The North Korean Security Threat and its Regional Implications

Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 10.06.2016 10:00 - 12:00

The unresolved conflict on the Korean Peninsula poses multiple challenges to the international system and the major parties involved. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in Spring 2006 and has continued this path by doing other tests, the latest of which took place in January 2016. Because of North Korea’s latest actions, South Korea and the US started official negotiations on a US-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in March 2016. A potential deployment of this system will have wide security consequences for the whole region. For Japan, the North Korean threat serves as a reason to develop its military. In addition, trilateral coordination between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo has increased, while sidelining China. Great power political dynamics and the North Korean question are therefore closely intertwined, with wide-ranging consequences. How does South Korea perceive its current relations with North Korea? Will it deepen its military alliance with the US even if that will impact its relations with China? Is the military threat North Korea poses genuine, or is it simply being used to justify military buildup? What should the international community and the key regional players do in order to solve this issue?

Opening remarks:

Teija TIILIKAINEN, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Hyun-Wook KIM, Professor, Korea National Diplomatic Academy, Seoul

Andrea BERGER, Deputy Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme, the Royal United Services Institute, London


Bart GAENS, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Elina SINKKONEN, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the seminar

Teija TIILIKAINEN, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, opened this event and noted that the theme is topical in the Global Security and the European Union research programs at FIIA, especially amongst researchers focusing on the East Asian security matters. Tiilikainen stated that the severe security threat imposed by North Korea is one of the most difficult issues the international community faces today. Eruption of crisis of any kind would have severe consequences for the whole region, but also for Europe.

Hyun-Wook KIM, Professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, presented his views on the current developments regarding North Korea. Kim started by noting that the most important thing North Korea wanted to achieve with its nuclear test in January this year was power stability. The goal of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is to make the country a nuclear state and reach power stability through simultaneous economic and nuclear developments. An important change has taken place when comparing the current leader with his predecessors, as the nuclear weapons have become an essential part of Kim Jong-un’s leadership doctrine. Professor Kim also underlined the strategic calculations behind North Korea’s forth nuclear test. Kim Jong-un recognized that the US engagement in the issue and pressure on China were getting stronger in the late 2015 and that China was not in a position to abandon North Korea, even in the case of North Korean nuclear provocations. This setting describes the impact the US has on China’s policies toward North Korea. According to Kim, North Korea question has two intervened implications for China: North Korea simultaneously functions as an important buffer state to China but brings also the US to the region, which undermines China’s security. On China’s leadership Kim stated that when Xi Jinping came to power he demanded a more equal relationship between China and the US. In 2015 the US published a new security strategy that focuses on leadership in Asia. However, China’s priority is to stabilize North Korea, because China does not want the US hegemony in the region. Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, China has had to change its policies and priorities multiple times.

On North Korea’s leadership he noted that the two key outcomes of the party congress in May 2016 were first, a message to the international community that North Korea already is a nuclear state and second, that Kim Jong-un’s power position has been strengthened considerably. Kim also pointed out South Korea’s twofold approach toward North Korea, consisting of first dialog building and second staying cautions about the provocative behavior of North Korea. South Korea’s weak security situation and its reliance on the US nuclear umbrella and efforts for unification were also mentioned. In his concluding remarks Kim underlined that when analyzing North Korea, the great power relations between the US and China have to be taken into consideration. The difference between US and Chinese positions is that China does not truly believe it to be possible for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Andrea BERGER, Deputy Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London, made some key observations in her presentation about the threat posed by North Korea. Referring to the developments of North Korean nuclear capabilities and its numerous provocations within a short period of time, Berger stated that time is not on our side in this issue. Berger found that in a great deal of Western media, North Korea’s threat is undermined and we should adopt a more realistic discourse which would recognize the hostile developments taking place in the country. In other words, we cannot afford to wait.

Berger continued that in terms of political and economic factors, North Korea is becoming more stable. In the early days of Kim Jong-un’s regime there were some purges, but they are not a sufficient indicator of political instability. One of Kim’s latest innovations has been to give party titles or posts for people who have been moved away from the military. In terms of the economy, North Korea’s trade has been increasing despite the fact that it does not have access to the international financial system.

According to Berger, the Western policy approach toward North Korea has been based on sanctions, although sanctions alone will not solve the issue. Unfortunately, denuclearization is not an achievable goal at the moment. The UNSC sanctions enacted in March this year aimed to open a dialog with North Korea, but according to Berger not even the UN believes it is possible with the current regime. With a growing middle class in North Korea there could emerge bottom-up pressure on the regime in the future, but only if the sanctions do not harm the middle class. Furthermore, Berger mentioned the lack of a long term strategy as a problem because Western countries tend to work in political cycles. An effective strategy depends on multilateralism in this situation. For multilateralism to work there needs to be consensus and an agreement between the involved states on assessing North Korean threat which is not the case now – everyone has their own agenda and it has been difficult to find common ground. Still, due to North Korean international networks dealing with illegal arms trade and drug sales among others, the North Korean issue is everyone’s problem.

Bart GAENS, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, provided his expertise from the Japanese perspective on the North Korean issue. Gaens noted that Japan is a highly important player in the region because of its alliance with the US and its ambitions to strive for a bigger leadership role in the region. Japan’s focuses on two issues: denuclearization but also on the abductions of Japanese citizens made by North Korea during the late 70’s and 80’s – an issue that still remains unsolved. This unsolved situation is used by North Korea in a way that they are offering to open the abduction case investigations only if Japan eases the sanctions. In 2012 Prime Minister Shinzō Abe tried through a new approach solve the two issues separately. Officially PM Abe has been supporting hard multilateral policies but on the other hand Abe has also been practicing a soft line with North Korea, trying to solve the abduction issue through quiet diplomacy and by offering humanitarian aid. This soft line has been highly criticized by the US and South Korea for undermining the united front toward North Korea. The abduction issue has lately gotten less attention because of the new sanctions on North Korea. Gaens also remarked that the Comfort Women agreement signed in 2015 is of importance because it brought Japan and South Korea closer to each other. To conclude Gaens proposed that closer ties and cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US could lead to a united front toward North Korean threats.

Elina SINKKONEN, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, presented her views on China’s position in the puzzle. Sinkkonen stated that the North Korea issue can be seen as a test of how well the US and rising China can handle coexistence in Asia, as well as a test for the international community. Power politics have an enormous impact on China and its reactions, manifested in the ongoing THAAD negotiations which play an important role for its future policies toward the whole Peninsula as well as overall security posture. China has changed its perception of North Korea and now describes its relations with North Korea as normal bilateral relations, even though this is not the reality. Sinkkonen mentioned that the two country leaders Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have not met yet, although other diplomatic meetings are taking place on lower levels. The trade dependence of North Korea on China puts China in a powerful position but the key issue remains that China can achieve little alone. Sinkkonen underlined that stability is a top priority for China in its approach toward North Korea and that trade relations are important in this regard. She concluded with the troublesome thought that North Korea’s capability to strategic thinking is highly developed and that the leadership has learned to take advantage of the power contest between the US and China. 

In the discussion afterwards there were questions about Russia’s role and about North Korea’s aims beyond becoming a nuclear state. It was also mentioned that North Korea needs to get more information from the outside world and that Obama’s pragmatic approach to Myanmar could be adopted to the North Korea case as well.


Presentation by Andrea Berger
Presentation by Hyun-Wook Kim
Comment by Elina Sinkkonen
Comment by Bart Gaens