. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that North Korea was starting to “feel the pinch” and that the recent sanctions has “cut off” the regime from the rest of the world [i]. However, being one of the most isolated countries in the world ‘by choice’, underlined by the national policy of self-reliance, Juche, which is itself supported by North Korea’s deep black-market networks, these statements seem a little far-fetched.

Penalties and trade barriers towards the DPRK have failed to slow down the DPRK’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons progress for more than a decade, but they are still being used as the main means to try to alter the regime’s behaviour. The decision to continue to impose trade barriers was made under the assumption that North Korea’s economy is very weak and therefore vulnerable to such action. However, while the country is undoubtedly poor, its domestic product grew 3.9 percent in 2016, which equates to $28.5 billion and is the fastest growth that North Korea has experienced in 17 years [ii]). North Korea’s economic growth is partly due to Beijing’s willingness to trade with Pyongyang. Though China has agreed to ban the import of North Korean coal, iron imports have increased and the total trade between the two countries has, as a result, increased by 10.5 percent in the first half of 2017, to $2.55 billion [iii]. At the time of writing, China has also increased pressure on Pyongyang by implementing curbs on Chinese banking transactions with North Korean entities and has given Chinese firms till January 2018 to finish dealing with North Korean firms and to wind up any PRC-DPRK joint ventures. This is an unusually harsh Chinese reaction to Pyongyang and carries with it certain risks such as initiating North Korea’s economic collapse & internal political turmoil.

However, these new sanctions are unlikely to have a significant effect on North Korea’s military or nuclear program in the short-term, as its government seemed unfazed by the threat of limiting non-military use of oil. Instead, possible measures that might be used to protect the North Korean military against these restrictions include enforcing citizens to walk instead of using vehicles, use less light in households to save kerosene and generate less power on-site. Indeed, according to a report published by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, the cut-offs on oil and oil-related products will affect the civilians the most, since the state will prioritise its nuclear weapon program and military over the North Korean population [iv].

Despite strong words and the threat of possible military actions from President Trump, whose eager tweets have spread on social media, there is little sign of genuine action. The US and the UN are running out of diplomatic and economic options. However, how likely is it that North Korea’s provocations will lead to military conflict?

North Korea does not have the military might or technology to sustain a conventional war with its neighbours or the US. However, the extent to which the dictatorship could harm surrounding nations is indeed worrying and uncertain. The nuclear weapons that North Korea has just presented to the world were thought to be years away in terms of the country’s technological ability. Seoul is a mere thirty-one miles from DPRK, and though the main capital is well rehearsed for the worst possible scenario of nuclear attacks, this is an event that would result in tremendous damage and should be avoided at all costs. It is often generally assumed that, despite the hostile attitude of the two governments towards each other, the ultimate reunification of North and South Korea is still the dream of most Koreans – but the truth is more nuanced than that. Instead, the reality of a fallen North Korean regime would be a huge immigration flow consisting of millions of North Korean citizens, which will hit mainly South Korea and China. Most of these immigrants would have little previous exposure to the modern world, little money or resources and a lack of education, making it a significant challenge to integrate, not to mention exceptionally expensive. Neither China nor South Korea want to foot this bill, nor are the US or Japan willing to pick up the pieces after a fallen dictatorship.

Thus, with the economic cost and the threat of nuclear weapons, no one wants to start a war against this regime, even if it would end the rule of the Kim dynasty. Instead the global community may well continue playing the waiting game, using diplomatic and economic means of pressure, hoping that the problem will ‘go away’ or, at least, calm down.


[i] McCurry, J., Trump’s ‘rocket man’ tweet claims Korea sanctions biting, but experts unsure, The Guardian, September 18, 2017.

[ii] Lee, J., North Korea’s Economy is growing at its fastest ace since 1999, Bloomberg, July 21, 2017.

[iii] Cheng, F. and Blanchard, B., China trade with sanctions-struck North Korea up 10.5 percent in first half, Reuters, July 13, 2017.

[iv] von Hippel, D. F.  and Hayes, P., Impact of UNSC Resolution 2375 on DPRK oil imports, NAPSNet Policy Forum, September 12, 2017.

Become a member

Come under our wings and become a member for free.

Sign Up Now

Get email updates from Sage