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North Korea: 10 questions, 10 answers

Matthias von Hein | Rodion Ebbighausen | Mikhail Bushuev | Martin Muno
August 31, 2017

The provocations continue, and the number of missile tests is climbing. Around the world, concern over tension with North Korea is mounting, though the situation is not always clear. DW provides an overview.

North Korean military parade
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Jones

What does the Korean War have to do with today's conflict?

The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 is still present in the collective conscience of North Koreans, not least because the state spares no effort to keep memories of the war alive. North Korea's anti-US propaganda is so effective because allied forces waged war with little regard for civilians. In just three years of fighting, the US kept up a continuous bombing campaign on North Korea, killing a fifth of its population. And the war still isn't technically over. No peace treaty was ever signed; a frozen ceasefire has been in effect for 64 years. The presence of 30,000 US soldiers in South Korea and their regular military exercises with South Korean troops leave North Koreans with a permanent sense of threat.

North Koreans farming
North Korea's population has long struggled with famine and lacking medical careImage: picture alliance/Yonhap

What is life like for people in North Korea?

Years of isolation have seriously damaged North Korea's economy, something the population continues to suffer from. In the mid-1990s, an estimated 300,000 people died in one of the country's worst famines. The United Nations reports that over a third of the population is malnourished; the country is lacking in medical care.

How irrational is Kim Jong Un's regime?

There's no doubt that Kim Jong Un, 33, is a despot intent on maintaining power in the world's only communist family dictatorship at any price. But Kim should not be seen as the madman of Pyongyang. Over the past six years, he may have acted ruthlessly, but also strategically. His nuclear program is rational, if its main goal is system preservation. Kim doesn't need the missiles as attack weapons; he wants the ultimate deterrent, and talks at eye level with the US, from one nuclear power to another.

Kim Jong-un at a rocket test
Kim has worked to expand North Korea's missile programImage: picture-alliance/dpa/KCNA

What does South Korea make of the situation?

After a period of domestic turbulence, South Korea elected a new president - Moon Jai-in - in May 2017. He is working toward reconciliation with North Korea and intends to take a more distanced approach to the US. The Trump administration's volatile Korea policy is making the president's job even tougher. Moon appears to be concerned with ensuring that his country does not end up as a political hostage of an international conflict.

What course would a military conflict take?

Behind both highly armed Koreas are the former allies in the Korean War, who are rivals themselves. China supports the North, while the US supports the South. A conflict would likely involve Japan, Russia and with NATO, Germany. If war between North and South Korea broke out, millions of lives would be in immediate danger, and that's without the use of nuclear weapons. South Korea's capital, Seoul, with a population of around 10 million, is just 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the North Korean border.

Korea DMZ
North and South Korea remain separated by a four kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, or DMZImage: picture-alliance/D. Kalker

How has Donald Trump changed US policy on North Korea?

The case of the US student Otto Warmbier created a furor right at the start of Donald Trump's presidency. And Trump is also showing no restraint when it comes to North Korea's latest provocations, promising "fire and fury" if Pyongyang continues with its missile tests. Following international calls for restraint, both sides toned down the rhetoric. But days later, the US embarked on its annual military drills with South Korea, despite protests from the North.

Why is China hesitating to put more pressure on North Korea?

The West expects China to toughen its sanctions on North Korea, especially when it comes to oil exports. But the Chinese government has rejected this and continues to export oil and food to North Korea, as "humanitarian aid." But it is sticking to the previously agreed UN sanctions, which forbid it from importing coal and other goods. China fears regime change in North Korea, especially if that were to bring reunification with the South. That would put the Korean Peninsula completely under US influence, and mean that US soldiers would be stationed directly on China's border, something the leadership in Beijing wants to avoid.

Infografik North Korea's missile ranges

Is Russia more than a silent observer?

Moscow maintains that the ballistic missile test launches are a "serious threat to shipping and air traffic in the region" as well as a danger to civilians. Russia also has a 17-kilometer long border with North Korea. On the other hand, Russia is also warning the US against military action, and wants to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the problems on the Korean Peninsula. The Kremlin is cautious on the subject of North Korean sanctions, but in cooperation with the UN resolutions, it has suspended all of its important economic projects with Pyongyang.

Where does the United Nations stand?

Last year, the UN presented a comprehensive strategy for its future cooperation with North Korea over the next five years. Working with the Kim government, it would like to bring the country in line with its development goals and support its social and economic progress. At the beginning of August, the UN Security Council agreed a resolution passing the toughest sanctions on North Korea to date. It has imposed an export ban on coal, iron, lead and seafood, costing the country around $1 billion (840 million euros) per annum.

Could diplomacy still work?

During the six-party talks, North Korea proved masterful at pitting its negotiating partners against each other, to its own advantage. Over the course of six years, Pyongyang held talks with China, Russia, the US, South Korea and Japan on its nuclear program. Given the current situation, experts are talking about a so-called double freeze. But Pyongyang wants a high price for halting its nuclear program: bilateral talks with the US and a peace treaty to replace the 1953 ceasefire agreement. The problem: South Korea would have to recognize a second Korean state in its constitution. And Washington would have no more legitimate reason for stationing US troops in South Korea, weakening its position in the Asia Pacific region.

Martin Muno
Martin Muno Digital immigrant, interested in questions of populism and political power