A friend of mine described her first reaction to hearing of the Boston marathon bombing as something akin to “Oh my God, the North Koreans!” While she was quick to admit that it was a groundless momentary intuition, I believe that it is indicative of what our perception of the DPRK has been reduced to by what I find is a skewed and hypocritical portrayal of the state in Western media. A highly militarized country with nuclear weapons, over one million men in its active army, severe war scars, hiding bombs in rubbish bins in an ambiguous, amateurish attempt to subvert its enemy? Absurd. At the time of my writing this article, the perpetrators of the bombings have not yet been discovered, nor is it even remotely likely that North Korea is behind them. However, my friend’s reaction was not totally out of place; our media’s perpetual labeling of North Korean dictators as irrational and warmongering creates an atmosphere of fear and apprehension that is, in reality, unfounded. (If, in some bizarre, preposterous plot twist, it turns out that the DPRK is indeed behind this, I shall throw up my hands and disclaim my arguments.)
It is undeniable that the North Korean government is responsible for severely violating both human rights and international laws, continuously oppressing and deceiving its citizens. Our media’s description of Kim Jong-un and his fellow members of the North Korean political and military elite as villains is thus fully understandable. Yet at MUN conferences in high school, I remember the DPRK delegates taking the floor whenever there was a need for comic relief, and in hindsight, I cannot help but think that this pervasive portrayal of the leaders as fools and madmen is rash and impolitic. In fact, when it comes to discussions about their recent threats, the underlying connotation of a reckless, deluded regime is unfair. The annual drills by USA and South Korea can hardly be described as mere military “games”: only last month they conducted maneuvers with stealth bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons. The DPRK is justified in interpreting implicit threats and responding with similar demonstrative threats.
When it comes to North Korea’s nuclear programme, the condemnation thereof discloses a double standard in international relations. Since the development of the first atomic bombs during the Second World War, around 9000 missiles have been launched, 4 of which were North Korean. Out of a total of 2000 atomic bomb tests since the late 1940’s, 3 were by North Korea. Meanwhile, nations such as India and Pakistan, who posses atomic bombs, have suffered relatively little international condemnation, despite the former’s consistent refusal to acknowledge Article XIV of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an agreement that will remain impotent without India’s ratification. An explanation that I can think of for such hypocrisy lies in Pakistan and India’s economic importance relative to North Korea. In this case, sanctions are exacerbating the already inhumane living conditions for the majority of the North Korean population, and are more punitive than prohibitive. For a country that contributes little to international trade, and heavily relies on imports and outside financial aid, the sanctions are a punishment rather than a deterrent.
The DPRK maintains that the justification for their nuclear arsenal is, in fact, deterrence, as a safeguard against American nuclear bombs in South Korea. It is natural to roll one’s eyes at the standard “don’t worry, we need them for prevention purposes only” argument, yet one must admit that it sounds remarkably similar to Israel’s reasons for owning nuclear warheads (as protection against surrounding enemies), as well as the USA’s initial moral rationale behind the Manhattan Project (catching up with German atomic technology in order to avoid its use). It is difficult to condemn North Korean possession without adopting a double standard.
It has been argued that North Korea’s offenses are a bargaining technique. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Yet, if there were not such harsh sanctions on DPRK in the first place, they would not need to threaten in order to haggle over relaxation of said sanctions. In one of his first speeches, Kim Jong-un said, “We don’t want war. Let’s talk,” indicative of his openness to negotiation, especially with Barack Obama, the leader of North Korea’s historical foe. It is about time the international community stopped responding to North Korea’s albeit misguided attempts to secure international attention with circular sanctions, and initiated a sincere attempt at conversation.