It is two and a half minutes to midnight on the infamous doomsday clock. We are the closest to global nuclear war since 1953, when both the USA and the Soviet Union tested the first hydrogen bombs. Today, it is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea, recklessly testing nukes.
With the number of North Korean missile launches increasing in recent times, so too have international sanctions: current UN-backed resolutions restrict the isolated nation from exporting key assets such as coal, iron ore and seafood, whilst simultaneously halting the import of crude oil. The UN passed the sanctions in a bid to try and paralyse the economy, therefore slowing down the pursuit of nuclear prowess and bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. Wishful thinking.
Many experts agree that sanctions haven't worked, mainly because it is widely believed that North Korea is propped by some kind of transnational underworld that supports the economy. One major element of this secret trade economy is North Korea's ability to deploy a series of overseas shell companies and agents, who are able to negotiate the buying of essential goods, before smuggling them back into the isolated nation without triggering international monitors.
In addition to North Korea's resistance to UN-backed sanctions, the country has also been able to generate much needed hard currency for the regime through the sale of military equipment, drug and exotic animal trafficking, alongside printing counterfeit currency and engaging in cybercrime. Most recently, North Korean operatives have been caught hacking global Bitcoin exchanges.
International groups are also adept at recognising when there are gaps in supply for the nation and they step in to fill the void. Most recently Russian smugglers began secretly transporting fuel to North Korea after the Chinese started enforcing sanctions more seriously by prohibiting oil exports.
Nuclear weapons are not the only threat from North Korea. The recent death of Kim Jong-nam in a busy Malaysian airport highlights the threat from banned chemical weapons by North Korea and their ability and willingness to use them. It is believed that North Korea could host the world's third largest stock of banned chemical weapons and, in the face of dismal economic growth, North Korea could certainly be encouraged to smuggle these weapons to other state and non-state actors for profit. It is widely feared by North Korea experts that the regime could distribute chemical weapons materials to terrorist groups such as ISIS or even those like Al Shabab on the African continent, where we know North Korea has better relations with other similarly exiled nations.
We've established that North Korea is managing to generate hard currency and bolster its nuclear power all whilst under its toughest sanctions ever. It is also worth considering that the sanctions may not ever work, given the UN's complete inability to effectively enforce compliance. Individual member states are officially required to report on how they will regulate their own domain, but many don't bother. According to UN data, only 87 countries out of 193 UN member states have reported on how they will abide by sanction resolution 2321 which was adopted by the UN almost a year ago.
Victor Cha, a highly respected American academic on Korean issues and the (surprisingly qualified) expected pick for the Trump administration's South Korean ambassador, disputes the idea that sanctions don't work. He believes that 'sanctions don't work, until they do work.' But how long can we wait for them to take effect when the Kim regime's Byungjin policy is improving North Korea's nuclear capabilities faster than ever before? Is it possible sanctions are having a reverse effect and the increasing isolation in the north is feeding the hunger for nuclear weapons? Many experts and politicians believe this is the case. Even Vladimir Putin has commented: 'They'll eat grass, but they won't abandon their programme unless they feel secure.'
Frankly, it is time to admit that we've been wrong with our approach to North Korea for years. Sanctions have been implemented on North Korea to some extent for pretty much its entire existence. The regime has decades of encouraging resilience amongst the people of North Korea and enforcing the belief that any difficulties are for the greater good of the nation.
In a data-driven world, information is the key to empowering the North Korean people. Small-scale marketisation across the country is increasing the number of mobile phones, televisions, radios and DVD players owned by North Koreans. Recent studies indicate that a vast majority of North Koreans believe information from outside the regime's blockade is actually more influential than that propagated by the government. The investment by the BBC to start a Korean service, with medium- and short-waves capable of reaching the north (and played during the night when North Koreans can quietly tune in) is an extremely valuable asset in empowering the people and encouraging dialogue for a better, safer future for all Koreans.
Isolation from the international community has, if anything, made the north even more determined to acquire nukes. Sanctions haven't
worked – it must be admitted that the regime has managed to somewhat efficiently bypass them and bolster their nuclear power. Conflict, especially nuclear war or invasion, is not an option given the extreme pain it would inflict not only on innocent North Koreans but most likely millions of South Koreans too.
As history dictates, North Koreans will never view an American invasion as some salvation from totalitarianism but instead as a repeat of imperialistic behaviour from the past. The international community led by the US and its key partners in the saga – Japan, South Korea, Russia and China – should begin engaging in dialogue with North Korea to finally bring peace to the Korean peninsula. After all, it's been technically 64 years of war. The time is now to reverse the doomsday clock.
This was the winning paper in the first of the season's Young Scotland Programmes, held last week at Troon
. Rebecca MacDonald, who works for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has visited North Korea