North Korea’s 70th Anniversary

September 9 is National Foundation Day in North Korea, a day marked with parades and celebrations. 2018’s National Foundation Day was special: it is North Korea’s 70th anniversary. To celebrate, North Korea held its first Arirang Mass Games in 5 years and put on a massive military parade. This post will examine the meaning and symbolism of each event, using the 70th anniversary to show how the mass games and military parades can act as a window into the thoughts on foreign policy in North Korea.

Mass Games: the Events of North Korea’s 70th Anniversary

Arirang Mass Games have played an integral role in North Korean society as markers of major holidays and celebrations, and have become a major part of the foreign policy platform of North Korea, usually showcasing major themes through art. As a pillar of its foreign policy, “it is no surprise that the themes of Korean division, unity, nationalism, and reunification appear more frequently in this symbiosis of art, physical culture, and ideology than any other issue (Udo Merkel)[1]. Kim Jung-il reiterated the prominence of mass gymnastics as a pillar of foreign policy, saying the games “make an active contribution to the development of friendly relations with other nations.” During the speech, Kim Jung-il also highlighted the domestic aspects of the games, describing how they can instill proper communist thought in schoolchildren (On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics)[2]. In 2018, the games highlighted a newly emerging aspect of North Korea’s foreign policy: diplomacy. There was a noticeable absence of military might at the games in 2018 (The Atlantic)[3]. As North Korea seeks to showcase a political agenda through the mass games, there are other reasons for the importance of the mass games to the North Korean elite.

Inter-Korean diplomacy on display at the Arirang Mass Games with a portrait of Kim Jung-un and Moon Jae-in holding hands, highlighting a push for Korean unity and diplomacy. (Source: BBC)

A key driver in the North Korean economy is the ability to bring in foreign currency. Not surprisingly, the mass games are a ticketed event which draws in plenty of tourists and foreign cash. According to Visit North Korea, a travel agency, tickets cost anywhere from €100-€800 ($115-$925 USD)[Visit North Korea]. Tickets to the 2013 mass games–North Korea did not hold mass games from 2014-2017–were €80-€300 [Korea Konsult]. The United Nations even labeled the mass games “a major source of foreign currency revenue for the DPRK” (UN Commision of Inquiry Report 2014). As sanctions continue to bite, the mass games will provide an efficient, guaranteed flow of cash to North Korea’s struggling economy as tourists flock to catch a glimpse of the “hermit kingdom.”

Though the mass games draw in tourists, their effect is muted at best among regular North Korean people. Inside Pyongyang, most residents do not have expectations for the games and they create stress on the parents and students mobilized to participate (DailyNK). Outside Pyongyang, people were more focused on their daily life. Residents in North Hamgyong Province were mobilized to work and governmental meetings were held in Hyesan (DailyNK). While tourism is a big draw to the mass games, North Koreans tend to live as if the games are just another event. After all, calls to sacrifice for the state come often and the games are yet another time when the government calls for sacrifice (DailyNK).

One of the key events that North Korea has used to mark massive celebrations is the aptly named mass games. For the 70th anniversary, the games featured Inter-Korean diplomacy as they told the story of North Korea’s 70-year history. Monetization of the games also ensures a steady flow of income for the North Korean regime, even though their effect may be muted on the domestic audience. There is, however, a more frequent event which can reveal more about North Korea’s intentions than the Arirang Mass Games: the military parade.

A Parade Worth Watching: What did We Learn From the Military Parade?

A key feature to North Korean celebrations and holidays is the military parade through Kim Il-sung square. The military parade acts a way for North Korea to showcase its intent and capabilities. In 2015, North Korea staged a military parade to commemorate the 70th founding of the Workers Party of North Korea. On display in 2015 were systems central to the North’s missile program, including the KN-08 ICBM which, at that time, remained untested; the Musudan; and the Nodong, among other systems (The Diplomat). Though early parades under Kim Jung-un did not showcase groundbreaking technological leaps, they worked in more subtle manners to craft an image of Kim Jung-un as a strong leader and strengthen his legitimacy as the leader of North Korea (NBC News).

Recent parades appear “intended to send a message to the rest of us: The country is seeking a program sophisticated enough to fire a guaranteed nuclear retaliation in any war” (NY Times). In April 2017, North Korea paraded a wide variety of missile technology. The most notable were several large canisters on transporters associated with previous ICBMs (CNN). Though the canisters may have been empty, they showcased “[North Korea’s] intent to develop mobile, solid-fuel missiles capable of reaching the United States” (CSIS). In a February 2018 parade, North Korea unveiled the Hwansong-14 and Hwansong-15 ICBM varients for the first time, though they had been tested 3 times in 2017 (Reuters). North Korea has utilized the military parade to showcase its military strength and missile developments.

A modified KN-08 on display during the April 2017 military parade. (Source: CSIS)

The National Foundation Day military parade on September 9, 2018, through Kim Il-sung square sought to convey a different message. As diplomacy continues, Kim Jung-un toned down the offensive posturing common with recent military parades. Despite continued advancement, North Korea did not display any ballistic missiles and only paraded conventional weapons and troops through the square (DW). North Korea also left out all references to its nuclear program (Vox). Instead, the event focused on the economic development of North Korea. Before the parade, Kim Yong-nam gave a speech focused on economic development and goals. Workers and nurses marched through the square next to floats touting North Korea’s economic advancement in 2018 (Haaretz).

North Koreans march through the streets of Kim Il-sung Square during the 70th Anniversary parade on September 9, 2018. (Source: CNN)

The military parade is yet another pillar of North Korea’s foreign policy, taking on a symbolic importance similar to that of the Arirang Mass Games. Under Kim Jung-un, the military parade has been used to showcase offensive weapons development. After a spout of successful diplomacy, Kim forwent displaying aggressive weapons and instead focused on economic development of North Korea. The parade gives the international community a look into how Pyongyang will conduct its foreign policy and what advancements it is looking to make in a variety of fields.


North Korea’s 70th Anniversary ceremonies showcased a strong push for diplomatic and economic advancement in a variety of realms. The mass games placed diplomacy front and center, even showing pictures of Kim Jung-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in holding hands–a similar picture of Kim with Xi Jinping was also displayed. During the military parade, civilian groups took center stage and advanced military weaponry was left out. It is clear that Kim wishes to continue his pursuit of economic development and diplomatic outreach.

By highlighting these two themes, the 70th also showed just how political the mass games and the military parade can be. Not only do they highlight major trends, but they also can give insight into the future of North Korea foreign policy. Though not the only windows into North Korea, they can give a strong indication as to which direction North Korean foreign policy will take in the short-term.


[1] Merkel, Udo. “‘The Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang’ (2002–2012): North Korea’s Socialist–Realist Response to Global Sports Spectacles,” The International Journal of the History of Sport, pp. 1247-1258.

[2] This is a North Korean source.

[3] The Atlantic article has some very good pictures of the Arirang Mass Games in 2018 but does focus on the military parade. One of the biggest highlights of the 2018 Arirang Games was a giant portrait of Kim Jung-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shaking hands, which was displayed with Moon Jae-in in attendance at the games. It is the first time a South Korean president’s portrait has been displayed in the mass games.


Daily Update: August 20

The Big News:

Emotions ran high on North Korea’s Mount Kumgang as separated families reunited for the first time in 65 years. Starting around 3pm local time, 185 North Koreans met with 197 South Koreans for a two-hour group meeting (NKNews). Around 10am local time on Tuesday, the families will meet again in their hotel rooms, after which they will have lunch together (Korea Herald). The reunions, the first since 2015, will end on Wednesday.

Meetings like these draw international attention for many reasons. The first is the emotional atmosphere; North and South Korea have laws prohibiting citizens to travel across the border to reunite with families (AP). For many, these reunions are the only time they will meet their relatives (BBC). Emotional headlines tend to adorn the pages of major newspapers throughout the world. For instance, The Independent ran “92-year-old South Korean mother meets her 71-year-old North Korean son for the first time since he was four” as subheadline for an article on the first day of the reunions (The Independent).

The reunions also show the degree of cultural and political separation between North and South Korea. The New York Times wrote, “on Monday, Ms. Lee, like many of the South Koreans present, could see the signs of economic suffering in their North Korean relatives’ faces.” Adding that “Those from the South had brought with them bags filled with medicine, nutritional supplements, wristwatches and other gifts for their relatives,” (The New York Times). NK News cited an example of a family having a dispute over the cause of the Korean War (NK News).

Family reunions such as these are typically staged events meant to assuage the wounds of the Korean War. However, the brief nature of the event offers no solace. North Koreans can be seen shouting praises about the “great leader,” taking up small amounts of precious times. Kim Jong-gyo, following her reunion in 2014, said the reunion “as way too short, and too heartbreaking” (Channel News Asia).

As the reunions continue throughout the week, emotions will continue to run high on the peninsula, and they will continue to dominate the front pages of major news agencies in Korea and beyond.

South Korea

Politics: South Korean watchdog, the Fair Trade Commission, is working to scrap a rule which mandates that only the FTC can bring an antitrust case to court (Yonhap). Initially enacted as a way to prevent massive amounts of lawsuits, the rule has drawn the ire of Kim Sang-jo, FTC Chairman, who vowed to change the rule to engender fairer market competition (Yonhap). The move comes as The FTC works with lawmakers to enact a wide variety of changes to its mandate and role in society.

South Korea is working to transform its energy supply, breaking away from a dependence on nuclear power to pursue renewable energy resources (Korea Herald). Currently, Moon Jae-in is looking to cease the construction of new nuclear reactors; Korea already has 24 nuclear power plants which account for about 1/3 of energy production (World Nuclear Association). Moving away from nuclear power comes at a time when nuclear power is seeing increased public support. According to the Korean Nuclear Society, around 71% of people agree with the use of nuclear power and 37% believe that South Korea should expand the number of nuclear power plants in its society (Korea Herald). Proponents of nuclear power say that the downsizing will result in larger energy bills for ordinary citizens. The Moon administration and supporters argue jobs and opportunities will be created with the move to renewable resources.

Culture: A freak heatwave is traveling through South Korea, leading to many environmental crises, with many warnings being issued for major rivers as others remain severe (HanKoyreh). During the heatwave, South Korea shattered its all-time record high temperature, recording 105 degrees on Wednesday in Hongchin. Seoul also recorded 103-degree temperatures, shattering records for the city (Accu Weather). Critics have chastised the Moon administration for its lackadaisical approach to the crisis. Even Pyongyang recorded shattering 100 degrees during the heatwave.

North Korea

Kim Jung-un, in recent days, shifted his focus toward economic development as nuclear talks stall. Recently, Kim has visited several factories, farms, and construction sites rather than military installations (New York Times). In a recent trip for field guidance, Kim visited a hydro-electric power plant and expressed concern that the project has not been finished in 17 years as it has suffered from understaffing and a litany of other issues (New York Times). The outburst is unlike other visits and presents a jarring juxtaposition as Kim Jung-un focuses on economic and scientific development as a way to improve the livelihood of typical North Korean citizens.

Daily Reading

Family reunions have been a challenge for both the families involved and the governments. The idea of holding a reunion was first floated during a detente in inter-Korean relations in 1973. However, the talks stalled and it would take over a decade for the reunion to occur. Since then, family reunions have occurred 24 times. Writing for NK News, Fyodor Tertiskiy explores the long history of inter-Korean reunions and their challenges. See: “The Troubled, Tragic History of Inter-Korean Family Reunions,” NK News.

Summit Stories: An Analysis of the June 12 US-DPRK Summit

President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jung-un sat face to face in an epochal summit on June 12, 2018, on Sentosa Island in Singapore. The two men showed obvious rapport as they talked, signed a joint statement, and even partook in some jovial unscripted moments between meetings.

Though they got along, the summit was not the end-all moment that Trump and his administration had wished for. However, it may not be the statement which Trump signed , but the relationship he cultivated with Kim Jung-un that may lead to further progress on the peninsula.

The Joint Statement

The most tangible outcome of the Trump-Kim summit was the Joint Statement signed by the two leaders. Though Trump lauded the outcome of the summit, the wording and commitments outlined in the joint statement simply do not advance the denuclearization of North Korea.

The Joint Statement consisted of a few major points. Trump agreed to provide security guarantees while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (Joint Statement)[1]. The statement also laid out four main commitments as well, including reaffirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration, establishment of relations between America and North Korea, continuing efforts to build a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War.[2] Trump and Kim closed by agreeing to continue diplomatic reaches in attempting to solve the nuclear issue (Joint Statement).

Trump, following the summit, has been a staunch defender of the statement. After returning stateside, Trump tweeted that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea (Twitter). Even a week after signing the statement, Trump continued to praise it, insisting that the media was downplaying the positive aspects of the agreement because he signed it (Twitter; USA Today). The president has constantly pointed to the provision calling for the repatriation of American remains from the Korean War as an example of the “major concessions” he gained from North Korea at the summit.

While Trump’s laudatory remarks are not necessarily out of the ordinary for a president who is defending his most important foreign policy venture of his tenure, the statement itself has drawn much criticism from the expert community. Jenny Town, managing editor of 38North, said the statement had even less detail than previous agreements between North Korea and the United States. Scott Snyder, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the statement, and the summit itself, did nothing to address the missile development, biological and chemical weapons, as well as the human rights situation in North Korea (PBS). Andrei Lankov said the agreement had zero practical value and that “North Korea will feel emboldened while the United States got nothing” (Financial Times). Finally, Stephen Haggard argued that the statement will be detrimental to American short- and long-term interests in the region, writing “we are no farther along after the summit than we were before it,” in reference to lacking detail about the future in the statement (NKNews).

The biggest failure of the statement is the lack of concrete measures and steps for moving forward on the denuclearization of North Korea. Heading into Singapore, Trump drew a tough line on ensuring the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) of North Korea at the summit. The statement, however, makes no reference to CVID. Trump and Kim also agreed to promote peace and continue diplomacy, but left the details out here as well. As Benjamin Habib wrote in The Conversation, “the omission of CVID from the joint statement is confirmation that North Korea under Kim Jung-un is never going to willingly denuclearize,” and the statement is most revealing in its omissions (The Conversation).

While it is easy to lambast the statement for lacking key structural support for the continued push to denuclearize North Korea, the statement represents a key historical victory. It showcases the ability of Pyongyang and Washington to hear and negotiate on critical security concerns and even reach an agreement on those issues. Also, the statement has ushered in a calm over the peninsula as North Korea has entered a long moratorium of missile and nuclear testing–though no testing does not mean they haven’t been working and advancing their nuclear program in other ways. Though vague and lacking, the statement will provide an essential grounding for future negotiations with North Korea moving forward.

Frenemies: Kim & Trump’s Relationship

(Image: Trump and Kim as they walk over to check out “The Beast.” Source: AP News)

Another key aspect of the summit was the ability for Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump to build rapport with each other. Either the summit would be confrontational and the world would slip right back into a fear of possible war or the two leaders would be able to cultivate a decent relationship which could pave the way for future negotiations. Thankfully, the latter occurred.

Trump and Kim shared some very interesting, unscripted moments together in front of the cameras. The two leaders shared smiles throughout the event, and both walked a slightly confident swagger following the closed door meeting (TIME). Possibly the most intriguing moment occurred when Trump showed off “The Beast”–the presidential limo–to the North Korean leader (Fox News). The two appeared friendly during the summit, and that likely will assist in continuing negotiations in the future; it is easier to negotiate with someone if you find something in common, even if they are your enemy.

Trump even had some very kind words to say about Kim following their closed sessions during the summit. The President described the relationship between them as a very special bond. At one point, Trump even attempted humor, joking about getting a perfect picture in which the leaders look thin (NY Times). Trump’s words, body language, and even overall demeanor during these unscripted moments offered the possibility to gauge the summit. They confirmed that the two leaders got along and were able to discuss key issues in a mild manner under tense pressure.


It has been two weeks since the summit and already we have seen some advancement on both sides of the 38th parallel. President Trump has made good on his security promise by pulling the plug on the joint military drills (Yonhap). North Korea has started to remove its anti-American propaganda from shops and other locations across the country (NKNews).

Both President Trump and Kim Jung-un won something in this summit. Trump’s biggest takeaway was political. He can present the summit as successful use of diplomacy during his first term. Trump also got Kim to cease missile and nuclear testing for an elongated period of time in 2018–North Korea has yet to test a missile or nuke as it attempts diplomatic outreach to many nations. Kim won political legitimacy. Moreover, he gained legitimacy as a nuclear weapons state. Though his most important goal, the rest of the world will not confer the same legitimacy on Kim, and most likely will refuse to acknowledge his new found legitimacy if Pyongyang refuses to act as a responsible power in the world. The outcomes of the summit are tricky to parse, as diplomacy is complex.

Assigning a winner and loser of the summit is a paltry practice. Kim Jung-un won the legitimacy he pursued for years; even if the summit had no tangible outcomes, Kim still would have gained such legitimacy. He also gained, in writing, security guarantees from a sitting U.S. president. Trump gained a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests which backed the peninsula away from the brink of war. Trump’s biggest loss is legitimizing North Korea while not pushing for concrete steps toward denuclearization. Legitimizing Kim’s nuclear weapons also presents a challenge for Kim: he must now act as a responsible nuclear power to continue to posses and grow his legitimacy.

Future negotiations with North Korea surrounding the nuclear issue will shift as Kim will see himself as a bona-fide nuclear power, threatening enough for the United States president to meet with him, This is not to say that future talks will be for naught. As with this summit, major talks tend to correspond with lulls in testing, and provide some short-term room for progress to be made. Now, all we have to do is tactically use the opening created by the summit and push for concrete progress.


[1] The “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jung-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit” will be referenced as the “Joint Statement” in this post for brevity.

[2] For a copy of the Panmunjom Declaration, see “Full text of Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” in The Straights Times.

What to Watch For as we Head to Lunch

(Image: Trump and Kim shake hands before their bilateral meeting in Singapore. Source: Fox News Twitter)

Kim Jung-un and President Trump have left their one on one and headed to a luncheon where diplomatic and expert staff will join them. The two leaders are continuing their historic summit which has the world watching.

Some things to watch for from the summit as we near the end:

  • Substance and plans: Will there be an unveiling of a plan toward denuclearization?
  • Statements: What will Kim Jung-un say? What about Trump’s words? How will the media–both American and North Korean–use public statements to shape the narrative?
  • Human rights: Was the topic of human rights abuses even mentioned in this meeting? What was said and who said it?
  • The relationship: How do Kim and Trump act together? How are they shaping the image through body language and gestures?
  • Peace Treaty: Was their discussion on a formal treaty to end the Korean War? Were any stipulations in place for the treaty? What frame was the treaty presented? And, finally, was a treaty signed?

These are just a few points to watch in this summit. Hopefully, we’ll have answers to them all in the coming hours.

Creating a Path Toward Denuclearization

It has been a long, unplanned hiatus for this blog, not due the lack of news coming from the peninsula for sure. As we approach meeting time, the world watches both President Donald J. Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un as they wake up in Singapore, counting down the hours till they meet face to face. As I cannot write something that has not been written before, below is a brief breakdown of a possible path Trump can pursue to set North Korea on a path toward denuclearization.

(Image: Trump and Kim Jung-un. Source: CNN)

A diplomatic uncertainty, full of twists and turns only a Trump White House could produce, has increased the already high stakes of next weeks U.S.-North Korea summit. Topics will mainly focus on the weapons programs in North Korea, with a strong push for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” Another key focus will be a formal ending to the Korean War with the possible signing of a peace treaty. Trump, in order to pursue the denuclearization of North Korea, can pursue three goals which will set North Korea on the path toward denuclearization and use the possibility of a formal peace treaty to bring Kim Jung-un into compliance.

First, Trump can pursue the safety of the North Korean nuclear program by pushing for strong updates to current North Korean nuclear testing and production sites. Such updates would ensure that nuclear waste is properly stored, proper measures for interacting with nuclear material are implemented, and ensure that any accident can be contained quickly. Adding such a strict, internationally mandated safety to the North Korean nuclear program ensures any inspections are thorough and provides structure to give the world a better understanding of the program. It also can ensure that the North Korean people themselves are less likely to become the victim in case of a major breakdown at any nuclear site in the country.

Second, Trump must push for enhanced transparency with regards to international reporting on North Korea’s nuclear program. This includes installing a strong structure for and stipulations on North Korea’s own reporting of its nuclear program. As David Sanger and Willam Broad reported in the New York Times, Pyongyang has hidden vast amounts of data on its nuclear program for decades—American intelligence agencies cannot even agree on how many weapons Kim possess. This means any strong transparency measures will also have to include a strong inspection regime to ensure compliance with implemented measures and the accuracy of North Korean reports. Violations or discrepancies within North Korea’s reports must then be investigated and punished appropriately; a stronger understanding of the capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear program greatly enhances the ability to verify any steps taken toward denuclearization.

Finally, Trump should push for the destruction of known nuclear sites such as Yongbyon in order to build upon the North’s actions at Punggye-ri while also greatly reducing North Korea’s capabilities to expand its arsenal. To prevent shallow gestures, international experts need to be able to attend and verify the destruction of such sites, and Pyongyang should face penalties if any site is not irreversibly destroyed. Though there are many unknown nuclear sites in North Korea, destroying the ones already known cripples Kim’s ability to build more weapons. A panel of interested nations—Russia, America, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and China—should convene to discuss the future of any sites discovered. Rewards should be granted if Pyongyang volunteers site information and follows through on its complete destruction.

A formal peace treaty should not be signed unless Kim Jung-U.N. is willing to commit to all of these steps, ensuring that he is making good on his promise to pursue denuclearization. Providing North Korea with the security assurances that come with a formal treaty without pressing for concrete steps toward denuclearization ensures that Kim is free to cheat on any deal, all while gaining concessions and legitimacy in the domestic and international arenas. Trump also needs to think about the future and ensure that strong measures are ready to be implemented should Pyongyang cheat on the deal. America simply cannot give Kim concessions without gaining concrete steps toward denuclearization.

If Trump can secure all three of these commitments from Kim, he will walk away having accomplished more than previous presidents have on the North Korea issue. However tantalizing, he must avoid giving away security guarantees for grand promises and instead focus on setting North Korea down the road toward denuclearization. With the hype and pressure surrounding the summit, Trump must think in terms of substance while refusing to fall for North Korea’s grand promises of peace and denuclearization that Pyongyang carefully crafts for their benefit.

Corrections: June 11, 2018

Typographical changes to make the post easier to read.

Daily Update: December 11-12

Since I have had a busy week, I am going to condense the major stories from Monday and Tuesday into one post. I am still working on getting back into the swing of things :(.

It’s been a busy week for political appointments, and requests, in regards to the Korean Peninsula. First, Donald Trump has appointed a new Korea Ambassador, filling a year-long vacancy crucial to solving what Trump views as the biggest national security issue of his administration. Taking the place of the popular Mark Lippert, an Obama appointee who vacated the position of Ambassador to South Korea following the election, will be succeeded by Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Wall Street Journal). Cha’s nomination, according to sources within the administration, has been given to South Korea and Cha may be in place before the Winter Olympics as South Korea works diligently to fill the vacancy (Korea Herald). Cha has long been a proponent of “hawkish engagement,” a strategy which favors isolation as a way to bring North Korea to the table. Cha is the author of many books, including Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies with David Kang and The Impossible State: North Korea Past, Present, and Future. Cha’s appointment will ensure that an adept hand will be at the helm of the Korea-US relationship.

Dennis Rodman also made headlines in the United States as he proposed to meet with Trump about ways to deescalate the tension between Washington and Pyongyang. He offered to serve as Trump’s Peace Envoy to North Korea (Business Insider). Rodman has been to North Korea on several occasions and has even met with Kim Jung-un. Unlike Cha, Rodman has little expeirence in diplomatic or government service. Including Rodman, however, may ensure that Trump has the ear of Kim Jung-un, though the appointment of Rodman seems unlikely at the moment.

Finally, Charles Jenkins, an ex-Army sergeant who defected to North Korea in the 1965 died at 77 in Japan (Fox News; NPR). Jenkins disappeared from a patrol after drinking 10 beers, crossing the border to avoid death and being sent to Vietnam. While in North Korea, Jenkins met Hitmoi Soga, a Japanese captive who later would become his wife. After decades in North Korea and several failed attempts to redefect, Jenkins successfully left North Korea and stayed in Japan where he faced a court martial for his actions. After arriving in Japan, Jenkins wrote a book titled The Reluctant Communist in which he details his captivity. Jenkins defection placed him alongside 5 other soldiers, all of whom became famous propaganda actors in North Korea.


12/13: Minor grammatical errors in a previous version where fixed. The link to the Business Insider article on Rodman was added.

A Leap With Limitations: North Korea’s November 29 Missile Launch

On November 29, North Korea launched a missile from Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province. After flying to an altitude of 2,800 miles, the missile splashed down in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (CNN; USA Today). The test broke a hiatus that lasted over two months, escalating tensions on the peninsula in the months leading up to the Olympic Games in South Korea. Not only was the test a break in the brief respite in testing, it marked a massive improvement in North Korea’s arsenal. Several key questions arise from the test. 1) What capabilities does the new missile add to North Korea’s program? And should we be scared of those new abilities? 2) How does the test alter the way we respond to North Korean provocations? 3) Are we inching closer and closer to a war on the peninsula?

How Does the New Missile Enhance Pyongyang’s Abilities?

The missile tested on November 29 was a Hwangsong-15 type Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the largest and longest reaching missile in North Korea’s arsenal. David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that the missile, flown on a more standard trajectory, has an estimated range of 13,000km (8,100 miles)[Union of Concerned Scientists]. Analysts have cautioned, however, that the missile was most likely tested with a reduced payload to exaggerate its overall capabilities. Some estimates place the range of the operational missile, carrying a 500kg payload, to be around 8,300km (38 North).

Despite its range, some other key aspects of the missile differentiate it from the rest of North Korea’s arsenal. Compared to the Hwangsong-14, the ICBM North Korea tested in July, the Hwasong-15 is bigger, has more engines, and features a guidance system which is simpler and more effective than previous variations on other North Korean missiles (38North). Another key aspect of the missile is the Hwasong-15’s BMD defenses. The Hwasong-15 has the capability to carry a wide variety of simple decoys, pieces used to fool interceptors into hitting the wrong target. Several experts agree that the current state of American Ballistic Missile Defense, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System or GMD, is not capable enough to be relied on in the event that an operational Hwasong-15 is launched against the country (The National Interest). Technologically, the missile not only is a step up for Pyongyang, it showcases that North Korea has mastered a wide variety of technological aspects for their ICBM program, providing them with a stronger ability to strike the United States mainland and get through the web of American missile defense. It’s a scary leap forward indeed.

The Hwasong-15 is the technological leap forward the international community has been fearing for some time. Not only does the missile appear more accurate and reliable than other North Korean missiles, it also has the theoretical ability to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States mainland, even if the operational length of the missile is shorter than test analysis shows. North Korea may now turn its focus to improving the Hwasong-15 as well as shrinking its nuclear weapons to fulfill its penultimate goal: having the ability to strike the United States mainland with a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Running out of Options: How Do We Respond in the Age of the ICBM?

International reactions to Pyongyang’s test were strong, yet not strong enough to provoke. Marked with shows of strength and tough diplomacy, reactions have centered on one goal: showcasing strong forces and alliances as a method of deterrence. However strong they were, the responses also needed an element of tempered diplomatic maneuvering to avoid exacerbating the situation.

While moving through the typical South Korean bureaucratic channels–Moon Jae-in called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council as the military worked to assess and respond to the test–Seoul launched a precision strike missile within 6 minutes of the North Korean test. Seoul’s response is striking for many reasons. South Korea had some intelligence pointing to a possible launch; it involved cooperation between the Army, Air Force, and Navy; and it “offer[ed] potent operational evidence of parts of its Kill Chain preemptive strike system and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan,” two parts of South Korea’s defense strategy (The Diplomat). Moon Jae-in also worked the diplomatic reams of the crisis. In a phone call with President Trump, the two agreed to discuss further measures to punish North Korea for the test (Reuters).

While South Korea’s response was one of measured strength and cooperative diplomacy, the United States took a more hawkish stance. American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council, called on nations to isolate Pyongyang by cutting all ties with North Korea, while also arguing that the test brings the peninsula closer to war (TIME). Currently, 24 nations have relations with North Korea and there are 47 North Korean diplomatic missions scattered throughout the world (CNN). However, many nations have expelled North Korean diplomats for a slew of reasons. Following its September nuclear test, 6 nations–Spain, Kuwait, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, and the Philippines–sent North Korean diplomats packing while Uganda cut all military ties in May of 2016 (Reuters). Malaysia also expelled its North Korean Ambassador following the assassination of Kim Jung-nam earlier this year (The Guardian). As North Korea continues to push for more advanced weapons and eliminates perceived threats to Kim Jung-un by any means, more nations may choose to cut ties with North Korea, though some will likely stay to act as mitigators between North Korea and the outside world.

41596479_401(Image Source: The DW)

President Trump, who has been a vocal critic of Kim Jung-un since ascending to the White House, has also lashed his teeth following the test. On Twitter, Trump said “the situation will be handled,” and called for tougher sanctions on the regime (Twitter). Outside of calling for political actions, Trump has lashed out at Pyongyang’s leader, calling Kim Jung-un a slew of names including “Little Rocket Man” (Twitter), and “Sick Puppy” (Politico). Even before his presidency, Trump has been very vocal, and often times bellicose, in criticising the North Korean regime (CNN). Despite the vitriolic rhetoric by Trump, he has hinted at the possibility of meeting with Kim Jung-un, but has said the meeting would have to happen under the right circumstances (BBC).

China, North Korea’s greatest ally in the world, demurred the test, expressing “grave concern and opposition” (CNBC). Despite having strong reservations about the nuclear and missile program, China still stands by North Korea. As American and South Korean forces conducted annual drills, China’s Air Force flew on routes and in areas it has never flown over the East and Yellow Seas, a warning to Trump against provoking Pyongyang (Forbes). The drills highlight a grave possibility if hostilities resume: China may come to the aid of North Korea. As if the possibility of Chinese intervention in a resumed Korean conflict weren’t enough to raise hairs, a Chinese provincial newspaper ran a full-page advisory giving advice to citizens called “General Knowledge about Nuclear Weapons and Protection.” The advisory ran cartoons about how to act in a nuclear attack, eventually forcing the paper to calm citizens worries (Washington Post).

Global reaction to the test was measured not in its strength or creativity in calls to action. Rather, the reactions and policy proposals following Pyongyang’s test showcased just how divided the world is on the issue. Conflicting issues will continue to mire any chance of success in bringing North Korea to the discussion table.

The North Korean security issue is a complex one, requiring a combination of hard-line isolation and more tactful diplomacy to resolve. However, there seems to be no clear path forward; diplomatic actions are likely to be cheated by Pyongyang and more aggressive actions will exacerbate tensions. The most effective actions, however, are the ones taken in unison. Nations who have a major stake in the situation–America, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to name a few–need to unify in a detailed approach leveling carrots and sticks toward Pyongyang. Without a clear, unified path forward, North Korea will continue to test as a way to split world powers and maintain a system of global order which favors continuing nuclear and ballistic missile tests as a way for North Korea to survive and get what it desires.

Are we Inching Closer to the Edge?: The Possibility of War on the Peninsula

Following every new advancement in Pyongyang’s capabilities, the world ponders the effects of resumed conflict on the peninsula, and following this test was no different. Barry Posen, an MIT political science professor, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times speculating the potential costs of a war on the Korean Peninsula (New York Times). American Senator Tammy Duckworth commented that the majority of the American public doesn’t know exactly how close to war the situation really is (Vox).

North Korea, for its part, has not been working to squash such fears. After a rhetorical tit-for-tat, a North Korean spokesman was quoted as saying that “these confrontational warmongering remarks cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean Peninsula,” (Newsweek). An article in the Korean Central News Agency strongly demurred the recent actions by the Americans, calling the outbreak of war “an established fact” (KCNA).[1] Such comments have done nothing but strengthened the idea that war is inevitable, but is it really?

Despite the highly tense rhetoric, war is still far from an established fact. Barry Posden, in The New York Times, writes that “the complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high.” He reaches this conclusion by citing that America would have to make several unobvious maneuvers, a task with a high chance of failure. Also, North Korea would, despite the success of a preemptive attack, have a chance to respond, and “the detonation of even a small number of nuclear weapons in North Korea would produce hellish results” (New York Times).

Another key reason war is further from resumption is the rationality behind North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (Wall Street Journal). Kim Jung-un views the program as a way to ensure his security as a global leader and understands that war would most likely lead to his unseating. Those around him, though they are unable to rein in Kim, also face a scenario of loss of power if hostilities resume.[2]

As the situation stands today, we are no closer to war than we were a few days or months ago. The most realistic chance of war comes from the high likelihood of a miscalculation by either Trump or Kim in either rhetoric or action. Maintenance of the status-quo along with tough sanctions and pressure, though a flawed and possibly resultless strategy, continues to be the best of the worst case on the peninsula. It is only through a mix of pressure and creative diplomacy, backed by the entire international community, presents the greatest opportunity to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, though it still does not guarantee that negotiation will lead Pyongyang to a freeze.


[1] Source is from North Korean state media and therefore will not be linked to in this post. However, the cited Newsweek, article offers a good analysis of North Korea’s recent rhetoric, including the KCNA article.

[2] David Rothkopf, a senior fellow at SIAS, offers more insight into why a war on the peninsula is not as close as the media makes it seem. His basic framework is similar to the one I attempted to create, though his wonderful piece in the Chicago Tribune hones in on the possibilities on the Korean peninsula in more focused and detail tone than my own. I highly recommend his piece: David Rothkopf, “Here’s how the North Korea nuclear standoff will end,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2017. (This is today’s Daily Reading.)


12/8: A previous version of this article said that the precision test was performed after Moon Jae-in called a meeting of the National Security Council, when in fact the two happened fairly close to each other.