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Why North Korea won't go away (or, introduction to geopolitics)

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Human rights concerns regarding DPRK are often talked about in international community and by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

DPRK is obviously an impoverished country with very little resources. It is hardly a world superpower economically, militarily, or politically.

Yet, the country has survived since 1949. Why won’t their neighbors (South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China) and the United States just invade and carpet-bomb North Korea, kill Kim Jong Un, and occupy the country to set up a new government?

The reason why can be explained if you understand geopolitics.

Geopolitics is a discipline that grew out of geography. In particular, geopolitics understands the land as both natural features (mountains, environment, climate, bodies of water, etc.) and as a community of human culture and society (politics, religion, arts, languages, history, etc.). It analyzes both human features and natural features of a country or countries to understand the politics between and inside the nations or regions.

Diplomats, military strategists, and politicians rely on geopolitical analysis to shape international policies.

Let’s take geopolitics to the North Korean problem as an example.

What would happen if North Korea is invaded?

North Korea has about 24 million people, almost all of whom are ethnic Koreans who speak the Korean language. The population is concentrated on lowlands on the west coast (where there are large cities such as Pyongyang, Nampho, Kaesong, and Sinuiju). It is bordered with the People’s Republic of China to the north, separated by a narrow river called Amnok River (in Chinese, Yalu River), and with China and the Russian Federation to the northeast, separated by an even narrower river called Tuman River. To the south, there is the Republic of Korea (South Korea), separated by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The distance between North Korean capital Pyongyang and South Korean capital Seoul is only 121 miles (195 km) — and the distance between two cities nearest to the DMZ (Kaesong, DPRK and Paju, ROK) is only 16 miles (26 km). The distance between the city of Sinuiju in North Korea and the city of Dandong in China is only 1 mile (1.6 km).

This situation creates a number of serious concerns to North Korea’s neighbors.

To China and Russia, they would be worried about the massive influx of North Korean refugees and migrants if their livelihood, homes, and food supplies are destroyed by war.

Furthermore, if the U.S. military and South Korean military would lead the invasion and reunification of North Korea with South Korea, that would mean that there may be American armed forces right within a stone’s throw of China and Russia — a scenario neither China nor Russia would particularly be fond of. To them, the maintenance of status quo in the Korean Peninsula means having North Korea as a buffer state to keep the rival superpower from coming too close to their own countries and be able to spy on them. Therefore it is to both Russia and China’s national interest to keep North Korea alive, despite international pressures to honor the UN economic sanctions on DPRK.

To South Korea, they would be worried about social instability caused by the collapse of North Korea. Despite it has been the official positions of both North and South to pursue an eventual reunification of Korea, it is definitely easier said than done. Although they belong to the same ethnic group and speak the same language, their cultures and even dialects have diverged sharply because of six decades of isolation from each other. Occasionally a few North Koreans would escape and eventually re-settle in South; helping them readjust to South Korean society has been already a major challenge — imagine having to do with with millions of people quickly. And who would pay for feeding starving North Koreans and helping them restore buildings and infrastructures? Aside from international aid, South Korean taxpayers would have to absorb lots of expenses — again, not something very popular with ordinary South Korean citizens.

To make it more complicated, DPRK reportedly has nuclear weapons and is developing even more. The last thing North Korea’s neighbors want is Kim Jong Un firing nuclear missiles (remember how physically close they are from North Korea).

These are just a small sampling of geopolitical concerns using North Korea as an example. In short, getting rid of North Korea is an extremely risky proposition and therefore maintaining the status quo has been the only workable solution for the last several decades.

Learn more about geopolitics

Free lecture (1 hour long)

What is geopolitics and why does it matter? by Ronald J. Granieri (Foreign Policy Research Institute)

Link to video

Free textbook (257 pages)

Introduction to geopolitics by Colin Flint (associate professor of geography, University of Illinois)

Download PDF or read in browser (uploaded by author)

Categories geography, controversies


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