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Sanctions have not thwarted North Korean nuclear program, Kookmin professor tells Tsinghua students

North Korea's nuclear program gives it leverage over other nations, Peter Kim said.(Photo by Bill Jelen/Unsplash)


Global Business Journalism reporter

North Korean Kim Jong Un relies on the nuclear threat to force other nations to take his regime seriously, Kookmin University professor Peter Kim told Tsinghua University students on March 30.

“It might be the only card he can play,” Kim said during a discussion with Global Business Journalism students on Korean peninsula issues and their international implications.

Sanctions on North Korea to reduce its nuclear capacity have not worked in favor of countries like the U.S. and South Korea, he said. Kim, an assistant professor who specializes in international relations, said the nuclear program is North Korea’s only leverage, and the Kim Jong Un regime remains uncooperative with U.S. and South Korean negotiation efforts.

Peter Kim

“If they surrender or sacrifice any of those things [nuclear program], their strength will be undermined,” Kim said, comparing the situation to the outcome of communist Romania’s collapse in the late 1980s.

However, with the negative conditions North Korea is facing, the nation has no choice but to come back to the negotiating table, he predicted. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan would be willing to work with North Korea in good faith to provide assistance and eliminate the possibility of war, Kim added.

Aside from international efforts to denuclearize North Korea, reunifying the two Koreas is less likely in the short term.

The rich natural minerals of North Korea and its strategic geographical location with China would be in the U.S.’s best interest for a reunified Korea. But, conversely, “it’s in China’s interest to make sure the two Koreas are not unified,” says Kim. “A democratically unified Korea both geographically and economically pose threats in many ways, and China will do whatever they can to help out North Korea.”

South Korea, on the other hand, has gained soft political power through cultural exchange. Popular South Korean social entertainment industries like K-pop and Korean TV series have gained unprecedented global popularity. This phenomenon translates to increased tourism and the understanding of Korean culture worldwide. Kim told the students that he has seen more Chinese students in his class than local students in South Korea.

“There’s more engagement between China and South Korea, especially with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in both countries,” said Kim.

The popularity of the South Korean entertainment industry has become the nation’s means of soft diplomatic power. Kim informed the students that South Korea lacks natural resources and minerals. To counter that disadvantage, South Korea excels in using soft power to influence other countries culturally, economically, and diplomatically.

Popular culture brings positive outcomes for the recognition of Korean culture. South Korean artists contributing to this cultural exchange are mostly fluent in English. Kim pointed out that this is very useful for them when interacting with foreign fans and media to gain global popularity.

“Popular groups have members that are fluent or are above average in English. As they gain worldwide popularity, they can communicate with fans and the media. It’s really useful,” said Kim.

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