Furthering the divide between its Communist state and the democratic South, North Korea has in recent years positioned itself in the forefront of nuclear proliferation, a concern that one University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor considers “probably the most important security issue right now that’s facing the world.”
Assistant professor Isa Camyar, Ph.D., who earned his doctorate at Louisiana State University studying comparative politics and international relations, noted that North Korea has stated its purpose in the field of nuclear research is strictly defensive.
“They think the United States is pursuing the goal of changing the regime—of toppling the Communist Party in the North,” he said. “So believe it or not, they feel threatened that they are surrounded by—with the exception of China—different economic and political models. North Koreans clearly have a major purpose: They say they are doing this to protect themselves.”
Operating under Communist leadership since its post-World War II Soviet occupation, which ended in 1948, North Korea faces chronic economic instability because of large-scale military spending that drains its resources, according to the CIA World Factbook. Camyar spoke of a global notion that North Koreans use nuclear weaponry as a bargaining tool to receive aid, as the country is often reliant upon global food aid to prevent starvation among its citizens. In seeming contradiction, however, the country halted U.S. food assistance in March 2009 and followed up by defiantly conducting a nuclear test in May—its second since 2006.
Although North Korea’s nuclear armament is an evident global threat, Camyar said the U.S. has become increasingly alarmed that with the rise of non-state, non-governmental factions like al-Qaida, these nuclear weapons may fall into the wrong hands.
“North Korea, for example, can provide those weapons to non-governmental actors,” Camyar contended. “In other words, the North Koreans may act on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ type of logic. So that’s why this issue has become of very important concern for the United States.”
From a South Korean standpoint, however, a nuclear arsenal in the North creates a dramatic shift of military power, one that could eventually cause a forced reunification of the two countries under Communist rule if the less-equipped country fails to increase its military defenses. North Korea has not exercised military force on the South since invading the country in 1950 and provoking the Korean War. The conflict ended with an armistice in 1953, yet no peace treaty was signed.
Although both countries planned to ultimately reunify since the World War II division that split its Texas-sized nation at the 38th parallel, a military overthrow of the South would be a blow to its 48.5 million citizens who have operated democratically since ending decades of military dictatorships in 1992. North Korea’s population measures at only 22.6 million.
UL Lafayette communications professor and native South Korean Wonjun Chung, Ph.D., who left South Korea for the U.S. in 1997, said the changes in his home country have been beneficially dramatic in recent years.
“The military government somehow controllled the people. Don’t go out. Don’t study abroad. Don’t travel overseas—just stay here,” he said. “But the new government allowed people to just experience diversity, how other people live.”
By pairing the democratic government with the widespread availability of increasingly advanced media technologies, Chung said he believes South Korea is shifting from its inherent collectivist social philosophy to a more individualistic society, but the neighboring North seems to be continually traveling in the opposite direction.
“Our ultimate goal is reunion. We know that we need to come together, but how to do that—that is the challenging issue. Some people say just go ahead and stay where we’ve been because it’s too different.” Like oil and water, Chung said, “we try to mix together, but we can’t.”