The Paradoxes of Vulnerability: Managing North Korea's Threat to Regional Security
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is an oddity in contemporary international relations. Ruled by a brutal, yet highly idiosyncratic, regime whose authority derives from a fusion of personality cult and dynastic succession, North Korea is in many respects a failed state. It may be the world’s newest nuclear power, but ordinary North Koreans confront basic hardships in their everyday lives that have more in common with povertystricken parts of Africa than with anything experienced by citizens across the rest of Asia. Acutely dependent on external aid for its economic survival, North Korea is ruled by a regime that has pariah status in the international system. North Korea has no allies to speak of, possesses the dubious record of broken commitments to a host of international agreements, and the treatment of its own citizens is probably the worst of any country on the globe. The profound human rights abuses perpetrated by the Pyongyang regime have most recently been documented in painstaking detail in a landmark 2014 report by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, which concluded that ‘systematic, widespread and gross human rights abuses have been, and are being, committed by North Korea, its institutions and oﬃcials. In many instances, the violations of human rights entail crimes against humanity’ (UNHRC 2014: 23). Yet North Korea is also a case study in how weak states can sometimes achieve stunningly counter-intuitive outcomes. Indeed, it is hard to think of any state that has achieved so much with so little despite the predictions from so many. North Korea experienced a series of triple shocks during the 1990s that led observers to foretell the imminent collapse of the regime in Pyongyang (Armstrong 2013: 282-283). In 1990 the country’s primary benefactor, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist. This had an immediate and profound economic impact on North Korea, with the country having to absorb the loss of its largest preferential trading partner. Between 1990 and 1991 North Korea’s total trade nearly halved, and South Korean estimates put the decline of North Korea’s overall gross domestic product at between 2 per cent to 5 per cent (Cumings 2005: 436). Politically, the loss of the country’s key ally accentuated North Korea’s deepening sense of isolation.
Security and Conflict in East Asia