A Look At Countering North Korean Nuclear Proliferation

October 17, 2021
Editor(s): Thomas Sinclair
Writer(s): Luke Chen, Kaiyue Chen, Haiyue Ma

While most of the world celebrated Easter weekend in 2017, North Koreans were celebrating the 105th birthday of the country’s late founding leader and “eternal president” Kim Il-sung. Unlike other military parades, North Korea unveiled a mock-up video of its missiles blowing up a US city during a national musical performance. This undoubtedly intensified the tensions between North Korea and the US and also raised international concerns about North Korea’s military ambitions and its expanding nuclear program. Though nuclear technology’s current practical applications have brought great convenience to our lives – through electricity generation, water desalination and medical treatment – nuclear weapons have the potential to cause disastrous impacts. According to Cochran and Norris (2019), a nuclear weapon is the device that can produce enormous explosive energy through nuclear fission and nuclear fusion processes. Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth. They have the potential to destroy cities, jeopardise the natural environment, obliterate the lives of millions of people, and have a lasting impact on future generations.  According to the United Nations (2021), disarmament is the best protection against such dangers, but achieving this goal has been a tremendously difficult challenge.

Currently, nine countries are classified as nuclear armed states, namely Russia, USA, China, France, UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. Acknowledging the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons, five of these nuclear armed states signed a 1986 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) with another 186 non-nuclear weapon states (Politics.co.uk, n.d.). The main objectives of The Non-Proliferation Treaty are to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to advance the end-goal of nuclear disarmament”. However, it is only an informal agreement between states. In 1994, while North Korea expressed intention to withdraw from the treaty, the United States signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, in which Pyongyang committed to freezing its illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid (Davenport, 2020). Yet, the agreement collapsed in 2002, which followed with North Korea’s announcement of withdrawing from the NPT in 2003. After that, several strategies such as Six-Party Talks and sanctions were implemented.

In spite of sanctions and several diplomatic efforts, North Korea still developed various nuclear weapons. In recent years, North Korea has tested several missiles that demonstrate rapid advances in its military technology, all the way from the Hwasong-12 to the Hwasong-15. The unveiling of a new ballistic missile in 2020 is believed to “be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the US, and its size has surprised even seasoned analysts” (BBC News, 2021). North Korea even declared its newest submarine-launched ballistic missile to be the world’s most powerful weapon.

North Korea’s motivations are less easily understood. In 2012, Ri Yong-ho, former North Korean Foreign Minister, said that if the US removes the threat, “we will feel more secure, and in 10 or 20 years we will be able to consider denuclearization” (Revere, 2021). However, neither the US nor North Korea acted or made compromises. Pyongyang later claimed that the purpose of developing nuclear weapons was to deter the more powerful United States from launching a nuclear weapon or conventional war against the state (Bush, 2017). Such nuclear deterrence may bolster state security by alleviating the prospect of direct attack, essentially ensuring peace through fear of retaliation. However, it may be far beyond a simple deterrence tool. North Korean regime may see other possible uses for nuclear weapons, such as maintaining the military’s loyalty and extorting economic benefits from neighbours (Bandow, 2021). In 2021 Korean Workers Party Congress, Kim Jong-un described North Korea’s nuclear weapons development as the nation’s “strategic and predominant goal” and an “exploit of greatest significance in the history of the Korean nation” (Revere, 2021). Some commented that the possession of nuclear weapons could be seen as the ultimate bargaining tool that gives North Korea a seat at the top table at international stage (Politics.co.uk, n.d.).

North Korea has long been a key challenge for the global nuclear non-proliferation regime (Davenport, 2020). The IAEA has had no access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009. It is also hard to gain sufficient information about North Korea’s nuclear program “because we have next to no human intelligence in North Korea by which to judge their intentions” (Greenemeier, 2013). Although faced with these obstacles and limited information, many international agents and countries still tried to step in and interfere with North Korea’s nuclear development. There are a few possible explanations. First, this development violates the world vision of denuclearisation and threatens world peace and may lead to catastrophic effects. Second, its successful and continuing tests creates uncertainty and arises security concerns in neighbouring countries especially South Korea and Japan, who once thought about restarting nuclear programs and acquiring nuclear weapons as self-defence and retaliation if necessary (Bush, 2017). If these countries do start nuclear programs, undoubtedly, they would develop nuclear weapons much faster than North Korea, and this would cause another nuclear security concern. Third, Pyongyang may soon assume that it can now act more recklessly to South Korea while at the same time South Korea might not wish to appear weak against North Korea aggression to deter future humiliations. Bush (2017) indicates that the very existence of those weapons would weigh on the minds of South Korean leaders and citizens as well as U.S. decision makers. Since they have limited information about North Korea nuclear program, it is harder to design policies that solve potential disagreements and aggression. Thus, it is important and urgent to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program.

While there are numerous geopolitical strategies for restraining North Korea, we have decided to focus on the strategies of multilateralism, appeasement and sanctions, which are detailed below.


The stagnation of multilateral resolution in the North Korean issue is most poignantly observed in the Six Party Talks. The talks were a series of negotiations held intermittently from 2003 and attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, with the purpose of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program (Davenport, 2018). North Korea decided to no longer participate in the process in 2009, effectively bringing an end to negotiations.

More than embodying the failure of multilateralism, the collapse of the Six Party Talks highlights the absence of a regional security framework (Swanstrom, 2020). Without a regional infrastructure such as NATO, Pyongyang’s neighbours and the US hold little leverage to dissuade North Korea from its emphasis on self-reliance and encourage them towards some level of multilateral engagement. Without coercive mechanisms embedded within regional multilateralism, processes such as the Six Party Talks must sit idle as they wait for compromise and common ground to be found.


In spite of this, policy makers ought not to outright dismiss multilateralism in the Korean Peninsula altogether. For example, while the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) could not achieve its objective of bringing an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, the cooperation which it enabled played a critical role in sustaining collaboration in a highly sensitive and highly technical environment.

The KEDO was a unique multilateral body established to implement the 1994 US North Korea Agreed Framework (AF). Designed to bring an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, KEDO was headquartered in New York with a multilateral staff run by representatives from the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union. In 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze, and eventually dismantle its plutonium production and separation facilities in exchange for two light water nuclear energy reactors, heavy fuel oil (HFO), and movement towards normalisation of political and economic relations with the US (The Stanley Foundation, 2006). It operated effectively for a decade, collaborating with North Korea in constructing the light-water nuclear reactors Pyongyang was to receive under the 1994 agreement (Vaughn, 2019). The relationship began as antagonistic. North Korea initially accepted KEDO only because the United States insisted that such a multilateral organisation was the only way to move forward with the LWR project. At first, Pyongyang would have little to do with KEDO staff other than Americans working for the organisation. Yet over a short period of time, the situation changed as the two parties began to engage in  practical work of implementation, one that branched out to quickly include South Koreans working for the organisation (Wit, 1999). It is interesting to note that even after the AF began to unravel in late 2003, North Korea did not seriously threaten KEDO personnel but maintained a productive working relationship with the organisation (Swanstrom, 2020).

KEDO’s multibillion dollar project was subject to technical difficulties. Construction of the LWR site was postponed multiple times due to “delays in production cost sharing talks between the members”, and the postponement of the “heavy oil shipment by the United States” (NTI, 2011). This has given rise to North Korean charges that the United States was not serious about implementation, fuelling a diplomatic stagnation on top of technical obstacles.

As such, technical problems have, and very often will, become political problems, seeding mistrust, and impeding implementation. Diplomats reach agreements but often underestimate the tremendous practical difficulties of implementation. Yet, it is often convenient for these practical difficulties to be interpreted as – or manipulated into – political issues. Further, any complicated agreement is likely to be implemented in phases (Stanley Foundation, 2006). The phases, schedules, and factors will rarely be in perfect alignment. And major disruption or delay any of the three will have significant consequences.

To address this, future multilateral solutions ought to be more independent from constituent governments and thus less subject to the geopolitical developments on a day-to-day basis.

This can help shield organisations from the ebb and flow of domestic politics in the various capitals and circumvent situations where technical complications may be interpreted as political ones.

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that KEDO or similar organisations can produce positive externalities, which cannot be replicated through unipolar means. KEDO’s work was primarily technical in nature but produced a range of positive externalities. For example, it was positioned as a vehicle for engaging the European Union on the Korean Peninsula (Stanley Foundation, 2006). It also provided a rare window into North Korea politics and decision making. 

In designing a multilateral framework, it will be unrealistic to expect participants to surrender any significant degree of national sovereignty or to compromise on fundamental security interests. Each participating state will be determined to maintain a structural system that suits their individual needs; as such, zero-sum interest competition often prevails (Wit, 1999). North Korea’s emphasis on self-reliance and balance in different powers disinclined that towards active participation in regional structures, which are also perceived to potentially enable coordination against its interests.


South Korea’s Sunshine Policy:

From the South Korean (Republic of Korea – ROK) perspective, appeasement of the DPRK, reflected in the Sunshine policy, serves to diffuse tensions and increase cooperation between the two Koreas (Levin, 2002). In Aesop’s (564 BCE) fable of the ‘North Wind and the Sun’, the Wind and Sun disagreed about who was more powerful and decided to find out by attempting to strip a man of his thick coat. The North Wind blew as ferociously and as cold as it could muster (Æsop, 564 BCE). But that only compelled the man to wrap his clothes even more tightly around himself (Æsop, 564 BCE). Conversely, the sun, next up, shone brightly on the man, enveloping him in its warmth (Æsop, 564 BCE). The man relaxed and not only let go of his coat but undressed to bathe in a nearby stream. The Sunshine policy was the brainchild of the South Korean President and Nobel Laureate Kim Dae-Jung which sought to utilise incentives and persuasion rather than force and hostility in dealing with North Korea (Levin, 2002). Kim’s goals were to encourage moderation in North Korea’s belligerence, facilitate inter-Korean reconciliation, and ultimately inspire reform in the DPRK as it engages and cooperates more with the outside world (Levin, 2002).

Another, though more subtle, purpose of the Sunshine policy was to minimise the risk of a sudden collapse (of North Korea) and reunification of the Koreas in the foreseeable future (Levin, 2002). The North Korean economy is 101 times smaller than that of the South (United Nations Statistics Division, 2019). And in the early 2000s, the DPRK was still recovering from its worst famine, which left over 1 million people dead (Seth, 2011). Seoul wanted to avoid a ‘hard landing’ – a sudden collapse of North Korea that would cost trillions of dollars to clean up (Cha, 2012). South Korean policymakers instead hoped for a ‘soft landing’ – reunification occurs after a smooth but gradual process of decades-long reform. Seoul intends for the Sunshine Policy to provide impetus and nudge the North in this direction (Cha, 2012).

A tenet of the Sunshine policy is a proactive and transformational paradigm shift in South Korea’s treatment of their impoverished northern neighbour (Cha, 2012). The South sought to distance itself from the zero-sum-game attitude of one-upmanship and tit-for-tat negation of previous decades (Cha, 2012). They instead provide economic assistance to the DPRK, without expecting reciprocation, in attempting to rehabilitate decades of hostility and mistrust (Levin, 2002).

Kim Dae-jung, right, and Kim Jong-il of North Korea in 2000.Credit…Yonhap News Agency , via European Pressphoto Agency

Furthermore, Kim Dae-Jung’s policy sought to reframe the ROK’s perception of North Korea. Instead of regarding the DPRK as intrinsically evil or malicious, the Sunshine policy promotes the idea that the present state of North Korea is an accidental by-product of historical and geopolitical forces (Levin, 2002). As opposed to being a villain, North Korea is a form of collateral damage arising from the contest between great powers during the 20th Century (Cha, 2012).

Lastly, the Sunshine policy recognises South Korea as victorious in the ‘Cold War’ competition between the two Koreas in the years following the Korean War (Cha, 2012). The satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night that show the southern half brimming with light while the northern side is shrouded in darkness stands as an undeniable testament to this belief (NASA, 2014). Indeed, a position of strength primes South Korea to deal generously as the victor. And to reflect such confidence, the South Koreans ought to provide and contribute rather than self-servingly withhold. 

A product of the Sunshine policy is the Kaesong industrial complex (Cha, 2012). The South Korean government and business conglomerates invested around $27 million in an industrial park in the outskirts of the North Korean city of Kaesong (BBC, 2016). South Korean companies employed over 47,000 North Korean workers and provided them with three meals a day, though the North Korean government takes a majority cut out of every worker’s wage (Cha, 2012). At some point, North Korea detained a South Korean executive for over four months (Cha, 2012). In exchange for his release, they demanded South Korea agree to a new fee structure which would include ‘land use’ fees and steep hikes to ‘cultural’ fees (Cha, 2012). Unfortunately, this joint venture between the two Koreas ground to a halt in 2016 in response to a North Korean hydrogen bomb test (Ahn, 2016).

Another project is the Kumgang Mountain tourism project – a resort on a mountain in North Korea that is of significant cultural and historical importance, being the subject of Korean and Chinese poetry and artwork dating back thousands of years (Korea Consult, 2021). In the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans visited the resort annually, generating around $130 million worth of hard cash each year for the North Korean regime. The South Korean government was losing over $70 million a year to keep this project afloat (Cha, 2012). But early one morning in July 2008, Pak Wang-Ja, a 53-year-old South Korean tourist, set out to watch a sunrise from a nearby beach. She briefly ventured into a restricted area; a North Korean soldier shot her dead (Watts, 2008). The shooting led to a public outcry, and the South Korean president suspended tours to the resort indefinitely (BBC, 2010). 

Japanese Reconciliation Efforts:

For Japan, appeasing North Korea in the 1980s was motivated by pragmatic considerations. Normalising relations with North Korea would remove the most substantive threat to Japan’s national security. Further, economic cooperation with North Korea gives Japan access to the DPRK’s vast mineral deposits, thus providing a much-needed boost to Japan’s struggling construction sector (Cha, 2012). After a Japanese delegation visited North Korea, the Kim Il-Sung regime released two Japanese fishermen (Cha, 2012). Normalisation talks continued in the 1990s, and as a result, Japan became the most significant contributor of food aid to North Korea in 1995 (Cha, 2012). In 2001, Japan provided a food aid package containing 500,000 metric tons (Kanabayashi, 2000). In a 2002 meeting, the Japanese delegation expressed regret for their colonial past (Cha, 2012). Kim-Jong-Il, hoping to further reconciliation and, in turn, receive more benefits, admitted that North Korea had abducted dozens of Japanese citizens in the 1970s; the country needed foreigners to train its spies (The Committee for Human Rights North Korea, 2011). Instead of appreciation, Kim’s admissions enraged the Japanese public. 

One evening in November 1977, thirteen-year-old Yokota Megumi was making her way home from badminton training in time for dinner (Cha, 2012). But she never made it and seemed to have vanished without a trace (Cha, 2012). Many others who were going to class, on holiday, or on dates also went missing (UN Human Rights Council, 2014). The Japanese public felt such a visceral sense of anger toward North Korea because the people who vanished seemed no different from their parents, friends, spouses, children, co-workers, or themselves; it could have happened to them. 

The North Koreans claimed to have abducted Megumi and that she was dead (Macintyre, 2005). They sent her remains to Japan. But to add insult to injury, genetic testing concluded that those remains were not her’s (Macintyre, 2005). In 2006, almost thirty years since the abduction, Megumi’s mother, now an old lady, met with President George W. Bush in the oval office (The White House, 2006). The president told the press and the world that he wished for this mother to hug her child again (Klug, 2006).

The Japanese public’s outrage coincided with the Six-Party Talks which compelled the Japanese delegation to raise the issue in a bilateral meeting with the North Koreans (Cha, 2012). The DPRK delegation subsequently demanded the expulsion of their Japanese counterparts (Cha, 2012). Japan stopped all aid to North Korea (Cha, 2012). 

Some policymakers lament that emotional factors would override the geopolitical considerations motivating Japan to reconcile relations with North Korea. Nevertheless, Winston Churchill’s adage that “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last” (ForbesQuotes) seems to ring true for Japan and South Korea. While North Korea happily receives aid, their provocations and belligerent behaviour are always quick to return, slapping away their neighbours’ outstretched hands.  After all, the country’s sole purpose is to keep the Kim regime in power. And the regime’s legitimacy derives heavily from the beliefs that South Korea is a lapdog of the Americans, and Japan, a former coloniser whom Kim Il-Sung fought heroically to defeat.


In today’s increasingly interconnected world, international trade is an essential component of every modern economy. In response to Iran’s nuclear program, United Nations (UN) sanctions have cost Iran over $60 billion in energy investment annually and devalued the Iranian Rial by 80% since 2011 (BBC, 2012). In response to North Korea’s nuclear tests over the past couple of decades, the international community has been unforgiving. UN sanctions banned the imports and exports of over a dozen classes of goods. And resolutions were not (at least not openly) even opposed by North Korea’s closest ally – China (Lee, 2017). The idea that a regime that has such little regard for human life and individual liberties should possess nuclear weapons is anathema to many in the international community. But to understand how the regime perseveres despite international pressure, one must consider the motivations of their neighbour and most important trading partner – China. Without Chinese aid and support, the North Korean regime would collapse in a matter of months (Cha, 2012).

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, poses with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a photo during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

Chinese Motivations:

In 2010, a North Korean submarine sank a corvette of the South Korean Navy – the Cheonan. Weeks later, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak met with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (Watson, 2012). Hu disingenuously expressed sympathy by equating the intentional attack with the Sichuan earthquake (Cha, 2012). And to further shield North Korea from blame, the Chinese delegation to the United Nations blocked all resolutions condemning North Korea for the attack (The Hankyoreh, 2010). A South Korean official lamented that “The Chinese have shown their true faces” (Cha, 2012).

China sees the zone around the Yalu River (which separates China from North Korea) as a source of geopolitical safety. In 1962, the Chinese ceded 60% of disputed territory along the border to North Korea to maintain stability in the region (Shen, 2013). Indeed, volatility in the northern section of the Korean peninsula has coincided with problems for Beijing historically. A Japanese advance into the Korean peninsula led to China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in the late 19th Century (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021). The Japanese annexation of Korea led to an occupation of Manchuria, which consequently manifested in an invasion of China during World War II, in which China suffered millions of casualties. To prevent US forces from reaching the Chinese border, China fought back and suffered 800,000 casualties in the Korean war. As US-China tensions further deteriorate, China would regard having American troops stationed along its northeastern border as unacceptable.

Furthermore, China views a stable North Korea as an opportunity to develop its impoverished northeastern provinces. The rapidly growing Chinese economy demands large amounts of commodities such as coal, iron, copper, zinc, gold. A Goldman Sachs (2009) study estimates North Korea’s mineral wealth is worth 140 times its GDP; China is eager to take advantage. Small to medium-sized businesses based in northeastern China run the majority of mining ventures in the DPRK (Cha, 2012). With no regulations on working conditions and having the freedom to pay below market price, China exploits North Korea as a source of cheap mineral resources. North Korean authorities are aware of Chinese intentions but acquiesce to these demands because they too need the minerals but do not have the means to extract them. On the contrary, if the DPRK destabilised, tens of millions of unskilled North Korean refugees would flood the Chinese border; and China would lose the previously mentioned benefits of having a subservient northern neighbour.

Hence, contrary to the United States and South Korea, China’s main intention is not to denuclearise North Korea. While China has the means to stop the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program by cutting off aid, doing so risks endangering the Kim regime (Cha, 2012). Withholding aid is a measure too blunt and risky for Beijing, given the potential consequences. To make matters worse, Chinese aid to North Korea is institutional rather than centralised. In other words, Chinese aid mainly occurs through informal channels such as businesses, state enterprises, and the military, away from the eye of institutions such as the World Food Programme, and shielded from the shifting sentiments of global politics (Cha, 2012). North Korea already possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles. And since China is unwilling to enforce sanctions that threaten North Korea’s existence, international sanctions are inadequate in impeding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

A final thought

Geopolitical forces and self-interest dictate much of the World’s public policy, especially with respect to its response to the material North Korean threat. Overall, we have seen a concerted effort to mitigate North Korea’s arsenal as there is a strong consensus that creating a political pariah is counterproductive (particularly from a Chinese perspective). However, with a rapidly evolving pandemic and tensions rising in the Indo-Pacific region, the importance of effectively handling global, and more specifically North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, might never be so great or so delicate.



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Meet our authors:

Thomas Sinclair
Luke Chen

I am a second-year Bachelor of Commerce student majoring in economics and finance and work part-time as a maths tutor. My interests include history, geopolitics, as well as both micro and macroeconomics. I hope to make substantive contributions to the publication and expand my intellectual horizons while working alongside my fellow writers.

Kaiyue Chen
Haiyue Ma

I’m a first year Commerce student majoring in Finance and Economics. My primary interests are developing markets, macroeconomics and financial crime. As a writer at Cainz, I aim to use an interdisciplinary approach in addressing today’s pressing economic and financial issues.