Does North Korea Matter?: An undergraduate research paper

By Christopher Wink | Nov 27, 2006 | TUJ Undergraduate Research

There are nearly 200 member-states in the United Nations; 191 since Switzerland and East Timor joined in 2002 (UN 2005). With such a robust international community, it is clear that some states might require less attention than others. Without enough adequate potable drinking water for its citizens and with an estimated gross domestic product barely in the top 100 among independent states, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, populated by just 23 million people, would seem to be an understandable candidate to slide from global political discourse (CIA 2006). Yet, as heads of state and political scientists from around the world would likely acknowledge, North Korea is anything but forgotten.

In January of 2002, during his first State of the Union address, President George W. Bush famously labeled North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil.” In September of that same year, an American National Security Strategy document released by the Bush administration referred to two “rogue states” that were considered to, “reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands.” They were the DPRK and the since invaded and occupied Iraq (McCormack 1-2. 2004).

In recent months, there has been fervor over an alleged North Korean nuclear weapons program, causing a push to return to six-party talks about its termination. The group negotiations, led by the United States, include global powers and North Korean neighbors: China, Russia, and Japan, along with South Korea (Reuters 2006). There is no doubt that North Korea garners a great deal of consideration among politicians and pundits alike. The ready question, then, is if the attention it receives is merited. In short, does North Korea matter?

This paper intends to explore that very question. In the following 3,000 words, this paper will divulge that, despite its small population, easily misplaced size, and seemingly meaningless economy, North Korea is worth close scrutiny and real attention. To do this, first, this paper will focus on North Korea’s location, showing that sharing borders with powerful nations like China and Russia, along with being one troubled half of a divided peninsula, thrust North Korea into relevance. Secondly, this paper will discuss North Korea’s controversial leader, Kim Jong-Il, revealing that his unquestioned control and oft-considered erratic policy have led to his country necessitating attention. Finally, this paper will approach what is most often cited as North Korea’s strongest justification for attention, its military, including its nuclear weapons program. In these three ways, the North Korean state both demands and warrants attention


First, this paper will show that North Korea’s location clearly gives cause for the state to matter to the world’s powerful political elite. Most notably, North Korea sits in a region of great influence and strategic interest. The DPRK shares nearly 900 miles with the People’s Republic of China, a northern sliver with the Russian Federation, and its peninsula with an American-backed Republic of Korea. Remembering that Tokyo is less than 700 miles east over the Sea of Japan from Pyongyang, North Korea, a country smaller than the U.S. state of Mississippi, remains essentially surrounded by half of the economically commanding and militarily superior Group of 8 nations. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that any country would think a neighbor didn’t matter, and, as DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il has so many of the world’s most powerful leaders as neighbors, it seems sensible to think, in turn, North Korea matters.

Each of those four closely-nestled states has its own reasons for thinking and ways of showing it thinks North Korea matters and merits concerted scrutiny. There is a hope that the People’s Republic of China can exact influence on North Korea, if they so choose. Indeed, it is fairly common of the West to all but demand that the Chinese government act with that influence to fulfill its promise to quell its noisy, little neighbor (Frum 260, 2003). It might be said that no one hopes that the PRC can positively influence the DPRK more than the PRC itself, having a history of hesitance, but its line against North Korea appears to be hardening.

The Chinese government was entirely unwilling to even discuss sanctions or military action towards the DPRK in 2003 (Cha 124-125, 2003). Yet, at the 2006 meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, held in Hanoi, Vietnam in mid-November, the Chinese government agreed that Pyongyang deserved reproach for its alleged nuclear test the previous month. While Chinese President Hu Jintao implied that he had doubts about APEC efficacy, his country was part of a statement acknowledging concern about the North Korean nuclear weapons program. A week later in Melbourne, the Group of 20 economies, of which the PRC is a part, issued its own strong condemnation of the North Korean program, calling it “deplorable” (Sullivan 2006).

Chinese criticism shows how important the PRC thinks the issue to be as the government is concerned that too much pressure on the DPRK might lead to tens of thousands of refugees pouring into its indigent, northeastern provinces. Annually, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans already risk likely execution by trying to cross into China for a better life. Surely hoping that that life doesn’t involve a nation in which 50 percent of children are considered malnourished, as they are in North Korea, according to a United Nations-European Union survey conducted in 2002 (Breen 2004).

In addition to wanting to stop the flow of refugees, according to some analysts, the PRC also considers North Korea, “a useful buffer against U.S. troops stationed in South Korea,” another reason to view a stable DPRK as valuable (Simons 2006). So worried about North Korean stability, the Chinese government donates at least hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to the DPRK (Chang 134, 2006).  While one Chinese official said that, “We have some influence, but we don’t have the kind of relationship where we can tell Kim what to do,” and despite wanting, or perhaps because it wants, a stable North Korea, the PRC scrutiny is tightening (Chang 134, 2006). North Korea certainly matters to the Chinese.

The PRC isn’t the only superpower that is concerned about the DPRK. The Russian Federation has begun fortifying an eight-mile wall along the 12-mile border it shares with North Korea, according to Dong-a Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper (Dong-a Ilbo 2006). Moreover, in addition to partaking in the admonishments by the APEC and G20, the Russian government has made certain to remain united with the PRC in its criticism of the DPRK, according to Interfax, a press agency based in Moscow (Interfax 2006). A troubled neighbor is trouble, indeed, and Moscow’s fortifying and politicking has shown its own interest in the state of North Korea.

Of course, perhaps the most vocal and persistent critic of the DPRK has been the United States. It was the Bush administration that developed the idea for the Proliferation Security Initiative, an agreement between more than 70 nations to share intelligence in an effort to control illicit North Korean activities, particularly its nuclear weapons program (Kirk 2006). After diplomatic progress between the American and North Korean governments in the 1990s, the Bush administration initially diverted its attention from Asia, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Still, the continent remains politically vital, particularly keeping South Korea and Japan aligned closer to the United States than its growing competitor, China (Beal 235, 2005).

The DPRK simply confuses things, as, if it were to reunify with the South, Korea might become too independent to suit the interests of the United States. Indeed, it seems as though any improvement of relations Pyongyang has with any other nation would trouble the Bush administration. Some academics believe that it was the meeting between then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-Il in 2002 that returned the American government to the North Korean watch (Beal 235-6, 2005). From the rhetoric of its President to its dogged pursuit of DPRK disarmament, no one questions that the United States thinks North Korea matters.

Despite the 2002 summit, it appears the Japanese view on North Korea has shifted, too, as Tokyo remains staunchly focused on the Kim regime. Han S. Park, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, while lecturing in Seoul after a three-day visit to Pyongyang, said that if North Korea were to reach nuclear maturity then, “Japan, too, would have nuclear weapons” (Yonhap 2006). Meaning that, with interest high, but fear not complete, North Korea’s potential yield from bargaining away its program is at its highest. Park suggested that if the DPRK goes much further in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, the Japanese government would scrap its pacifist constitution and begin a region-wide nuclear arms race in which the DPRK couldn’t compete. (Yonhap 2006).

Moreover, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [Since replaced, Dec. 5, 2007] is the only leader among North Korea’s Asian neighbors who has welcomed forcefulness in dealing with Pyongyang, a stance he has held throughout his political career (Kirk 2006). Clearly, the enduring mentality that Korea is the dagger at Japan’s underbelly remains, and so in the view of Tokyo, and three other of the world’s superpowers, North Korea does matter.
All that said, the Republic of Korea, smaller than its northern half at just 60,000 square miles large, can’t be forgotten. The Korean peninsula is divided along 150 miles of tenuous instability, the so-labeled Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs along the 38th parallel (CIA 2006). Divisions among a people, the Koreans included, are rarely positive or peaceful. Therefore, the very location of North Korea, a divided northern partition of an ancient kingdom, causes a need for attention.

Since the United States and a Chinese-backed, Soviet-armed North Korea made the recently decolonized peninsula the first battleground of communism in the early 1950s, the two Koreas have had more than half a century of aggression and poor relations (Beal 1-13, 2005). While a great deal of violence has been seen before, it might be the potential for more which most frightens international observers, as well as direct actors.

The DPRK military is certainly large, particularly when considering its relative size and the living standards of its population, but there is no questioning that in the game of the peninsula’s arms buildup, South Korea is the clear victor. Since the mid-1980s when the annual military spending of both Koreas was just over $4 billion U.S., the ROK has been employing an arms growth that far exceeds its neighbor above the 38th parallel (Cha 50, 2003).

By the mid-1990s, the ROK was encroaching on $16 billion in annual military spending, almost triple the roughly $5.5 billion of the DPRK (Cha 50, 2003). Even today, despite intermittent cooperation, relations between the two Korean states are hardly normalized, and occasional outbreaks of violence along the DMZ have not ended (French 239, 2004). As it is one of the primary players in a divided people, there is no questioning that North Korea matters, its location necessitates it.


The most recognizable face of North Korea, its leader Kim Jong-Il, is also another one of the biggest reasons that the state demands attention. While some powers in the region seem to simply find nuclear proliferation distasteful, the American government has a recent history showing that the Bush administration has a genuine aversion for Kim Jong-Il, the man. President Bush has called North Korea “the world’s most dangerous regime,” and referred to Kim Jong-Il as a “pygmy” and likened him to “a spoiled child at a dinner table.” In an interview with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, Bush said that he “loathes” Kim (McCormack 2, 2004).

It might be said that President Bush has been wrong many times and that his ideological pursuits have veered from the stable pragmatism of preceding administrations, but, whether Kim Jong-Il is a rational leader or not, there is mounting evidence that Bush’s derision for North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ is well-founded.

In 1998, amid the mass starvation of his people, the seditious reproach of his army, and the crumbling failure of his economy, Kim began encouraging the public execution of senior officials from his Socialist government’s industries, after eliciting forced admissions of guilt for various violations of party discipline. Desperate to hold onto power in the nascence of his national leadership, Kim instituted military parades and martial law, while rewarding the loyal with food and punishing the disloyal with death (Becker 190-1, 2005).

With thousands of North Koreans defecting into China, presumably to flee from Kim’s purposeful starving of his eastern provinces, a perpetual nationwide famine, and the failure of the “workers’ paradise” to provide even the most basic material support, it appears that Kim Jong-Il, while still in the fears of North Koreans, is no longer in their hearts (Breen 151-2, 2004). If only for the apparent mistreatment of his people, Kim Jong-Il has warranted international attention.

For leading an apparent hermit state, Kim allows – indeed, needs – a great deal of international intervention, and the attention that comes with it. The World Food Program started with 21,000 tons of food for 500,000 North Koreans in 1995, ballooned to feeding eight million, or nearly half the population, in 1998, and by 2004, it was struggling, amid wavering support for the cause, to feed over three million. Some estimates suggest that more than 3.1 million North Koreans may have died of starvation since the beginning of Kim Jong-Il’s regime (Becker 209-11, 2005). In his own exacerbation of the problem, Kim’s strict regulation of private gardens and personal crops went a long way to make his people even more susceptible to hunger (Becker 32, 2005)

So, international organizations continually try to squeeze into Kim’s home as he reluctantly, hesitantly, slowly opens the door. The United Nations Development Program has sponsored the construction of an industrial-zoned port, sealed off from the rest of North Korea by orders of Kim, in the Tumen River delta, where it feeds the Sea of Japan (Chang 67-8, 2006). The hope is that it will bring in greater revenue for the state, perhaps even for some individuals. While more North Koreans are eating and – relatively – more money is being made, Kim has hardly embraced anyone.

Some might think it fitting if Kim were to be removed from his autocratic control, if only to relieve the North Korean people of his seeming oppression, but, if any forced foreign relief is to come, it will not likely be motivated solely by the benevolence of other states (Breen 174, 2004). In stark opposition to sympathy, Kim is regularly demonized in the Western media – of Kim, the question “Is he insane or simply diabolical” having been posed by a Fox News anchor – and is considered a personal enemy of President Bush (Chang 18, 2006). Kim is also a favorite candidate for venomous scorn from Western political figures, particularly American pundits. In a 2003 article, conservative, American political commentator Pat Buchanan criticized the Clinton and the Bush administrations for offering Kim Jong-Il a “fruit basket” rather than a “tomahawk missile” (Cha 4, 2003).

Hatred for Kim may exist within his own state. Many refugees that escaped from North Korea have suggested that Kim has survived numerous assassination attempts designed by factions within his government. The years of 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004 may have all included efforts to murder Kim (Becker 145, 2005). The man that is, and has been, central to DPRK identity for much of the world, is an enormous reason that North Korea receives international attention and deserves it all, if only on ignoble grounds.


All that attention, particularly that which is directed towards Kim, has likely helped give rise to the North Korean military, which, despite the country’s small size, is perhaps the most cited reason for the DPRK deserving the scrutiny it receives. Today, the DPRK military is not something that other states take lightly, rather, it is seen by some as a very real threat to the region. As one DPRK man who defected to China said, “North Korea is based on military-first politics” (Chang 158, 2006). Indeed, the military is budgeted between 30 and 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, easily the largest percentage of any nation in the world, according to CIA statistics (Chang 65, 2006; CIA 2006). The Korean People’s army boasts an estimated 1.2 million active-duty troops, with at least 5 million more in reserve (Change 73, 2006). Many of those in action are deployed along the DMZ, just 30 miles from the South Korean capital of Seoul (McCormack 2, 2004).

While some doubt the North’s ability to launch a conventional invasion, its threat is real. Though some question their technology, the DPRK proudly boasts 3,500 tanks, 2,500 armored vehicles, 10,600 artillery guns, 2,600 multiple rocket launchers, and more than 500 combat aircraft (Cha 78, 2003). While their military may be more of a deterrent than an army ready to forcibly reunite the peninsula, in addition to the previously listed armed-assets, hundreds of Nodong missiles sit poised for action in the hills just beyond the DMZ, a threat which could potentially devastate Seoul or portions of Japan (McCormack 2, 2004).

Perhaps even more menacing is the revelation that the DPRK has been accused of developing chemical and biological weapons programs throughout the 21st Century (CIA 2006). The North has at least 12 chemical weapons factories in operation,  annually producing 4,500 tons of mustard gas, sarin and the like (Becker 261, 2006). Even still, there is no consensus over how threatening the conventional military strength of DPRK should be, but the debate itself gives credence to the need of a North Korean-focus within the international community.

Indeed, despite relying heavily on international aid to feed much of its troubled people since the mid-1990s, the government has continued to maintain and even expand these military capabilities (CIA 2006). Still, the recurring problem of food and energy shortages lessen their military impact, though not entirely diminishing the credibility of the attention North Korea receives for it (Cha 78, 2003).

Even beyond its traditional forces, North Korea has received a decade or more of attention that has risen and fallen over its nuclear weapons program. Beyond what has been announced and secretly gathered, there is a very real dearth in information about, like North Korea the state, its nuclear intentions (Chang 23, 2006). That may be the greatest reason for why scrutiny of the DPRK is so deserved; the unknown is the scariest of all.

There are reports of radiation accidents, including children born with deformities, and the fear of mishandling the technology – ignoring the reality that mistakes have happened everywhere proliferation has – is another one of the larger fears among the established nuclear community (Becker 177, 2005).

It is important to note the reality that it is unlikely that DPRK nuclear weapons are anything but a deterrent. Its size and, while relatively robust, its strength, would almost entirely ensure complete annihilation by the United States if it were to make a nuclear attack on any remotely probable victim, like South Korea, Japan, or even U.S. territory. Rather, its nuclear program is more about survival than random destruction (Cha 58, 2003).

Still, the power that might rest in the hands of a tiny, complicated man is clearly worth attention. Likewise, the nuclear weapons that are declared to be held by seven states – Israel still never having admitted a program – should all be under scrutiny by the international community. Whenever a nation wants to join such an exclusive group, just eight members of nearly 200 independent states, attention is demanded (CNN 2006a).

In the case of North Korea, the need for attention is even higher, as Kim has hinted at his interest in using his nuclear program to increase his ability to negotiate with the United States and other powerful nations. That is a tactic that has, some might say, worked in the past. Fearing just such a reprisal, the IAEA’s Director General Mohamed El Baredei said of North Korea that, “it is vital… that nuclear blackmail does not become a legitimized bargaining chip” (Becker 259, 2005). Similarly, while U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, now the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told the East Asia Institute in July of 2003 that, “to give in to [Kim Jong-Il’s] extortionist demands would only encourage him, and perhaps more ominously, other would-be tyrants around the world” (Becker 260, 2005).

The thought that, beyond misuse or further proliferation, Pyongyang would use its newly acquired deterrent to force the United States or other powers to act differently than they might if dealing with a country of DPRK’s size and influence under altered circumstances, is impressively troubling. In that way, its nuclear program, despite being, or perhaps because it is, largely unknown is likely the biggest cause for and defense of the attention that North Korea receives.


Some academics have said that the danger North Korea poses is overstated. In his 2004 book Target North Korea, academic Gavan McCormack wrote that North Korea, “harbors no aggressive or fanatical threat to the region or the world and that its defiance masks an appeal to normalize relations.” He asserts instead that the Kim regime has acted rationally, facing mounting international pressure (McCormack 3, 2004).  Whether the DPRK is a state to be feared or pitied is a debate worth having; this might explain why it is such a popular one among academics and world leaders alike. For as long as the controversy remains a multifaceted one, the DPRK clearly requires active international attention, even scrutiny, assuring that North Korea, simply said, does matter.

This paper’s purpose was to prove just that, how North Korea is deserving of the interest it receives. In order to do that, first, this paper focused on the location of the DPRK, no more than 400 miles from four of the ten largest economies in the world and one half of a very unhappily divided people. Without question, its place in the middle of four enormously powerful and influential states and as a portion of a separated kingdom, creates and commands attention. Secondly, this paper turned to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. The son of the country’s most revered political force, Kim has presided over countless dissident purges and remained far from conciliatory in, leave aside active in halting, the mass starvation of his people. Remaining malignant and, at times, surprisingly cunning, Kim, too, has worked to raise his country’s profile, while at the same time appearing to be a primary reason for that scrutiny. Finally, this paper discussed perhaps the most researched of reasons for scrutiny of the DPRK: its military. With a disproportionately substantial army, in relation to its size, population and economic standing, and an apparent nuclear weapons program, North Korea, without question, needs to remain a focus of foreign powers. In these three broad ways, there is no questioning that, despite being just one small country in a world of 200, North Korea matters.


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3,830 words, 21 sources

Text as submitted to an undergraduate research forum in Tokyo at Temple University-Japan during the fall of 2006.

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