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2013 Spring Issue 5 (May 10, 2013)

North Korea’s Weapons Program, Geopolitics, and the American Response

May 11, 2013
By Joe Steigmeyer

Dr. Sherry Gray, the coordinator of the Global Policy Area at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, visited Carleton on May 2 to discuss the growing concerns surrounding North Korea and its nuclear program. Her lecture, entitled “North Korea, the US, and Why Geopolitics Still Matters in a Globalized World,” provided insight into the foreign policies of the countries involved in the region and helped to put North Korea’s apparent saber-rattling into perspective.

Gray, an expert in East Asian foreign and security policy, began by unfolding three unique versions of world maps and asking audience members in the Gould Library Athenaeum to note how a different area of the globe was located at the center of each. Through the North America-centered, Pacific Ocean-centered, and Europe-centered maps, she illustrated how, even on the most rudimentary level, geographic location can influence the way in which we view the world and its political divisions.

Gray dove into her lecture with the sobering statement that “North Korea is a nuclear power” because they now have the capability to “make a nuclear bomb and put it on a missile.” However, her presentation was not about branding North Korea as a military threat but rather was designed to encourage her audience to better understand the country’s actions by looking at its unique position in regional and global politics.

“Having a nuclear weapon is all about having the world pay attention to you,” she said, going on to elaborate that North Korea is concerned about its future existence because it is a relatively small nation surrounded by countries that either have access to nuclear weapons or are under the protection of other countries that do. Gray then outlined the political positions and goals of the nations involved in the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program: the US, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas.

Gray also stressed that the issues surrounding North Korea are not exclusive to their nuclear program. She explained the country’s severe economic and agricultural struggles, stating that 37% of North Koreans are chronically malnourished and that this situation is not showing any signs of improving on its own. Furthermore, the biggest nightmare for South Korea, said Gray, would actually be the “sudden collapse” of their northern neighbor. She explained that the South would rather try to work with the North’s economy now than have to completely rebuild it after a total collapse.

As far as North Korea’s position in world politics and military action is concerned, Gray endorsed the status quo, saying that “for 60 years, the US and South Korea have deterred North Korea, while North Korea has deterred the US and South Korea.” From a non-militaristic and non-political perspective, however, she emphasized the need to “start to show [North Korea] respect [and] show that you care.” She stated that humanitarian efforts and attempts to open dialogue should be pursued, especially in light of the country’s highly malnourished population.

Following her lecture, Gray answered questions and encouraged students to seek a greater understanding of North Korea’s position. She reminded students that they could not truly understand why a country like North Korea behaves like it does until they allow themselves to view the world from that country’s perspective.

Gray’s visit was facilitated by The East Asia Study Group, a student-run organization at Carleton that exists to bring attention to the rapid political and economic ascendency of East Asia. The group’s aim is to connect the Carleton community with East Asian societies and cultures by bringing compelling and thought-provoking thinkers and speakers to campus.

Founded in 2013, the group’s primary objective is t “work to raise awareness of contemporary East Asian issues by hosting speakers, sponsoring seminars and discussion groups, and strengthening opportunities for Carleton students to study in East Asian countries,” according to Max Esslinger ‘16, the Executive Director of the group. “We were really pleased to welcome Dr. Gray as our first speaker of the 2013-2014 academic year.”

For more information on the East Asia Study Group, contact Max Esslinger.

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