A man watches a television screen showing an image of unidentified missiles displayed at a military parade during a news broadcast on North Korea's unidentified ballistic missile launch at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday, April 16, 2017. North Koreafired an unidentified ballistic missile on Sunday morning that exploded almost immediately after launch, defying warnings from the Trump administration to avoid any further provocations. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

North Korea isn't your regular totalitarian dictatorship. Yes, it has an appalling human rights record, corruption and poverty are rife, and there is no political or economic freedom to speak of. Yet a couple of chilling characteristics set it apart: a nuclear weapons program and an unpredictable young leader. Whether Kim Jong Un's military is capable of an effective nuclear strike is open to question. But the Asian country's aggressive rhetoric and increasingly regular missile tests, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, are vexing the international community and pressuring China, North Korea's only major ally, to rein in its errant neighbor. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to deal with Kim's regime "very strongly," saying all options — including military ones — are on the table.

The Situation

The crisis escalated in the second half of 2017 as North Korea accelerated its nuclear program: It test-fired long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles twice and said the entire U.S. was now in range; it fired missiles over Japan twice; it threatened the U.S. territory of Guam; and it carried out its sixth nuclear test, detonating what it said was a hydrogen bomb that could be fitted onto an ICBM. The UN Security Council unanimously approved tougher sanctions against North Korea in August, and Trump followed up with further U.S. measures. The rhetoric toughened, with North Korea saying it would make the U.S. "pay dearly" for the UN sanctions, prompting Trump to threaten to unleash "fire and fury." Some military analysts have upgraded their assessment of North Korea's nuclear capability, with one study concluding the country has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. In April, Trump agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping to seek diplomatic solutions, while also warning of a "major, major conflict" should those solutions fail. Trump has repeatedly criticized China for failing to do enough. China suspended critical coal purchases from its neighbor for five months in 2017 while pushing for peace talks to resume. Over objections from China, the U.S. has deployed a defense system in South Korea designed to take out North Korean missiles aimed at South Korea. The border between the two Koreas is lined with hundreds of thousands of troops. In 2016, North Korea carried out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in a decade. 

The Background

North Korea has a track record of escalating and then lowering tensions to win diplomatic and economic benefits. In the 1990s, it removed spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, a possible prelude for use in weapons, before former U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered a deal freezing its program in exchange for help in building a civilian nuclear-energy program. After North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks produced another agreement to close nuclear facilities, this time in exchange for food and energy assistance. North Korea has since exited the talks and restarted its nuclear program. The country has been on a war footing since its creation in 1948, following decades of Japanese occupation. Its founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader, invaded South Korea to start the 1950-53 Korean War. Believed to be in his early 30s, the Western-educated Kim Jong Un has carried out the majority of his country's nuclear tests while railing about America's "reckless moves" toward a war. North Korea, which is thought to have six to 20 nuclear warheads, describes its weapons as a "precious sword of justice" against invaders and points out the demise of Iraqi and Libyan regimes after they gave up on nuclear arms. Some 1.3 million of North Korea's 25 million people are in the active military, with reservists numbering 7.6 million. Weapons aren't the only concern: A 2014 UN inquiry accused the regime of human rights abuses on a scale unparalleled in the contemporary world.

The Argument

Neither the carrot approach (aid and energy in return for concessions) nor stick (international sanctions and military exercises) has produced more than a temporary halt to North Korea's nuclear program. China, North Korea's biggest trade partner and supplier of most of its food and energy, could do more to make sanctions effective, according to some critics. For its part, China fears a collapse of the Pyongyang government might prompt an influx of millions of refugees and — in the event of South Korea absorbing its neighbor — create a well-armed U.S. ally straddling its border. A pre-emptive military strike might succeed in taking out North Korea's known nuclear and missile sites, but the country has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously. Even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons, its response, and South Korea's counterattack, could produce enormous casualties. Other options include tightening economic sanctions or awaiting the downfall of the Kim dynasty, whether through Kim Jong Un's ill health or political infighting. Kim has executed senior advisers including his uncle and one-time guardian, raising concerns about his temperament and the absence of considered counsel. His half-brother was murdered in Malaysia in February. Some analysts warn that a collapsing North Korea with nuclear weapons would be more dangerous than a stable North Korea with nuclear arms. 

First published Feb.

To contact the writers of this QuickTake: Sam Kim in Seoul at skim609@bloomberg.net, Kanga Kong in Seoul at kkong50@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.