North Korea: Everything you need to know about the nuclear crisis that has got the world on edge

A North Korean missile test is pictured: Reuters
A North Korean missile test is pictured: Reuters

North Korea has been making headlines recently for testing its missile capabilities, raising concern in Washington that the isolated nation could be tempted to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

The situation has not improved in recent weeks as the country tested its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) prompting Donald Trump and the United Nations to impose further sanctions on the country.

Here’s what you need to know about the situation.

Why is this being talked about now?

North Korea has repeatedly tested its ICBM and nuclear capabilities this year, and it appears as though the country may have the technology — or will soon — to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the United States.

The US, unhappy with that potential reality, responded to that threat by imposing sanctions on the country the could impact roughly $1 billion worth of North Korea’s foreign exports. North Korea has vowed to fight those sanctions with a “thousands-fold” revenge.

North Korea's recent testing is a "huge step beyond, probably, where most people would've expected Kim Jong Un to be," Howard Stoffer, a professor at the University of New Haven, told The Independent.

So, interested parties are scrambling to respond to that threat.

How did we get here?

Things have been stewing since 1953, when China, the US, North Korea, and South Korea agreed to an armistice that ended the Korean War.

Since then, the US and North Korea have been isolated from one another. While other countries like China developed into a major economic, political, and military powers, North Korea has been largely isolated from the international community by the US.

"This is one of the countries that hasn't transformed," Mr Stoffer, who previously held positions with the US State Department and with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee, said. "It remained a communist country. It remained an autocratic country that has never made its economy open up."

But, regimes in North Korea have refused to accept a fate of being sidelined, and have been working on developing nuclear weapons capabilities that they hope will act as a deterrent that will force the US to negotiate with them.

What do the major players want, generally speaking?

The United States, for its part, is keen on North Korea ending it’s nuclear testing and development — and wants to ensure that the north doesn’t launch attacks on the south that would require America to come to its defence.

North Korea, meanwhile, is interested in developing and prospering as a country while maintaining its independence and keeping its cultural customs and traditions. They would also like to see the end of military exercises between South Korea and the US, which the country sees as acts of aggression.

China, which is the main trading partner for North Korea, also has security concerns. Although China doesn’t appear to have a huge interest in what North Korea does internally, there is some concern that their neighbouring country could turn their ire on them and launch attacks that hit the Chinese mainland.

How do the three countries disagree on how to move forward?

The United States believes that a strategy of strict sanctions will eventually force North Korea to abandon their nuclear program.

North Korea, meanwhile, is pushing forward with their nuclear ambitions, and thinks that that is the way to get the US to work with them.

At the same time, China has urged for a more diplomatic approach, and worries that sanctions could push North Korea to attack — or that the regime could collapse completely, leading to an unknown level of chaos in the region that could result in anything from a civil war to a mass of refugees showing up on the Chinese border seeking help.

"Between the US and North Korea, the difficulty is they are working under completely opposite logics," Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, told The Independent.

Have sanctions worked before to stop nuclear programme development?

Yes and no. The most recent example of a success came when the Obama administration announced that it had negotiated a stop to Iran’s nuclear development. The US had placed heavy sanctions on the Iranian regime prior, which played at least a small role in convincing the Iranians to come to the negotiating table.

But, China is a strong example of sanctions failing to live up to expectations. The country persevered through years of a harsh economic climate to finally get its nuclear weapons. Because of that history, China has a different take on how effective those measures may be in convincing North Korea to drop its plans.

"More fundamentally, China disagrees with the approach of imposing more sanctions. China itself went through serious sanctions during the Cold War… and those sanctions weren’t able to force China to give up its own nuclear programmes at that time," Mr Zhao said. "So the Chinese history of essentially resisting sanctions and still being able to pursue its nuclear program, really convinced china of the inability for sanctions to change a country’s nuclear policy."

How dangerous is the current climate?

Experts say that, with the North Koreans showing that they may soon be able to launch missiles that hit the United States, things are particularly tense. The North Korean regime has minor gains to make to realise their goals of having a plausible nuclear deterrent against the United States.

That proximity to the proverbial finish line for North Korea means that everyone involved is racing to try and ensure the their priorities win out.

Added to that tense moment is Mr Trump, who experts worry is an unpredictable leader with an unknown level of knowledge about the ramifications that military assaults on North Korea could have.

"I think at this moment, the situation is particularly volatile compared to previous years," Mr Zhao said. The "most important reason, is North Korea is on the verge of achieving its ultimate security goal, which is to obtain a credible nulcear deterrant" that could hit the US mainland.

The issue wasn't however, unforseen. Just before Mr Trump took office, he was warned by outgoing President Barack Obama that North Korea would be one of his biggest challenges as president.

What’s the primary concern for a US military attack to stop North Korea developing their nuclear missile capabilities?

What reaction Kim Jong Un might have to western aggression isn’t known, and that uncertainty has made decades of American presidents tread lightly on the issue.

One potential reaction, however, could be that Mr Kim would retaliate with more traditional weapons and attack South Korea. The capital of the country, Seoul, is just 40 miles south of the border, and easily within range. That sort of attack would endanger the lives of the 25.6 million people in the area, and would likely leave hundreds of thousands dead.

"No one really knows that if you use military force what the result will be," Mr Stoffer said. "The result could be that millions are in jeopardy and hundreds of thousands will be killed."