north korea under kim jong-un: security and intelligence issues amid



north korea under kim jong-un: security and intelligence issues amid
By Sietse Goffard
The beginning of 2013 drew global
attention back to one of the world’s most
challenging dilemmas in foreign affairs: the
situation in North Korea and the country’s
troubled diplomatic relations with the West.
The US has long held a vested interest in the
Korean peninsula and in the broader East
Asian region. It is no secret, however, that
North Korea represents one of the largest
obstacles to America’s diplomatic engagement
with East Asia. The relations between the two
countries throughout the past several decades
might best be described as extremely complex,
constantly fraught with tension, and always
unpredictable — but nonetheless supremely
The relationship between the US and
North Korea took an important and interesting
turn in December 2011, when then-Supreme
Leader Kim Jong-il passed away after ruling the
nation for 17 years. In his wake stood his young
and inexperienced son Kim Jong-un, who
immediately took over the helm as the
country’s third Premier since its inception.
American political leaders and pundits alike
hoped this transition might be an opportunity
to bridge long-standing tensions with the nation
and reintegrate the regime into the global
community. Their hopes, so far, have been in
vain. North Korea under Kim Jong-un has
remained one of the most enigmatic and
autocratic nations on the planet. There has also
been little resolution of tensions with the West;
since 2012, diplomatic standoffs, nuclear
activity, and missile tests carried out by the
rogue state have made the North Korean
situation all the more complicated.
Historical Background
Officially named the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea has
been one of the most persistent and
troublesome problems in American foreign
policy since the end of the Cold War. The US,
in fact, has never had formal diplomatic
relations with North Korea. In some respects, it
is not hard to see why — the latter’s
classification as an autocratic, totalitarian,
communist, and “rogue” state inevitably leads
to tension between the two countries. Attempts
at bilateral negotiation have proven consistently
difficult throughout the past couple decades.
This reality seems unlikely to change anytime
Overview of North Korea and the Post-World
War II Environment
North Korea is an impoverished nation of
approximately 23 million people, bordered by
the Republic of Korea (informally, South
Korea) to the south as well as China and Russia
to the north. It is flanked by the Yellow Sea to
the west and by the Sea of Japan to the east.
North Korea in its current state was
established at the conclusion of World War II
in 1945. Following years of occupation by
Japan, the Korean peninsula was divided into
two zones, with the 38th latitudinal parallel to
serve as the border. As per an agreement
between the two world superpowers, the
southern zone was to be temporarily occupied
by the US, the northern by the Soviet Union.
Yet even though this arrangement was designed
to be provisionary, it had an enormous, lasting
influence in the eventual creation of two very
separate and different Koreas. When Kim Ilsung was given the responsibility of leading the
Provisional People’s Committee for North
Korea upon the council’s establishment in
February 1946, he was quick to introduce
sweeping land reforms and nationalize key
industries — measures that brought North
Korea squarely in line with the Soviet Union’s
Stalinist-style organization. Negotiations were
held on the future of the Korean peninsula, but
they were largely unproductive. Initial hopes for
a unified country were dashed once it became
clear that the influence of Cold War politics on
Korean affairs gave rise to two very distinct
nations, with two diametrically opposed systems
of political, social, and economic life.
The following few years were increasingly
tumultuous, as political uprisings and rebellions
caused sporadic unrest across the Korean
Peninsula. The original plan of the
aforementioned agreement involved free
democratic elections in 1948 overseen by the
UN, but these failed to come to fruition.
Instead, an official communist government was
declared in North Korea, while the South
established its own right-wing leadership. In
1948-1949, Soviet forces withdrew from North
Korea while American forces did the same in
the south. Kim Il-sung, who had become North
Korea’s first head-of-state, used the opportunity
to consider invading and annexing the country’s
southern neighbor. Backed by Mao Zedong in
China as well as Joseph Stalin in the Soviet
Union, the Supreme Leader ordered soldiers
past the 38th parallel in June 1950. The Korean
War had just broken out.
The Korean War and its Continuous Shadow
on the Korean Peninsula
North Korea made rapid and enormous
gains during the initial months of the war.
defenseless, South Korean forces were quickly
overwhelmed. Invading soldiers captured the
capital city of Seoul within the first month of
the conflict. Tragically, the brutal killing of
civilians by both sides immediately followed.
Massacres and war crimes were documented
only weeks after the war began; it is thought that
at least 100,000 men, women, and children
were callously executed in the Bodo League
massacre during the summer of 1950. Pushing
the defenders to a small corner of South Korea,
North Korean forces found themselves on the
verge of victory.
It was at this point, just a couple weeks after
the first shots were fired, that the US and the
United Nations launched a powerful counteroffensive that would mark a dramatic turning
point in the war. By September 1950, South
Korean, US, and UN forces earned a decisive
victory at the Battle of Inchon and soon
recaptured Seoul. In the beginning of October,
after some deliberation, they pressed on,
passed the 38th parallel, and entered North
Korean territory. Within weeks they had gained
control over the vast majority of the communist
nation, pushing the North Korean army into
the country’s mountainous northern frontier.
As the war raged on, tens of thousands of
civilians on both sides continued to die en
The conflict then underwent yet another
turn. At the end of 1950, China entered the war
in support of its North Korean ally. With
amplified manpower and artillery, North Korea
was able to mount an effective counter-offensive
that brought the fighting back to the 38th parallel
by the early months of 1951. Forces seesawed
back and forth around the territory near Seoul.
By the summer of 1951, large-scale movements
had ceased; both sides were brought to a
stalemate that lasted for the remainder of the
war. Fighting finally ended in July 1953 upon
the signing of an armistice agreement — but
unfortunately, the end of military combat did
not represent a total conclusion of general
hostility. Tensions remained extremely high.
The border between North and South Korea
was restored to near the 38th parallel, and on
each side a two kilometer-wide fortified buffer
zone was created. Called the Korean
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), this region
stretches the entire length of the boundary and
remains heavily guarded today. So although
military hostilities may be long over, the shadow
of the Korean War is still ever present on the
US-North Korean Relations since the War
North Korean tensions with South Korea
and with the US remained high in the decades
after the Korean War, but the remainder of the
20th century was a period of relative peace
interrupted by sporadic incidents, diplomatic
flare-ups, and border skirmishes. North Korea
stayed closely aligned with China and the Soviet
Union. The US therefore kept a watchful eye
on the communist nation, although since 1994
there has been no publicly available evidence
that any American administration seriously
considered direct military intervention to
induce a North Korean regime change.
More disconcerting to the US and its
Western allies in the past two decades have
been North Korea’s frustrated attempts to
develop nuclear weapons technology. North
Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state in
1985. Bilateral talks between North and South
Korea in 1990 led to a denuclearization
statement. However, US intelligence discovered
photo evidence in early 1993 of possible
nuclear activity in North Korea. This prompted
the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) to demand a special inspection of the
nation’s nuclear facilities. In an angry move that
raised diplomatic tensions and alarmed the
sitting US administration, Kim Il-sung quickly
withdrew from the NPT. A round of bilateral
talks began in June 1993 and concluded
successfully in 1994 with the US-North Korea
Agreed Framework. This settlement stipulated
that North Korea would freeze its plutonium
enrichment program, subject itself to IAEA
inspections, replace its existing nuclear reactor
with light water reactor plans, work with the US
to safely dispose of nuclear fuel, and receive
large amounts of fuel oil from America in
compensation. The Agreed Framework was
clearly a step in the right direction for bilateral
relations — in fact, it even led to the easing of
economic sanctions during the latter half of the
1990s despite opposition from Republican
lawmakers, who viewed the accord as a form of
Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994. Revered
across North Korea, the late head-of-state is still
hailed as the “Great Leader” and the “Eternal
President of the Republic.” Kim Jong-il, his
eldest son, succeeded him as head of North
Korea and its armed forces at the age of 53.
Kim Jong-il largely continued his father’s
policies, restricting capitalism and maintaining
North Korea’s isolation from the international
‘Seesaw Diplomacy’: On-Again, Off-Again
Tensions with North Korea in the 2000s
Relations with North Korea took another
turn in 2002 when President George W. Bush
labeled the country as part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Delays and issues in the implementation of the
Agreed Framework were frustrating Kim Jongil, and the regime was growing impatient. In
January 2003, citing a “hostile” American policy
that threatened its national security, North
Korea terminated its freeze on plutoniumbased nuclear facilities, announced that it was
withdrawing from the NPT, removed IAEA
monitoring equipment, and expelled IAEA
inspectors. In March 2003, the regime
reaffirmed its “sovereign right” to operate a
“peaceful missile program” and rejected an
earlier moratorium on testing short-range
missiles. Calling its denuclearization statement
with South Korea a “dead document” at
trilateral negotiations in April of that year,
Pyongyang told the American delegation that it
possessed nuclear weapons — the first time
North Korea had ever made such an
admission. Whether these statements were true
is uncertain. Even with US intelligence efforts, it
is still unclear if or when North Korea first
obtained nuclear arms, how many units they
might have developed, and what nuclear fuels
were used.
After some hesitation, North Korea agreed
to join a round of negotiations called the Six
Party Talks in August 2003. These discussions
involved the six nations most relevant to the
crisis: North Korea, South Korea, the US,
China, Russia, and Japan. No significant
breakthroughs were achieved during the first
round of talks in Beijing. North Korea
proposed a step-by-step solution, promising to
dismantle its nuclear facility and end missile
testing in exchange for foreign aid, fuel
shipments, and a written US non-aggression
treaty. The Bush administration was skeptical;
although willing to promise that America would
not attack North Korea, he felt that a written
pact was “off the table.”
Six Party Talks continued regularly
throughout the middle part of the decade.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in
2006, but while the underground detonation
attracted international condemnation, the test
was thought to be a fizzle. Negotiations
resumed later that year. Substantial progress
had been made by 2008, and a partial
normalization of relations seemed to be in
sight. In return for substantial fuel aid,
Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear
facility at Yongbyon. The Bush administration
took steps to unfreeze North Korean assets and
remove the nation from its list of state sponsors
of terrorism. As North Korean “dialed down”
its rhetoric and adopted more moderate
positions, the situation on the Korean
Peninsula seemed to be making true headway.
Mentions of a peace agreement with Seoul were
even floated. And in a widely heralded and
highly symbolic event, the New York
Philharmonic Orchestra visited North Korea to
play a February 2008 concert there. It was
broadcast live on local and international
But at the end of the decade, a series of
events sparked a resurgence of tensions with
the Kim Jong-il regime. Alleging that the US
administration had not lived up to some of its
earlier commitments, Pyongyang announced it
would restart its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon
in August 2008. IAEA inspectors, it said, were
still disallowed from visiting any sites.
Animosity flared up again in March 2009 when
two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna
Lee, were arrested on the border between
China and North Korea while filming a
documentary. Local authorities sentenced the
two to 12 years of hard labor, a move that
attracted an outcry from international protesters
and prompted the State Department to call the
trial a “sham.” The saga finally ended in August
of the same year when former President Bill
Clinton flew to Pyongyang on a private mission
to secure the release of the two women.
North Korea again made headlines in 2009
when it completed its second-ever nuclear test.
Analysts agreed that the detonation was
successful and larger than the one in 2006. In
the same week, the regime also conducted
short-range missile tests. The international
community strongly condemned Pyongyang’s
actions, calling them reckless and a threat to
global security. The UN Security Council
responded by unanimously passing Resolution
1874, which placed further economic and
commercial sanctions on the regime. It also
authorized member states to search North
Korean cargo and destroy any goods suspected
of being connected to the nation’s nuclear
weapons program.
Relations took a dramatic turn when, in
March 2010, a South Korean warship named
the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo — allegedly
fired from a North Korean submarine — in the
Yellow Sea. 46 seamen perished. Pyongyang
denied being responsible for the sinking; China
and Russia concurred and dismissed the
credibility of an investigation blaming North
Korea for the attack. The UN Security Council
condemned the sinking but did not identify the
perpetrator. Strong rhetoric erupted from all
sides, and the US was quick to impose new
sanctions on North Korea as well as to conduct
joint military exercises with South Korea in the
Sea of Japan. The situation only worsened in
November 2010 when North Korean forces
pre-emptively fired artillery rounds at the South
Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The attack
killed two soldiers and injured 17 others. South
Korea responded by returning the fire and
scrambling jets across the region. Although
China called for an emergency session of the
Six Party Talks, the US, Japan, and South
Korea rejected these requests because they
maintained that North-South relations must
improve in advance of any multilateral
discussions. Alarmingly, in a matter of two
years, the hostilities on the Korean Peninsula
looked suddenly all the more volatile.
North Korea’s Human Rights Record
While not a direct threat to US national
security, alleged human rights abuses in North
Korea remain a grave concern to American
diplomats and policymakers. Officials voice
perennial dismay over the reclusive nation’s
abysmal human rights record, which has hardly
improved over the past several decades.
Reports from the Department of State
emphasize that political, civil, and religious
liberties are completely denied; freedoms of
speech, press, and assembly are simply nonexistent. Citizens have no right to selfdetermination; quite on the contrary, they are
indoctrination. In addition, North Korean
residents are barred from freely leaving the
country — those who try risk being captured
and summarily detained. Even citizens who
manage to escape are not entirely safe, for
emigrants who successfully flee to China are
often repatriated and sent back to labor camps,
where they are punished as defectors.
Alarmingly, more and more information is
being discovered about flagrant human rights
abuses in North Korea’s frightening network of
at least six forced labor camps and many more
political prisons. Former inmates have reported
being beaten and tortured harshly. Public
executions are ostensibly commonplace. Food
rations are so pitiful, according to several
interviewed escapees, that prisoners sometimes
resort to eating rats and earthworms for protein.
It is estimated that this network of camps and
individuals — and satellite photos suggest that
the number of labor camps keeps growing.
Meanwhile, experts believe that North Korean
citizens possess very little right to due legal
process, or perhaps none at all. Those most at
risk include anyone guilty or merely suspected
of disloyalty or ideological “transgressions.”
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary,
Pyongyang refuses to acknowledge the existence
of such camps, and the situation has not
changed at all under the new leadership of Kim
The full extent of human rights abuses in
North Korea is far from known. The House
Select Committee on Intelligence, therefore,
would be wise to devote some attention to this
important aspect of the North Korean
dilemma. It has been said that human rights
should be a part of any “grand bargain” or
“negotiation package” that the West forms with
Pyongyang. The relatively little information the
world does currently know about human rights
inside North Korea comes from emigrants who
safely managed to cross the border, satellite
imagery, and intelligence gathered from sources
like the US Special Envoy for Human Rights in
North Korea. This office was created in 2004 in
order to “coordinate and promote efforts to
improve respect for the fundamental human
rights of the people of North Korea.” The
current special envoy is Robert King.
The US government, however, is certainly
not the only body to criticize North Korea for
its abuses. Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, and the UN (to name a few)
have also condemned the nation because of its
appalling human rights record. So while this
aspect has never constituted a direct security
threat to the US, policymakers in Washington
still see it as a matter of chief importance.
Recent Developments
Since hostilities started to increase a few
years ago, there has been a dramatic series of
new developments in North Korea and US
national security policy. A change of leadership
in the communist state — only the second time
North Korea has had a head-of-state transition
since World War II — brought relations
between North Korea and the West into
“unpredictable territory.” In late 2012 and early
2013, a spate of belligerent actions by
Pyongyang further increased tensions.
Kim Jong-un: Third Time a Charm?
Kim Jong-il, whose rule as leader of North
Korea began in 1994, died of a suspected heart
attack on December 17, 2011. He was 70 years
old. Official state media reported his death two
days later, and an elaborate funeral (televised by
international press) was held in Pyongyang on
December 28. Kim Jong-il’s death was met with
widespread mourning and grief across the
nation; in videos obtained from state media,
thousands of people were seen sobbing,
grieving, and visibly angered, although some
viewers doubted the authenticity of this grief.
International reactions to the dictator’s demise
were mixed. Governments in China, Russia,
Zimbabwe, and Cuba were praiseful of Kim
Jong-il. Japan and the Philippines were among
other nations that expressed condolences but
stressed the importance of moving forward.
South Korea, France, Australia, and the UK
took somewhat firmer positions, emphasizing
that this was an important opportunity for
stability and denuclearization on the Korean
peninsula. As for the Obama administration,
the White House said that it was closely
monitoring the situation and reaffirmed its
commitment to “stability on the Korean
peninsula, and to the freedom and security of
[America’s] allies.” Former President Jimmy
Carter, who had travelled to North Korea many
times, had warmer words and wished Kim Jongun “every success as he assume[d] his new
responsibility of leadership.”
Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim
Jong-il, immediately succeeded to the position
of supreme leader. The news came as little
surprise. Formal evidence of his selection first
emerged in 2010 following his appointment as a
four-star general and vice-chairman of the
Central Military Commission. He was also
thought to be the most favored son by his father
and the most loyal to the regime. External
pundits and observers speculated that the
demise of Kim Jong-il might lead to internal
power struggles or instability at the top of the
party. At least publicly, this was never the case.
In the weeks after his father’s death, official
state organs rallied around Kim Jong-un and
helped consolidate his authority as the
“supreme commander” of the Korean People’s
Army and the “sole national leader” of North
Korea. Close family members and trusted allies
were believed to have helped purge any
potential rivals and guide the new head-of-state
as he took power.
At the onset of Kim Jong-un’s leadership
(and even still today), some observers
continued to believe that the youthful dictator
could emerge as a regime reformer. Aged 29 or
30 — his exact birthdate is unknown and is
believed to be sometime in 1983 or 1984 —
Kim Jong-un is the world’s youngest head-ofstate. International experts also hoped that the
new autocrat, educated in Switzerland and
possibly France during his childhood, might be
more amenable to market-oriented reforms and
the opening up of North Korea’s society.
Furthermore, some analysts predicted that Kim
Jong-un’s relative inexperience might encourage
him to bridge old animosities with the West
rather than exacerbate them.
However, so far, it does not appear that the
new autocrat will stray very far from his father’s
positions. As one Congressional briefing aptly
puts it, “most analysts conclude that [North
Korea’s] outdated ideology and closed political
system make reforms risky, ineffective, and
reversible.” Kim Jong-un remains relatively
beholden to the established interests of the
Communist Party, his inner circle of military
advisors, and the North Korean elite —
especially given his novice status. Expectations
that the dictator will conform rigidly to the
vision laid out by his father and grandfather —
both of whom are revered as eternal, spiritual
leaders — limit the possibility of serious
reforms. Were he to attempt any broad
changes, he would almost unquestionably be
met with resistance from army generals and top
party officials. In some important ways, though,
Kim Jong-un has embraced a slightly different
style of rule compared to his father. While
adhering closely to the family ideology, the
young dictator has permitted Western
influences such as Disney characters and
clothing styles to be displayed publicly. He is a
fan of basketball and certain American music.
In contrast to his father’s elevated cult-ofpersonality, Kim Jong-un has also done more to
cultivate an image of being a younger, more
modern, and more accessible “man of the
people.” His public appearances are much
more frequent. Symbolically, his wife has been
introduced to the public. Overall it appears as if
the new North Korean leader intends to follow
the policies embraced by his father and his
party while ruling with a somewhat more
dynamic personality.
Nonetheless, despite intelligence efforts by
the US and other allies, fairly little information
is known about Kim Jong-un or his inner
circles. Foreign leaders and dignitaries rarely
interact with him. The House Select
Committee on Intelligence might find it useful
to consider methods of acquiring further
intelligence about the isolated regime.
Liftoffs and Launches: Tensions Soar
During the months directly after Kim Jongun’s succession, there was actually a glimmer of
diplomatic progress. A series of bilateral
meetings between the US and North Korea
resulted in the “Leap Day Agreement” of
February 29, 2012. The plan involved
significant food aid from the American
government in return for a North Korean
moratorium on nuclear enrichment and missile
testing. US diplomats verbally warned that any
missile testing and rocket launches would
violate the terms of the agreement. Pyongyang
took little note.
On April 13, 2012, North Korea launched
a Taepodong-2 missile after announcing its
intentions to do so one month earlier to
commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Ilsung’s birth. US military intelligence
determined that the missile test was a failure;
the second stage crashed into the sea and never
posed a threat to North Korea’s neighbors. In a
rare move, state media conceded that the
missile had failed. American defense forces
were nevertheless on high alert. The rocket was
mostly produced using domestic materials and
technology, indicating North Korea’s growing
ability to manufacture ballistic missiles.
Eight months later, the saga intensified. On
December 12, 2012, North Korea successfully
launched its own satellite for the first time.
Pyongyang called the device a peaceful “Earth
observation satellite,” but governments in the
US, South Korea, and Japan treated the event
as akin to a ballistic missile test. The regime
celebrated the occasion with elaborate military
parades in the capital, but it received nearuniversal condemnation from the international
community, including an unusually pointed
statement of “regret” from China. The UN
Security Council was quick to issue a
committee’s belief that the launch had been a
ballistic missile test. In January 2013 the
Security Council voted to impose new sanctions
on the nation, which infuriated the regime.
North Korea warned that its weapons program
would “target” the US, which it called the
“sworn enemy of the Korean people.”
Meanwhile, scientists have concluded that the
satellite, named Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2, is
almost certainly dead and unable to
communicate any information, although it will
continue to orbit the planet for at least several
more years.
North Korea’s recent launches represent
major developments in the relationship
between the US and the Kim Jong-Un regime.
American intelligence officials noted that the
successful deployment of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3
suggests North Korea’s increasing capability of
firing a long-range warhead. Hawaii and
American military bases across the Pacific are
thought to be within reach. Even more
disconcerting, authorities believe that it will only
be three or four years before that range is
extended to the continental US. And for the
time being, it appears that Pyongyang is not
afraid to act provocatively.
A Nuclear-Armed North Korea?
On February 12, 2013, North Korean state
news reported that it had conducted its third
underground nuclear test. International
observers detected unusual seismic activity
consistent with atomic testing. Investigations of
the data suggested that the force of the
explosion (6,000-7,000 tons in TNT equivalent)
was larger than in North Korea’s two previous
tests. Yet what the West found most alarming
was North Korea’s statement that the test had
involved a “small and light” atomic device. US
defense officials fear that the regime may be
rapidly developing the capacity to fit such a
device on a rocket. The combination of nuclear
warheads and North Korean inter-continental
ballistic missiles is obviously a prospect that
distresses the US government — and it is not an
outcome anyone in the current administration
is willing to accept.
In the wake of this most recent nuclear test,
do any policymakers believe a strike is
imminent? Not precisely. Intelligence officials
say that further missile tests would probably be
needed before any devices became operational.
In addition, analysts generally speculate that
North Korea’s missile launches of 2012 and
nuclear test of 2013 were predominantly meant
to bolster Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy among the
country’s elite. Continuing the legacy of his
father, the young dictator likely wanted to use
these opportunities as a demonstration of
defiance against the rest of the world —
especially against the re-elected Obama
administration and new leadership of South
Korean President Park Geun-hye, elected in
December 2012.
‘Saber Rattling’: A Dramatic Escalation of
Bellicose Rhetoric
One of the largest escalations of the North
Korean crisis so far occurred during the spring
of 2013. In the wake of Pyongyang’s missile
launches and nuclear tests, the regime amped
up its belligerent rhetoric following yet another
UN Security Council resolution imposing
commercial sanctions on luxury goods, cash
transfers, and diplomatic movement. On March
8, the North Korean government announced it
was scrapping all non-aggression pacts with
South Korea, withdrawing from the armistice
that ended the Korean War, and shutting their
shared border point. Calling South Korea’s
government a “puppet group of traitors,”
Pyongyang asserted its right to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike. American defense
leaders responded to these latest threats by
conducting joint naval exercises with South
Korea and reinforcing the missile defense
system already in place across the American
west coast.
On March 20, the South Korean
government reported a cyber-attack allegedly
perpetrated by the country’s northern foe. Just
a week later, North Korea severed the lone
long-standing hotline between Pyongyang and
Seoul — the last line of communication between
the two capital cities. A North Korean
spokesman explained, “Under the situation
where a war may break out any moment, there
is no need to keep up North-South military
communications.” On March 30, Kim Jong-un
declared a state of war against South Korea and
announced that rockets were ready to be fired
at American bases in the Pacific Ocean. Three
days later, on April 2, the North Korean
government declared that it was restarting its
plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyon for the
first time since 2007. During the next couple
days, intelligence revealed that the regime had
moved a medium-range ballistic missile to its
east coast for potential testing or firing, just as
the North Korean military warned the US that a
nuclear strike could take place “today or
tomorrow.” State media issued threats that
North Korea was prepared to “dissolve the US
mainland” in a series of “merciless strikes,”
turning the region into a “sea of fire.” The
international community — particularly East
Asia and even North Korea’s longtime ally
China — grew increasingly alarmed by the hour.
Many states with embassies in Pyongyang took
precautionary measures and evacuated their
diplomatic staff.
The situation became even tenser as North
Korea withdrew all 50,000 of its workers from
the Kaesong Industrial Zone on April 8. The
initiative began in 2004 and was the only
cooperative economic project between the two
Koreas. Not only did the Northern regime ban
South Korean workers from entering Kaesong,
it also refused to let hundreds of remaining
South Korean workers return home. The saga
lasted for weeks and attracted enormous media
attention. Meanwhile, the Kim Jong-un
government refused to sit down at the
negotiating table until North Korea was
recognized as a legitimate nuclear state.
Latest Round of Missile Tests
As if verbal “saber rattling” were not
enough, in May 2013 North Korea launched a
new series of missile tests that Pyongyang
described as “regular military exercises.” On
May 18 and 20, the military fired a combined
six short-range projectiles into the Sea of Japan.
By this time, though, the regime’s “one threat
per day” pattern had slowed down; North
Korean officials seemed keener to sit down
with members of the Six Party Talks. The
hotline connecting Pyongyang and Seoul was
reopened, but the Kaesong Industrial Complex
remains indefinitely closed at the time of
writing. Only time will tell if and when the
project will resume.
Kim Jong-un: Cunning or Crazed?
Throughout the months of repeated
provocations, analysts were uncertain of North
Korea’s true intentions. Kim Jong-un had no
hesitations in singling out the US and South
Korea as his two primary enemies — in fact,
state media published photos of the dictator
examining maps that depicted targets on
mainland America. The regime’s recent
hostility has therefore been taken very seriously
by the US Defense Department. Said one
American official, “North Korea is not a paper
tiger so it wouldn’t be smart to dismiss its
provocative behavior as pure bluster.” And
although the erratic nation has come out with
confrontational rhetoric before, the intensity,
frequency, and vitriol of 2013 have surpassed
anything seen in the past. On the other hand,
most experts found it unlikely that the North
Korean government would actually push ahead
with military aggression. Increasingly isolated
even from old allies China and Russia, North
Korea would be fully aware of the dire
consequences following a military strike on
South Korea, the US, or Japan. Rather, in spite
of Kim Jong-un’s apparent “madness,” many
pundits speculated that his warmongering was a
highly rational attempt to legitimize his rule
among the people of North Korea. To that
end, his intended audience may have been
more domestic than international. Ultimately,
observers and governments around the world
continue to debate the extent to which North
Korea’s threats should be taken seriously. Are
the regime’s menaces to be believed? Would
North Korea ever conduct a first strike against
its enemies? Is the young dictator merely
solidifying his grasp on power? Or has Kim
Jong-un simply lost his mind? The answers are
as unclear as ever, which is why American
intelligence plays such a vital role in this crisis.
One thing is certain, however. Amidst such
tensions, the consequences of miscalculation or
miscommunication on either side are
tremendous. A simple accident, a simple errant
gunshot, a simple rocket misfire—the slightest
mishap could tip the region back into war.
Congressional Action
numerous pieces of legislation over the years in
an attempt to tackle the perennial dilemma of
North Korea. In February 2013, the Senate
unanimously passed the North Korea
Nonproliferation and Accountability Act (S
298). Sponsored by Senator Bob Menendez
(D-NJ) and supported by a bipartisan coalition,
the legislation calls North Korea’s most recent
nuclear test a “flagrant violation” of sanctions
and international regulations. It also urges
members of the UN to impose their own strong
sanctions on the rogue state. The bill awaits
consideration in the House of Representatives
and is not yet law. In the same month, the
North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic NonRecognition Act of 2013 (HR 673) was
introduced in the House by Representative
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). This bill proposes
to go even further; it calls upon the Secretary of
State to re-designate North Korea as a state
sponsor of terrorism. Still under review by
committees, the legislation has passed neither
the House nor the Senate at the time of writing.
Congress has also taken action on the
appalling human rights situation. In 2004, the
North Korean Human Rights Act (HR 4011)
was passed by Congress and signed into law.
Among its measures were (1) authorizing new
funds to support human rights efforts, (2)
transmitting informational radio broadcasts to
the North Korean people, (3) requiring the
President to appoint a special envoy on human
rights to North Korea, and (4) permitting North
Korean citizens to apply for asylum in the US.
The law has been reauthorized by Congress
twice since its adoption and is next up for
reconsideration in 2017. A 2012 extension to
the act calls upon China to desist in its forcible
repatriation of North Korean refugees. In spite
of the millions of dollars in funding set aside for
this law, the North Korean Human Rights Act
has enjoyed only modest success. According to
the State Department, 149 North Korean
refugees have been resettled in the US as of
December 2012. Ongoing challenges include
persuading host countries to accept North
Korean refugees and raising awareness about
the program among displaced North Koreans.
The question of human rights was further
addressed in the North Korean Child Welfare
Act of 2012 (HR 1464). Signed into law by
President Obama in January 2013, it was hailed
as a monumental step forward for North
Korean children and orphans. The legislation
helps reunite family members who have
escaped North Korea. It also seeks to support
orphans in hiding and facilitate the adoptions of
North Korean children living outside their
homeland without parental care. Jarring
estimates suggest that 20,000 young North
Korean orphans currently live in hiding out of
fear of repatriation.
Conservative View
Conservatives take a very tough stance on
North Korea and advocate stringent measures
to deal with the rogue regime. Republican
lawmakers overwhelmingly favor strong
economic sanctions, penalties on companies
that trade with North Korea, and a powerful
and active military presence around the region.
A large number of conservatives argue that the
country should be added back to the list of
states that sponsor terrorism (as President
George W. Bush had done in his “Axis of
Evil”). They tend to be more skeptical about
deals (such as the Agreed Framework of 1994)
involving food aid or fuel aid in exchange for
promises from Pyongyang to cease its nuclear
program. Such initiatives, many conservatives
believe, are consistent with a weak and naïve
US foreign policy. For instance, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
was quick to criticize the Obama administration
for not being firm enough on the issue of North
Korea. During his campaign he voiced his
strong disapproval over the cutting of key
missile defense programs and vowed to boost
their funding if elected. Romney and other
conservatives additionally argued in favor of
applying greater pressure on China to help
confront the security and humanitarian issues
on the Korean peninsula.
Liberal View
Liberals agree that US policy towards North
Korea must be very firm. Most if not all
Democratic legislators in Congress strongly
support the imposition of sanctions and
diplomatic penalties on Kim Jong-un’s regime
in light of recent provocations. Like President
Obama, liberals stress the importance of
standing with South Korea and insisting that
North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons
program. Cooperation with the UN is also
more widely favored among left-leaning
policymakers, who generally view the UNSC
essential in resolving the conflict.
Although they are quite closely aligned,
liberals and conservatives disagree on the
measures necessary to achieve North Korean
compliance. Democrats tend to be more
optimistic about the outcome of bilateral
negotiations and Six Party Talks. Nobody
disputes the importance of tough economic
sanctions and military presence around North
Korea. But in the eyes of most liberal
policymakers, the provision of food aid and
fuel aid should also play a large role in enticing
North Korea to behave responsibly and
renounce its nuclear program. Thus, rather
than seeing the 1994 Agreed Framework as a
form of appeasement, liberals hailed the deal as
a success when it was first signed.
Presidential View
During his presidential campaign and at the
outset of his term, President Obama expressed
an early willingness to engage with rogue states
such as North Korea. Exercising a foreign
policy known as “strategic patience,” the
Obama administration has encouraged North
Korea to return to the negotiating table (even
amid the latter’s threats and provocations) while
maintaining diplomatic pressure on the regime.
President Obama has been fairly consistent
in his approach to North Korea throughout his
tenure. To be specific, the administration’s
policy includes the following main elements.
First, the White House insists that Pyongyang
should commit to denuclearization and take
steps to mend its fractured relationship with
Seoul before re-entering Six Party Talks.
Second, President Obama favors a mix of
“sticks and carrots” — including aid incentives
along with disincentives like economic
sanctions and arms restrictions — as tools to
help apply pressure on the North Korean
government. Third, the president has been
quite adamant in trying to persuade China to
take a tougher stance against its smaller
neighbor. Lastly, while being careful not to
come off as provocative or aggressive, the
current administration continues to carry out
large-scale military exercises around the Korean
peninsula intended to demonstrate the strength
of the US-South Korean alliance.
Interest Group Perspectives
Council on Foreign Relations
The Council on Foreign Relations is a
prominent non-partisan think-tank specializing
in international affairs. Scholars at the Council
on Foreign Relations generally take a more
moderate approach to the North Korean
quandary than hardline conservative groups do.
One leading expert at the institution has
advocated an updated “containment policy,”
similar to the anticommunist strategy pursued
by the US in the years after World War II. The
group has also proposed applying pressure on
China to restart the Six Party Talks and bring
North Korea to the negotiating table. Another
scholar at the Council has emphasized the
importance of diplomatic and military
cooperation with South Korea, though he has
ruled out the idea of preemptive strikes or
forcible regime change. A third leading foreign
policy analyst employed by the think-tank has
reiterated the need for US diplomats to be very
firm and persistent on the issue of
The Heritage Foundation
The Heritage Foundation is a conservative
think-tank whose stated mission includes
promoting “strong national defense.” To that
end, the organization has expressed extreme
concern over the North Korean crisis. In the
past, the Heritage Foundation has expressed its
“disappointment” over the outcome of Six
Party Talks, saying that the US has made too
many concessions for minimal compliance
from the dictatorship. The right-leaning thinktank has additionally criticized President
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for
not being bold enough against North Korea; it
describes recent negotiation attempts as being
idealistic and insufficiently tough.
Solutions to this topic will require a good
amount of forethought, pragmatism, and
creativity. Unlike the case with domestic issues,
the US cannot exert coercive control over this
problem. North Korea’s erratic behavior is
highly unpredictable and, to an extent, subject
to the whims of Kim Jong-un, which makes the
situation on the Korean Peninsula especially
volatile. Any solutions will therefore need to be
realistic and well planned out. Here are just a
few of the various options available to
Economic Sanctions
In response to North Korea’s provocations,
economic sanctions have been the traditional,
go-to solution time and time again. Nearly every
nuclear test and missile launch is met with a
new round of trade restrictions slapped upon
the rogue regime by the US or by the UN.
Sanctions are highly supported by liberals and
conservatives alike because they are easy to
implement, costless to American taxpayers
(unlike military intervention), and generally
effective. Types of sanctions in the past have
included a ban on luxury items in North Korea,
penalties on any companies that trade with the
country, and a freeze on overseas assets held by
top regime officials. A recent UN resolution
also cracked down on any shipments to
Pyongyang suspected of being connected to the
country’s nuclear program.
When applied correctly, economic
sanctions can be crippling. However, even with
broad bipartisan and international support,
further economic sanctions can only go so far in
the case of North Korea. Why? First, one must
recall that the communist state is already one of
the most isolated and closed-off economies in
the world. Its 2011 imports totaled only $4
billion; its exports were worth just $4.7 billion.
Accounting for two-thirds of all trade, China is
by far the country’s largest trading partner.
Hence, because current economic exchange is
already so meager, additional sanctions would
only have a limited impact. The second
possible objection to sanctions is that they tend
to hurt the population more than the regime.
According to citizens who have escaped,
residents of North Korea routinely suffer from
famines, fuel shortages, and squalid living
conditions. Per capita income levels are
estimated to be a paltry $1,800 per year — a
statistic that places North Korea among the
poorest countries on Earth. Yet another round
of sanctions could turn the situation on the
ground from bad to worse while Kim Jong-un,
who was recently spotted touring the coast on
an expensive yacht, continues to live a lavish life
in opulent palaces. A third and final aspect to
consider is that the regime has ignored
economic sanctions in the past. International
reprimands have apparently done little to
convince the North Korean government to
abandon its nuclear program. In some cases,
sanctions have even encouraged the regime to
step up its antagonistic, provocative rhetoric.
A Return to the Negotiating Table
Returning to the Six Party talks or other
multilateral negotiations would be a promising
step, but after the most recent round of
provocations from North Korea, restarting the
talks would be a significant challenge in itself.
Seoul and Pyongyang appear to be as distant as
ever from finding common ground. In a
demonstration of authority for his domestic
audience, it is likely that Kim Jong-un would
not concede easily to foreign demands. As the
past has shown, even “breakthrough”
agreements at the Six Party Talks have fallen
flat after nations failed to follow through with
their commitments.
There is some hope in persuading China to
diplomatically pressure the North Korean
regime into denuclearization. The most recent
atomic tests and aggressive rhetoric left Beijing
increasingly frustrated with its rogue neighbor.
Worried by the prospect of a regional conflict,
China has called for immediate dialogue in
order to hasten a peace settlement. As North
Korea’s closest partner — not to mention one of
its only remaining allies — China would clearly
play a pivotal role in any new negotiations.
Therefore, any serious proposals by Congress
should strongly consider how other nations
could play a supporting role in easing tensions
on the Korean Peninsula and working towards
Diplomacy could likewise be a powerful
tool in confronting human rights violations in
North Korea. Six Party Talks have typically
focused on the region’s most immediate
security concerns, but negotiations in the future
could certainly discuss the growing issues
surrounding human rights, refugees, political
freedoms, and the regime’s suspected network
of forced labor camps. To neglect these
problems would be a tragic oversight.
Increasing US Military Presence and
Defense Capabilities
Numerous policymakers support an
increase in America’s military presence near
the Korean Peninsula. This move would have
the dual advantage of demonstrating America’s
alliance with South Korea and deterring any
pre-emptive strikes from the North Korean
army. Many experts maintain that boosting
America’s missile defense capabilities should
be another part of the long-term solution.
Doing so would be particularly important for
Hawaii, Alaska, and US bases in the Pacific—
not to mention the American West Coast,
which may come within striking distance of
North Korea in the next few years. Investing in
the technologies required to shield the US from
an enemy ballistic missile would obviously be
expensive and complicated, but not without
precedent. During the Bush and Obama
presidencies, the Department of Defense has
continued to work on creating a missile defense
program. In April 2013, in response to North
Korea’s daily threats, the Pentagon moved 14
missile interceptors to Guam.
Crucially, any military maneuvers must be
extremely strategic and careful not to stir up
unnecessary aggravation. American defense
forces should avoid appearing overly aggressive
in the eyes of the North Korean regime, lest an
impulsive Kim Jong-un overreact and launch
counter-assaults against the US or South Korea.
Covert Operations:
Gathering Intelligence about the
World’s Most Reclusive Regime
Creative and clandestine solutions are
always an option at Harvard Model Congress as
long as they are well planned out! It is well
known that some US government agencies
routinely conduct missions around the world to
gather intelligence about foreign countries in
secret. Covert operations in North Korea might
include disruptions to military operations,
surveillance of suspected nuclear facilities,
espionage of top regime officials, or publicity
campaigns to denounce the communist party
from within. From assassinations to cyberattacks to spying, everything is possible in
theory. However, it goes without saying that
North Korea is one of the most secure,
isolated, and well-defended nations on the
planet, so even the most carefully calculated
covert operations come with a high risk.
Ruled by a new leader and a highly
enigmatic government, North Korea provides
us with more questions than answers. How to
tackle the predicaments on the Korean
Peninsula is a topic that has stumped presidents
from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. At
Harvard Model Congress, delegates should
begin by identifying what specific objectives the
US should set for itself. Should America simply
try to manage the regime’s nuclear arsenal, or is
total denuclearization the only acceptable
option? What types of incentives and
disincentives should be used to encourage good
behavior from North Korea? Where does the
question of human rights fit in, and how high
does it rank on America’s priority list? What
should the US government ask of China in
trying to resolve tensions around the region?
In addition, delegates should think about
how to acquire better intelligence on the
world’s most mysterious regime. What are the
true intentions of Kim Jong-un? Based on what
we know, is the dictator a rational actor or a
crazed and inexperienced belligerent? Just how
developed is North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and
missile technology? Under what terms might
the regime be willing to give up its nuclear
agenda, and can they be trusted to keep their
Since the succession of Kim Jong-un in
2011, the relationship between the US and
North Korea has grown much more
tumultuous, tense, and unpredictable. With the
shadow of the Korean War still looming over
the peninsula, North Korea’s reclusive
communist regime has dramatically intensified
its hostility after years of modestly successful Six
Party negotiations. The young and enigmatic
new leader of the nation alarmed the world in
2012 and 2013 when he ordered the launch of
North Korea’s first satellite, tested the country’s
third and most powerful nuclear device,
conducted brazen missile exercises, and
amplified the regime’s already belligerent
rhetoric. While experts remain uncertain about
Kim Jong-un’s true intentions and objectives,
the international community has taken his
threats and military maneuvers very seriously.
In the process, North Korea has exacerbated
tensions in East Asia and begun to alienate its
closest allies. In the meantime, grave human
rights violations continue to occur, and the
people of North Korea have seen no relief
from ongoing repression and famine.
US policymakers overwhelmingly advocate
a tough approach against North Korea.
Conservative lawmakers and think-tanks argue
that heavy-handed sanctions and military
deterrence are the most potent solutions.
Liberals have remained a little more optimistic
about multilateral negotiations and incentives
such as foreign aid. Yet, even though American
politicians agree that denuclearization is the
ultimate objective, a variety of different policies
have been proposed, each one with its own
merits and flaws. Given how little information is
known about North Korea’s government and
nuclear arsenal, it is unclear how the US
administration and its allies should respond in
order to guarantee the best and most peaceful
Not a novel issue, US-North Korea
relations have been examined extensively by
countless political scholars. Copious literature is
available online about the relationship between
the two states and the various negotiation
initiatives undertaken in the past few decades.
A comprehensive congressional research report
on North Korea provides excellent detail and
serves as a wonderful source for further
information. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ian
Rinehart authored the document, and it was
updated in early 2013 to reflect the latest
developments. As for information about North
Korea itself, the CIA World Factbook is always
a reliable reference. Delegates interested in
different types of media might enjoy recent
CNN documentaries that focus on the theme of
“Inside North Korea.” A number of TED talks
have even been filmed featuring first-hand
accounts of human rights abuses in North
ballistic missile – a missile that follows a
projectile-like flight path with the objective of
delivering warheads to a predetermined target
covert operation – a (usually illicit) mission that
is so planned and executed as to conceal the
identity of the sponsor or permit plausible
denial by the sponsor
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – an
international treaty signed by 190 parties
around the world that has prevented the spread
of nuclear weapons and weapons technology
since it entered into force in 1970
Pyongyang – the capital city of North Korea
sanctions – punitive bans and restrictions on
economic trade, or other coercive measures,
imposed on a country in order to elicit a change
in its behavior
Six Party Talks – negotiations involving six
participating states (North Korea, South Korea,
the US, Japan, Russia, and China) to find a
peaceful resolution to security concerns caused
by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program
online 5 Apr. 2013. Accessed 14 Jun. 2013.
CIA World Factbook Staff. “North Korea.”
CIA World Factbook. N.d. Accessed 14 Jun.
totalitarian – a political system seeking to
control all aspects of public and private society
whenever necessary
Agence France Presse Staff. “North Korea Cuts
Off Contact with South.” The Australian.
Published online 28 Mar. 2013. Accessed 17
Bajoria, Jayshree. “The Six-Party Talks on
North Korea’s Nuclear Program.” Council on
Foreign Relations. Published online 8 Mar.
BBC Staff. “North Korea Ends Peace Pact with
South.” BBC. Published online 8 Mar. 2013.
Chang, Gordon. “Is Kim Jong-un’s Bluster
Really a Prelude to Reform?” World Affairs.
Published online 4 Apr. 2013. Accessed 20
Chanlett-Avery, Emma, and Rinehart, Ian.
“North Korea: US Relations, Nuclear
Congressional Research Service. Published
Column: Banyan. “Are You Listening,
America?” The Economist. Published online
12 Feb. 2013. Accessed 17 Jun. 2013.
CNN Wire Staff. “World Reacts to Kim Jongil’s Death.” CNN. Published online 20 Dec.
Council on Foreign Relations Issue Tracker.
“The Candidates on North Korea.” Council on
Foreign Relations. Published online 31 Oct.
Cox, Ramsey. “Senate Passes Bill Aiming to
Prevent North Korean Nuclear Weapons.”
The Hill. Published online 25 Feb. 2013.
The Heritage Foundation Staff. “North Korea.”
The Heritage Foundation. Published online
Kim, Christine. “North Korean Workers Don’t
Report for Work at Joint Industrial Park.”
Reuters. Published online 8 Apr. 2013.
Kirgis, Frederic. “North Korea’s Withdrawal
from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
American Society of International Law.
Published online Jan. 2003. Accessed 14 Jun.
2013. <>
Kwon, KJ; Mullen, Jerthro; Shoichet,
Catherine. “North Korea in ‘State of War’ with
South, Threatens to ‘Dissolve’ US” CNN.
Published online 30 Mar. 2013. Accessed 21
Lee, Hyeonseo. “My Escape from North
Korea.” TED. TED talk filmed Feb. 2013.
Published online Mar. 2013. Accessed 21 Jun.
Litwak, Robert. “A New Containment Policy
for Iran, North Korea.” Council on Foreign
Relations. Published online 13 Apr. 2013.
McDonald, Mark. “North Korean Prison
Camps are Massive and Growing.” New York
Times. Published online 4 May 2011. Accessed
Park, Madison. “US Law Aimed at Helping
North Korean Orphans.” CNN. Published
online 13 May 2013. Accessed 25
Smith, Matt. “North Korea’s Threats: Five
Things to Know.” CNN. Published online 29
Mar. 2013. Accessed 17 Jun. 2013.
In this appendix section are several helpful
maps, charts, and figures. They are useful
media that may help put the rest of the briefing
into context. Feel free to compile your own
intelligence on North Korea, bring it to
committee, and reference them during debates.
Figure 1: Map of the Korean Peninsula.
Source: Congressional Research Service.
Figure 2: Satellite imagery from 2013 showing
large expansions to Camp 25, suspected to be
one of the biggest labor camps and political
prisons located in North Korea’s northeast.
Zoom in to view details. Source: Washington
Post and Committee for Human Rights in
North Korea.
Sanger, David, and Choe, Sang-Hun. “North
Korea Issues Blunt New Threat to United
States.” New York Times. Published online 24
Jan. 2013. Accessed 17 Jun. 2013.
Figure 3: Satellite imagery from 2013 showing
Camp 14, a suspected labor camp. The yellow
line indicates what is believed to be the camp’s
tight security perimeter. Source: Reuters.
Figure 4: Range of various North Korean
missiles. Source: Center for Nonproliferation
Figure 5 (below): Locations and functions of
suspected nuclear facilities in North Korea.
The third, most recent nuclear test is believed
to have taken place in the northeast corner of
the country. Zoom in to view details. Source:
The Guardian.

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