North Korea Roundtable – Reflections by John Grisafi

The James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies hosted a roundtable titled “Missiles, Nukes, Markets, Madman?: North Korea in 2016” on Wednesday, October 12, 2016.


The North Korea Roundtable panel, “Missiles, Nukes, Markets, Madman?,” discussed recent developments regarding North Korea in 2016 and the major issues in the larger topic of dealing with North Korea as a persistent and growing power which is considered a threat by some. The three panelists were Hyun-binn Cho (PhD candidate in Political Science and lecturer of “Introduction to International Relations” at Penn), Benjamin Katzeff-Silberstein (PhD candidate in History and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch) and myself, John Grisafi (double-major in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and History at Penn and intelligence director at NK News; also this author). The panelists each covered a subject pertaining to North Korea in the big picture and in 2016 specifically.

Hyun-binn Cho began with “The North Korean Nuclear Conundrum,” explaining the international relations of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to Cho, the North Korean desire for nuclear weapons is – as with all potential proliferation cases – symptomatic of underlying security concerns, but differs in that there is an underlying political tension. North Korea, with or without nuclear weapons, will not accept existence as an inferior regime. According to Cho, the North Korean conundrum is fundamentally about a nation’s political division and ongoing war and getting rid of nuclear weapons will not eliminate North Korea’s significant conventional military forces, which have served as a deterrent to the South for decades.

I (John Grisafi) discussed “A More Credible Deterrent,” detailing the advancements North Korea has made in the past year on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. I explained how North Korea, over the past year (and more) has made meaningful advancements in the area of nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development. The country has tested previously untested missiles, potentially furthering its military reach and extending the coverage of its deterrent. Additionally, North Korea has developed more diverse weapon systems, making it more difficult for adversaries to counter or preempt the North’s nuclear forces, even making progress on developing a second-strike capability, which could someday allow North Korean nuclear forces to survive even a seemingly comprehensive preemptive strike against the country. Taken together with the North’s claims of  testing a “standardized warhead” this year, North Korea is making clear progress toward a more capable and credible deterrent force.

Finally, Ben Katzeff-Silberstein presented on “Why North Korea Is Not as Poor as You (might) Think,” explaining the current economic situation in North Korea and the minimal effectiveness of sanctions. According to Katzeff-Silberstein, the North Korean economy has been far less impacted by international sanctions than anticipated. The amount of trade with China through the Dandong-Sinuiji border crossing (where the greatest volume of Chinese-North Korean trade passes) remains almost unchanged since before sanctions were applied following the January 2016 nuclear test.

The general consensus of the panel can be understood to be that North Korea is more resilient and resourceful than expected. North Korea has not collapsed as many have been predicting for years. Conversely, North Korea is making progress on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles faster than anticipated. Defying expectations is the norm for North Korea.

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