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Kim Jong-Un Vs the International Community: Why does North Korean aggression rage on?

Staff writer Baaz Chandwan looks at the possible reasons for, and outcomes of, renewed North Korean aggression after Operation Vigilant Storm.

Continued North Korean aggression has led to relations between Kim Jong-Un and the West souring in recent years. Mr Kim is persisting in his use of belligerent policies and is violently retaliating towards Operation Vigilant Storm. Whilst U.S. and North Korean tensions have been receiving little media attention in light of the late developments in Ukraine, a redirection of focus is obligatory. We must attempt to understand what Mr Kim wishes to accomplish through relentless missile and artillery firing. 

Operation Vigilant Storm

Operation Vigilant Storm is a series of mock military drills initiated by the U.S. and South Korean governments aiming to increase cohesion between the two air forces. The exercise involves the use of U.S. and South Korean F-35 fighter jets between the 31st of October and the 4th of November 2022 (this has since been extended). As per the United States Indo-Pacific Command, the training aims towards enhancing the “strong combined defence posture.”

North Korea’s Reaction

North Korea’s military hostility began last month when officials launched missiles over Japan and fired artillery into a buffer zone with South Korea. Yet, it seems as if Operation Vigilant Storm may have finally provided ample cover to legitimise North Korean aggression. Promptly after training operations commenced, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a rather ominous statement. If the U.S. fails to halt Vigilant Storm, “it should be held totally responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom.” Since the issuing of this statement North Korea has fired multiple missiles including 23 launches on Wednesday 2 November.

Genuine fear or deliberate escalation?

Based on North Korea’s excessive military response, one must question why the North Korean leader is resorting to such drastic measures. Some analysts allege the possibility of genuine fear. Nonetheless, the consensus still predominantly rests on the claim that Mr Kim is pursuing deliberate escalation. Whilst it is impractical to pinpoint one reason for the North’s response, the potential of a few can be gauged.

Is power projection intended to achieve favourable negotiation terms?

Since 2006 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has imposed numerous economic and financial sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions aimed at halting military developments and increasing pressure to denuclearise. They have undoubtedly impaired North Korean economic progress, but have failed massively in their endeavour to terminate military enlargements. Mr Kim is obviously interested in lifting these sanctions and is possibly concluding that pursuing an escalatory approach will ensure that any diplomatic settlements will compromise the current sanction regime.

A North Korean nuclear weapons test

The last official North Korean nuclear weapons test was conducted in 2017 and led to the UNSC enforcing harsher sanctions. However, these sanctions have been principally ineffective in deterring North Korean nuclear advancements. New claims indicate that Mr Kim is once again looking at testing tactical nuclear weapons.

A Korean Central News Agency article from October 10 confirmed that the Supreme leader oversaw “military drills under the simulation of an actual war.” These simulations were precisely aimed at injuring South Korean infrastructure (mainly military bases). Moreover, they placed a central focus on the mobility and efficacy of North Korean nuclear weapons. Such simulations also convey the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike on South Korea. This becomes more alarming when paired with the fact that the North has recently revoked its “no first use” doctrine. 

There can be no singular explanation for North Korean aggression. Rather, it is likely that increased belligerence has stemmed from a culmination of factors. Nevertheless, states will need to continue pursuing diplomatic measures since the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike cannot be eliminated. If Mr Kim decides that embarking on such a mission would be the most effective way to achieve his objectives, the prospect of Armageddon will slowly emerge from the shadows that liberal scholars had banished it to.

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