The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more commonly known as North Korea, represents one of the most tense and protracted conflicts in the world today. A holdover from Japanese imperialism, WWII, and the Cold War, the Korean Peninsula has become a nuclear tinderbox. Diplomatic efforts to achieve denuclearization in the DPRK have been met with little success, and sanctions by the international community have been ineffective. The vicious cycle of sanctions and missile tests has escalated tensions on the Peninsula to its highest point in recent memory. Now it is up to you, and your fellow representatives on the Security Council, to prevent nuclear disaster.
A note: it is 100% okay if there are terms and concepts in this backgrounder that you don’t understand. If that is the case, feel free to reach out to Andrew Zhao, the Security Council Coordinator at email@example.com, or do a little research on your own.
Annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910, Korea remained in Japanese hands until the dying days of WWII. Eventually, control of the peninsula was split between the US and USSR at the 38th parallel. Following failed negotiations on reunification, two separate governments were formed: the socialist DPRK to the north, and the capitalist Republic of Korea (ROK) to the south. Both governments claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea, and refused to accept the 38th parallel border to be permanent.
In 1950, the DPRK invaded the ROK, starting the Korean War (1950–1953). The UN Security Council, determined in a resolution that the DPRK’s actions constituted a “breach of peace,” and called for the cessation of hostilities and the DPRK’s withdrawal back to the 38th parallel. After the DPRK did not comply, the Council issued another resolution, recommending member states assist the ROK in repelling the invasion. Two months in, ROK forces had been pushed to the southern tip of the peninsula at Pusan, and the formation of a 21-member UN coalition proved to be a turning point. The US committed the vast majority of personnel (70.4% by July 1951), and assumed command of the UN mission. US General Douglas MacArthur mounted an amphibious landing at the largely undefended city of Incheon, midway up the western coast of the peninsula. After making progress inland, the coalition forces were able to cut off supply routes to Pusan, and pushed the DPRK forces all the way north to the Chinese border at the Yalu River. At this point, Chinese forces crossed the border and entered the War in October 1950. Chinese entry into the War pushed the coalition forces back, and the battle lines eventually stabilized close to the 38th parallel. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was formed along the border. No peace treaty was ever signed, and the two countries technically remain at war.
Since the 1960s, the DPRK has attempted build a nuclear weapons program. Although both China and the USSR refused to arm the DPRK, the Soviets did aid the DPRK in building a peaceful nuclear energy program. In the 1980s, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program began to emerge, though it was still a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, more commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In 1991, US President George H. W. Bush unilaterally withdrew American nuclear weapons from the ROK, which were deployed there during the Cold War. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama then all tried, by various means, to secure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but to no avail. After failing to comply with safeguards and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the DPRK withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Since then, every time it looked like denuclearization was within reach, talks and agreements would fall through due to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Most recently, the Six-Party Talks (between the DPRK, ROK, Japan, China, Russia, and the US) made some progress before falling through in 2009, leading to the current period of tensions and provocations. As seen in the recent history of the Korean Peninsula, Council members—including three permanent members, the US, China, and Russia—have strong historical ties and strategic interests in the region.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the DPRK no longer had the USSR’s nuclear arsenal to depend on for protection. As a result, the regime deemed it necessary to develop this capability themselves. This view, along with the DPRK’s militaristic ideology of juche, emphasizes the need for massive military buildup, including long-range nuclear capability. The DPRK possesses thousands of missiles, some of which theoretically have the capability to strike the US. However, the government has yet to develop their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology enough to feasibly deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland. Despite this, the DPRK’s continued efforts towards this objective pose a threat to international security, with some experts estimating that the DPRK will develop the required technology by 2027. In fact, some within the US intelligence community fear that the DPRK may have overcome one of the toughest hurdles in this respect: creating a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an ICBM. On the other hand, the DPRK’s immediate neighbours—China, South Korea, and Japan—are well within range of a nuclear strike.
Since 2006, the UN has placed increasingly severe sanctions on the DPRK, but they have not slowed North Korean nuclear development. The DPRK continues to conduct missile tests in flagrant disregard of condemnations by essentially the entire international community, despite efforts to bring the state to the negotiating table. While the Security Council increases the severity of its sanctions, the DPRK has not yet ceased its tests, with the most recent one occurring in June 2017.
The Kim regime sees nuclear weapons as necessary to maintain its grip on power. It is therefore distrustful of any attempts to disarm, recalling Libya’s disarmament—Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi disarmed his country’s nuclear program in the hopes of normalizing relations with the US and the rest of the Western world, but was overthrown by US-backed rebels eight years later. The DPRK is therefore fearful of losing power upon denuclearization. As a result, there is no end in sight to the tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula.
The Trump administration’s foreign policy on the DPRK is not entirely clear yet, but every President since Bill Clinton has tried a different approach towards the regime, and President Trump is expected to switch it up as well. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that the goal of the US is not for regime change, but simply for disarmament. Still, US rhetoric has grown noticeably tougher. With a new government in the ROK under newly-elected President Moon Jae-in, the ROK policy towards the DPRK is expected to more closely resemble the ROK’s old Sunshine Policy. This policy advocates for better North-South relations, in contrast to the US’s tougher stance. Ultimately, a nuclear state on the Korean Peninsula is in no one’s best interest. The Security Council must work together to resume talks, and restart denuclearization agreements.
Issues to consider
The Security Council has imposed increasingly taxing sanctions on the DPRK, but so far they have proven ineffective in their one goal: slowing down nuclear development on the Korean Peninsula. The recent string of missile tests, and the looming possibility of a nuclear test, point to the failure of sanctions up to this point.
The inefficacy of the sanctions framework has mainly been attributed to uneven enforcement across the international community, for which there are several reasons. First, some countries more closely associated with the DPRK have simply neglected to fully enforce the sanctions framework. Historically, the blame has lay mostly with China, but the Chinese government has recently made a point of publicly strengthening enforcement by halting coal imports from the DPRK. However, many foreign policy analysts still criticize China for turning a blind eye to other aspects of sanctions enforcement. Ultimately, other countries must share the blame as well. Second, some states have simply found sanction enforcement to be prohibitively strenuous, and lack the operational capacity to enforce. Third, offshore firms based outside of sanctions enforcement areas have been helping the DPRK thwart sanctions. Not only have these firms been giving the DPRK access to the global financial market, they have also facilitated maritime traffic in and out of the DPRK, by registering and flagging ships so they appear legitimate and evade sanctions.
The Council will have to decide whether and how to strengthen sanctions, or to soften them in the hopes of bringing the DPRK back to the negotiating table.
Human rights situation
The appalling human rights situation in the DPRK is well-documented. The manifold human rights abuses committed by the authoritarian regime are chilling. While some of the restrictions that make newspaper headlines are laughable, the reality for people living inside the country is grim. Virtually every state—except maybe the DPRK itself—acknowledges, to some degree, the horrific living conditions of North Koreans. Thus, the debate on Council concerns whether the human rights situation is in itself a threat to international peace and security. The Security Council, as its name might suggest, deals exclusively with issues of international peace and security, and the UN has other bodies dedicated to human rights. Some might argue that it is impossible to separate the aggressive actions of the Kim regime from its human rights abuses. The Council must therefore decide how it wants to address the humanitarian situation on the ground, if at all.
The recent string of DPRK missile tests, combined with US and ROK joint military exercises in the area, have increased tensions on all sides. Foreign policy analysts point to the high-risk nature of these provocative actions: a miscalculation or misunderstanding by either side could lead to the loss of millions of lives. North Korean forces have thousands of artillery pieces poised to strike Seoul at a moment’s notice, meaning that any potential escalation would be immediate and deadly. Part of the task before the Council is to de-escalate these tensions by getting all sides to cease their provocative actions.
While the recent string of North Korean nuclear and missile tests have escalated tensions, negotiations have yielded positive results in the past. From the 2003 Agreed Framework to the multiple statements resulting from the Six-Party Talks, negotiations have historically proven themselves productive. The Council has called previously for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, but the DPRK has responded with missile tests and further provocation. If the talks are to resume, the Council should deliberate on how best to get the parties—mainly the DPRK—back to the table.
Complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization
The ultimate goal of the Council is irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—but how realistic is this goal? Many foreign policy analysts have stated that permanent denuclearization is highly unlikely. As an alternative, some have suggested perhaps a cessation of tests, or a freeze on nuclear development altogether. However, the endgame is still permanent denuclearization, as the Council has repeatedly stated in past resolutions.