News on North Korea

Photo by Jon Chol Jin, The Associated Press.  North Korean university students rally in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on March 29.

As you may have heard last week, tensions on the Korean peninsula are high once again.

That “once again” is an important phrase.  Given that North Korea often makes threats and ultimatums to the international community, you can be forgiven for thinking that this time is a lot of hot air as well.  It very well could be… but there’s the chance that it isn’t, and that’s what has people worried.

The big concern that everyone points to is that Kim Jong Un is in power.  He’s young and hasn’t been in power for long, so leaders and analysts are unsure as to how he’ll react when in different situations.  What we do know is that like his predecessors, he has a fondness for bold claims.  However, as Barbara Demick noted in an interview on NPR, “…one of the things that’s different is that we have this 30-year-old leader who may actually believe his own rhetoric, may really believe he runs a mighty country that can vanquish the imperial enemy.  And if that’s the case, we could be in trouble.”

North Korea does have one of the world’s largest standing armies – the fourth largest, in fact, at 1.1 million people.  But the capabilities of that army are much less than that of the U.S. or even South Korea.  North Korea has 820 jets to the South’s 460, but the former doesn’t have much fuel to fly them.  They also have more tanks, with 4,200 to 2,400.  But South Korea’s tanks are more modern and in better condition.  (For more information on North Korea’s army, read this article.)

Of course, the big thing that everyone is worried about is the country’s nuclear capabilities.  It’s hard to know for certain what kinds of weapons they have.  In general, analysts don’t believe that North Korea has fantastic abilities in this category.  Bruce Auster writes that North Korea’s missiles can’t reach the United States, the country has decided on a “no first-strike” policy, and that we’ve heard all these nuclear threats before.  Others debate on whether their warheads can reliably reach their intended targets, or if they have a delivery system at all.  However, North Korea does have artillery that they could use to hit Seoul.  It’s unknown what the country may try to do.

What is sometimes lost in these discussions is the human element.  The average citizens of North Korea will be affected by the decisions made on the world stage.  Any attack or invasion will be disastrous for them, and their lives are already hard as it is.  Demick remarks that North Koreans have trouble getting enough food to survive.  The CIA World Factbook doesn’t have a number for the poverty rate, but it does note that, “Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. …Frequent weather-related crop failures aggravated chronic food shortages caused by on-going systemic problems, including a lack of arable land, collective farming practices, poor soil quality, insufficient fertilization, and persistent shortages of tractors and fuel.”

The situation in North Korea is extremely complex.  If one thing is certain, it’s that the international community will be watching Kim Jong Un and his government closely in the following months.

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