Explainer: The escalating tensions between North Korea and the US

A monitoring group has warned that North Korea is 'primed and ready' to conduct a nuclear test

Explainer: The escalating tensions between North Korea and the US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, arrives for the official opening of the Ryomyong residential area. Picture by: Wong Maye-E/AP/Press Association Images

Although much of the recent attention has focused on the deteriorating relations between the US and Russia, the Trump administration has also ramped up its threats against North Korea.

The North Korean regime has - as is its way - responded by intensifying its own rhetoric and shows of force.

A new analysis from the US-based monitoring group 38 North suggests that the secretive state's Punggye-ri nuclear test site is 'primed and ready' to conduct a nuclear test.

It has been speculated that such a test could coincide with the 105th anniversary of the birth of the North's first 'Supreme Leader' Kim Il-sung, who was born on April 15th 1912. Such a move would not be surprising, given the regime's fondness for lavish displays of nationalism and strength.

How did we get here?

A man watches a news program showing photos published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper of North Korea's missile test. PA Images

In recent years, tensions involving North Korea have become a regular occurrence. Indeed, you can guarantee the country - officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - will make international headlines several times a year.

Such stories typically follow a familiar pattern, and have done for around a decade now. The country's current leader Kim Jong-un - who has been in power since 2012 - has very much carried on the aggressive style employed by his predecessor (and father) Kim Jong-il.

Here's how it usually goes: The regime carries out a missile test or - less commonly - a nuclear test in defiance of international sanctions and agreements.

North Korea's launches and tests are quickly and strongly condemned by the international community - South Korea and Japan usually raise particular concerns due to their proximity to North Korea. International sanctions are often imposed on the DPRK.

2016 saw a dramatic escalation in North Korea's 'provocations'. They carried out a pair of nuclear tests (in January and September respectively), while the missile tests continued.

Another major event in February 2016 saw a North Korean rocket launch, which the regime claimed successfully put a satellite into orbit.

Global leaders condemned the launch, amid fears it was a major missile test.

What is the relationship between North and South Korea, and why has nobody intervened?


Joint Security Area. Picture by: UDO WEITZ/DPA/PA Images

It is no surprise such actions cause international anxiety - this is a small, secretive and often unpredictable state with the capability of attacking several major world powers. South Korea and Japan are particular targets, while Australia has also raised concerns that a North Korean missile could reach their shores.

The US is obviously worried that the DPRK is also developing weapons capable of reaching their own shores. But even if that remains a slightly more distant threat, America's commitments to its South Korean and Japanese allies ensures they take a strong line on North Korea.

The relationship between North and South Korea has remained fraught ever since the Korean War - which technically never officially ended due to the lack of a full peace treaty between North and South. An armistice is what brought the fighting to an end, and has managed to remain in place.

Despite some successful efforts towards reconciliation and cooperation in the 1990s and early 2000s, relations between the two countries are extremely tense. That is perhaps best symbolised by the famous Joint Security Area, the only area of the border where members of each country's military face each other.

The rhetoric and propaganda from the North, meanwhile, often intensifies during the annual Foal Eagle 'war games' conducted by South Korea and the US.

These exercises - intended to illustrate the unity between the two military forces - take place regardless of current events, although are typically criticised by the North as a 'rehearsal' for a potential invasion.

For the most part, though, the international community has resisted intervening in North Korea. The apparent lack of an immediate threat; the social and political consequences of an invasion or conflict (more on that below); the humanitarian cost; the sheer expense of war - these are just some of the reasons the world (and indeed North Korea itself) has tried to avoid any major action to date.

In the absence of a major military response, the international community has instead piled sanctions and restrictions on the DPRK, hoping to severely limit their capacity to develop weapons.

What has changed recently?

Picture by: Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images

Even by last year's standards, the situation has grown increasingly dangerous in recent months.

In March, North Korea launched several ballistic missiles from a test site. They flew several hundred kilometres before falling into the sea of Japan.

State media claimed it was 'training' for an attack on a US base in Japan. The test came as the US began its deployment of a missile defence system in South Korea.

Another missile test took place on April 4th, which the UN said was in "flagrant and provocative defiance of the Security Council".

What has really increased the risk of a major escalation, however, is the new US administration.

In an ominous (albeit vague) response to the recent missile tests, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."

Donald Trump himself has also warned of possible action against the communist state, saying the regime is 'looking for trouble'.

After speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, President Trump said: "I think he wants to help us with North Korea.

"We talked trade, we talked a lot of things, and I said the way you’re going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea, otherwise we’re just going to go it alone, that’ll be all right too, but going it alone means going with lots of other nations."

China - which shares land and sea borders with the Korean peninsula - has long been seen as the most significant ally of North Korea.

However, that situation has deteriorated significantly in recent years, and China has dialled up sanctions against their neighbour (including banning imports of North Korean coal).

Meanwhile, North Korea has claimed it is 'ready for war' after the US moved a naval strike force to the region.

Why does the world need to be cautious?

War is, of course, never a positive outcome - and any conflict would inevitably lead to a huge number of casualties.

While Japan, South Korea and other nearby nations would very much welcome an end to the North Korean regime, the fear is that they are within the range of North Korean weaponry (even if they are not directly involved in any conflict).

Another major concern is what will happen in North Korea itself in the event of a conflict or foreign intervention. The country is currently rife with human rights abuses and poverty, but it remains to be seen what would happen to its citizens in the event of a major leadership change.

Recent examples of foreign intervention have shown the very real dangers of a power vacuum when a regime is toppled, no matter how cruel or dangerous the regime in question is.

Iraq was left reeling following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government, while the end of Muammar Gaddafi's rule in Libya has led to chaos in the country. The situations have contributed to the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS in the region.

The spectre of the disastrous Korean War will also lead to caution when it comes to any possible international intervention.

For now, tensions remain extraordinarily high - and even if the current situation deescalates, recent history has shown it will not be long before another the authoritarian state is again a focus of international attention.