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Do North Korea’s nuclear capabilities give it a voice that cannot be ignored?

Question submitted by Yu Bum Kim, from New York University, April 8, 2013

Answered by: Gregory D. Koblentz


To paraphrase Winston Churchill's famous phrase about Russia—North Korea is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Solving the North Korean riddle has eluded policymakers for over sixty years.

The famously insular "Hermit Kingdom" has a long history of using its military capabilities to force other states to pay attention to it. From the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, to the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010, North Korea has not been shy about flexing its military muscles.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapon tests and three long-range missile tests since 2006. Although these activities have garnered North Korea global attention, it has not been positive. The United Nations Security Council has condemned North Korea's nuclear and missile tests and imposed multilateral sanctions on the nation.

North Korea is thus stuck in a paradox of its own making: it engages in provocations to force other states to engage it but these very acts reinforce its pariah state status. It is unclear to what extent North Korean behavior is strategic and part of a negotiating strategy or is the result of power struggles between different factions within the government.

Some argue that the best way to restrain North Korea is to strengthen sanctions, principally by putting more pressure on China to reduce its trade with North Korea. Others advocate a diplomatic approach and argue that engagement, not escalation, would be more effective. What all parties need to remember is that actions speak louder than words.