Amidst the recent discourse about North Korean aggression, Vassar students gained the benefit of a new view point on the issue of nuclear weapons and the US-North Korean relationship. The April 11 lecture by Dr. J.J. Suh tore away the foundation of this perception. The lecture was hosted by the Asian Studies Program. Dr. Suh told the audience that “North Korea is better understood when its actions are put into the context of its interactions with the US.” His presentation showed that both sides have taken actions that reinforce the division between the two nations.
Dr. Suh works at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. In his discussion, he analyzed the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program and the standoff between Pyongyang and Washington.
Chief on the list of anxieties for any analyst studying North Korea were the three underground nuclear tests detected in February 2013. According to Suh, the North Korean government is estimated to have in its possession enough plutonium to make five to thirteen nuclear bombs.
Those who doubt the technological capabilities of an isolationist state were shocked in 2010 when North Korea constructed a highly modern uranium enriching plant within ten months.
Suh explained that while this plant does have peaceful applications for creating fuel for nuclear plants, it could also be used to enrich uranium to levels necessary for nuclear warfare, and this weapons-grade uranium would be more difficult to track than plutonium.
Suh went on to lay out three periods of concerted nuclear activities during which North Korea aggressively furthered its nuclear program: 1989-1994, 2003-2006, and 2009-present. In between these periods, North Korea discontinued the construction of numerous nuclear facilities.
Significantly, these times when the leadership’s nuclear ambitions were reigned in coincided with various negotiations taking place between North Korea and other nations. The most recent of these lulls, between 2006 and 2009, was precipitated by the “six-party talks”, which included North and South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan.
Unfortunately, the progress established by six-party talks began to unravel in 2009, when North Korea tested a rocket which the US believed was intended to be used in nuclear warfare. America passed sanctions, and the tenuous relationship broke down.
Regarding the recent standoff between the Washington and Pyongyang, Suh presented several aggressive moves the North Korean government has made. First, buoyed by the successful tests in February, North Korean officials announced on March 7th that the country would resort to a nuclear strike against America if the United States began violence.
On March 26, the North Korean military entered a state of heightened readiness. Three days later, Kim Jong-Eun signed an order authorizing nuclear attacks against the US if he gives the word.
After detailing this alarming sequence, Suh filled in the gaps—each of the hostile moves on North Korea’s part responded to a move from the United States. Before the first hintings of nuclear intimidation, the US and South Korean militaries carried out a major joint exercise, which caused North Korea to feel threatened. The North Korean decision to enter combat readiness came after six days of mock bombing exercises near Korea and further exercises by B-2 stealth bombers followed it. The point was clear: responsibility for the current deadlock lies on both sides of the Pacific.
When describing the reasons for this deadlock, Suh highlighted a structure of action and reaction, in which each side’s decisions are interpreted through a lens of suspicion by the other. He noted that when there is enmity between two groups, each tends to misunderstand the other and to cast blame, rather than accept it.
According to Suh, this structure creates a “malign multiplication” of tension. A similar case of malign multiplication nearly led the world into nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, and still threatens American foreign policy today.
That said, the lecture did not imply that the relationship between America and North Korea is impossible to salvage, even in the short term. Suh reminded his listeners that when other nations have been willing to listen to North Korea’s concerns, Pyongyang has often reciprocated.
In particular, the intervention of Beijing has helped to alleviate North Korea’s recalcitrance and smooth dialogue with the United States. This occurred most recently in the aforementioned six-party talks.
Audience member Michael Strmiska called the lecture a balanced, back-and-forth account of the manner in which the USA and North Korea have acted and reacted toward each other over the decades. Professor of Global Studies at SUNY Orange Strmiska, noted that public opinion regarding North Korea is twisted by media into an easy, though not truthful image of the North Korea leadership as simultaneously insane and laughable. “It is as if the creators of ‘South Park’ were running our foreign policy. There is never any discussion of why North Korea might feel threatened by us,” stated Strmiska.
Asian Studies Director Peipei Qiu confirmed that media portrayals of North Korea in Asia similarly accentuate its warmongering qualities, though countries uncomfortably near Kim Jong-Eun’s regime tend to take the threat of a nuclear aggressor more seriously than do pundits in the US.
Qiu, a professor of Chinese and Japanese at Vassar, noted the lecture was a very timely topic, given the situation. Despite hopes of continued dialogue with Pyongyang, tensions between America and North Korea are likely to remain high in the near future.