How North Korea Works


Why Can't the World Do Something About North Korea?
Children play with their teachers at Dongbong Co-operative Farm kindergarten in Hamhung, North Korea. Katie Garrod/Getty Images

Although North Korea has been a thorn in the world's side, it particularly affects South Korea and its ally the U.S. But unfortunately, neither country has much leverage. For the past four decades, a succession of U.S. presidents has tried all sorts of measures to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. has employed both carrots and sticks, ranging from military exercises designed to display greater might, to aid deals to allowing release of frozen bank assets as an incentive to negotiate. The U.S. also has championed international sanctions against North Korea, and coaxed China — North Korea's lone remaining ally from communism's heyday and its most important trading partner — to use its influence [sources: Sanger, Fifeld, Bowden].

Unfortunately, none of this has worked. And now, Kim Jong Un's mysterious motives make the problem even more complicated. Unlike his father, who made bellicose public threats but quietly sent his diplomats to make known he could be bought off, the latest Dear Leader has said that he'll never bargain away his nukes or missiles as long as the U.S. is poised to attack him. It could be that he figures the U.S. is too afraid that he'll launch a catastrophic attack on Seoul with conventional weapons to stop his weapons programs.

All of the options for stopping Kim Jong Un are problematic. As journalist Mark Bowden detailed in a recent Atlantic article, stopping North Korea's missile and nuke programs with a military attack would be difficult, and most likely would exact a horrific cost in both American and Korean lives. Trying to assassinate Kim would require infiltrating his inner circle — almost impossible — and there's no guarantee that a replacement leader would be any better.

In August 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to impose strict sanctions on North Korea — in response to its launch of the ICBMs. Experts think it may cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year — a huge sum for a poor country. North Korea was already under sanctions from the U.S., the Security Council and the European Union for previous nuclear activity, but this new development is more wide-ranging and likely to cause more hurt economically. The aim is cut off a third of North Korea's annual exports, forcing Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program or at least be willing to negotiate [source: Taylor]. But since previous sanctions didn't have that effect, it's hard to know what will happen this time.

Author's Note: How North Korea Works

I was in kindergarten during the 1962 missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war. I remember how scared and helpless I felt as we listened to the radio in the family car and tried to make sense of the talk about missiles and warheads. It's sad to think that many years later, North Korea's effort to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs will mean that another generation of kids may experience those same fears.

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