What in the name of all that’s holy is going on in North Korea?
This question is always hard to answer because they don’t call it the Hermit Kingdom for nothing. Very little comes out of the notoriously reclusive – and repressive – Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, and not that much gets in. But occasionally there is a burst of activity that, like the eruption of a volcano, is hard to miss – the recent launching of four ballistic missiles being one of them.
The missiles landed in the Sea of Japan, about 190 miles off the Japanese coast, sending shockwaves throughout the region. Both Tokyo and Seoul protested, while the North Koreans characterized the action as a logical reaction to the perceived threat of imminent military action by the US and South Korea. Pyongyang’s fear is not unfounded.
The exercises, conducted jointly by US and South Korea and dubbed “Foal Eagle,” are a dress rehearsal for all-out war with the North. In addition to the USS Carl Vinson and a strike force of two guided missile destroyers and a cruiser, the US sent in a squadron of stealth fighter jets as well as B-52s and B-1Bs – these latter capable of carrying nuclear payloads. “Foal Eagle” is an annual exercise, but every year the amount of US firepower gets bigger – and in the context of rapidly rising tensions between Pyongyang and the rest of the world, this does nothing to ease the former’s well-known paranoia.
But it isn’t just paranoia that is motivating North Korean behavior: for the first time, there is open talk in US ruling circles of launching a preemptive strike against the regime of Kim Jong Un. As Time magazine puts it:
Taking out North Korea’s two major nuclear sites with air strikes would be dangerous but probably not too difficult, U.S. officials say. The possibility of North Korean retaliation against Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million and only 35 miles from North Korea, would be a complicating factor, they concede.
Yes, the continued existence of 10 million South Koreas, not to mention the 30,000 or so American soldiers stationed on the peninsula, is indeed “a complicating factor.” That’s one way of putting it.
The reality is that Pyongyang has a crude but workable nuclear arsenal. This means that, in a sane world, military action is off the proverbial table. The problem is that we don’t live in such a world. And as crazy as Kim Jong Un may be, the talk of a preemptive strike proves the insanity is not limited to Pyongyang,
Right now, US policymakers must ask themselves two questions: how did we get here, and how do we get out?
We got here because the administration of George W. Bush quashed the beginnings of a political solution to the Korean conundrum.
Remember that the Korean War never officially ended: the fighting stopped when a truce was declared. A peace treaty was never signed: officially, we and our South Korean allies are still at war with Pyongyang. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas has been described as the most dangerous place in the world, and there have been a number of shooting incidents over the years, rising and falling as tensions between the two Koreas waxed and waned.
Yet there was a moment when the tensions were at a low point, and the possibility of a political solution was raised: this was the result of the so-called “Sunshine Policy” initiated by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The goal: reunification of the Koreas, a project both the North and the South have officially endorsed for many years. The Koreans are a fiercely nationalistic people, and the halving of the nation has been a painful affair. Then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father) agreed to meet the South Korean President at a three-day summit, at the end of which they signed a nonaggression pact and agreed to pursue the path of reunification.
This made sense from the North Korean perspective: the Communist state was strangling on its own repression, famine was sweeping the land, the economy was tanking, and people were literally eating the bark off the trees. The infusion of South Korean investment that followed the summit gave them a lifeline, and tens of thousands of South Koreans visited the North: factories were set up in the North that employed thousands of North Korean workers. Slowly but surely the Hermit Kingdom was letting down its defenses and opening up to the world.
And then came George W. Bush, who received the South Korean President in Washington in March of 2001 and promptly threw shade on the Sunshine policy. As the late Mary McGrory put it:
Bush, as he was eager to demonstrate, was not a fan. Kim’s sin? He was instituting a sunshine policy with the North, ending a half-century of estrangement. Bush, who looked upon North Korea as the most potent argument for his obsession to build a national missile defense, saw Kim, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as nothing but trouble. He sent him home humiliated and empty-handed.
The North Koreans pulled back, and announced a military buildup. Bush upped the ante with his “axis of evil speech,” naming Pyongyang as one of the spokes on the wheel of wickedness. The North Koreans responded that this sounded to them like an outright “declaration of war,” a not unreasonable interpretation of Bush’s remarks.
Just to make sure he had crushed the last hope of a political solution, Bush visited South Korea in 2002, where he paid a visit to the DMZ:
Standing atop a sandbag bunker and protected by bulletproof glass, US President George W. Bush peered through binoculars at North Korea on Wednesday and bluntly called it ‘evil.’
… Among the things Bush could see were North Korean signs written in large, white Korean characters with slogans such as: ‘Anti-America’ and ‘Our General is the best”’ – a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Bush spent about 10 minutes atop the bunker and then he and Secretary of State Colin Powell sat down to a lunch of cold cuts, potato chips, fruit and cookies with about a dozen US soldiers who help man the post 24 hours a day.
Asked what he thought when he looked out over the North, Bush said: ‘We’re ready.’
Ready, that is, for war. So much for the Sunshine policy.
Yet the US and the North Koreans were still bound by an agreement, reached under the Clilnton administration, by which the latter would refrain from building nukes as long as shipments of oil and the lifting of sanctions was permitted. Yet this agreement – initiated by former President Jimmy Carter and signed by Pyongyang in 1994 – was nixed by Washington’s sudden announcement that the North Koreans had violated it, and that therefore the deal was off.
But did the North Koreans really violate the agreement? Selig Harrison, writing in Foreign Affairs, didn’t think so:
Much has been written about the North Korean nuclear danger, but one crucial issue has been ignored: just how much credible evidence is there to back up Washington’s uranium accusation? Although it is now widely recognized that the Bush administration misrepresented and distorted the intelligence data it used to justify the invasion of Iraq, most observers have accepted at face value the assessments the administration has used to reverse the previously established US policy toward North Korea.
But what if those assessments were exaggerated and blurred the important distinction between weapons-grade uranium enrichment (which would clearly violate the 1994 Agreed Framework) and lower levels of enrichment (which were technically forbidden by the 1994 accord but are permitted by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] and do not produce uranium suitable for nuclear weapons)?
A review of the available evidence suggests that this is just what happened. Relying on sketchy data, the Bush administration presented a worst-case scenario as an incontrovertible truth and distorted its intelligence on North Korea (much as it did on Iraq), seriously exaggerating the danger that Pyongyang is secretly making uranium-based nuclear weapons. This failure to distinguish between civilian and military uranium-enrichment capabilities has greatly complicated what would, in any case, have been difficult negotiations to end all existing North Korean nuclear weapons programs and to prevent any future efforts through rigorous inspection.
As Donald Trump said of Bush’s “evidence” for Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”: “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none and they knew that there were none.”
Here is another mess the neocon-dominated administration of George W. Bush has left us, which Trump is now supposed to clean up. But he can’t do it if he reenacts Bush’s belligerent bone-headedness. The author of The Art of the Deal has got to make a deal – or face the prospect of a nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula and perhaps beyond.
Part of the deal-making process is understanding the psychology of those you are dealing with, and in the case of the North Koreans this is absolutely essential.
Since Bush torpedoed the Sunshine policy, the North has been on a downward spiral, not only economically but also in terms of the regime’s stability. The death of Kim Jong Il and the succession of Kim Jong Un to the role of supreme leader has not made for a smooth transition. Since the regime cannot provide for even the most basic material needs of its subjects, it must maintain legitimacy by other means, which boil down to 1) supporting a quasi-religious cult centered around the worship of the hereditary Supreme Leader, and 2) the invocation of a permanent threat from the West.
Fulfillment of the first part of this formula has gotten more difficult unto the third generation of the “royal family.” Kim Il Sung, who established the DPRK, won his legitimacy by beating the Japanese invaders and fighting off attempts by the South to dominate the North. He subsequently established the Communist dictatorship, eliminated all factional rivals, and even resisted both the Soviet Union and the Chinese when they tried to interfere in his nation’s internal affairs. His cult retained enough sway after his death to ensure that his son, Kim Jong Il, would succeed him unopposed, although there were some rumored purges. However, by the third generation, and under the pressure of an economic downturn – and even widespread famine – the semi-mystical theology of “Kimilsungism” has lost much of its mystique. The result has been signs of increased political instability and a ruthless crackdown on Kim Jong Un’s part.
Rumors of an attempted assassination, pitched gun battles between rival factions in the army, and signs of a Chinese plot to replace the increasingly nutty Kim Jong Un with his estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, provoked a wave of violent purges. Top figures in the regime, such as Kim Jong Un’s uncle, have been killed: the uncle was reportedly shot with an antitank gun! Another high-ranking figure was purged and killed for having “bad posture.” And finally the half-brother was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport when two women approached him and sprayed him with poison. Although Pyongyang denies doing it, no one doubts this was done under Kim Jong Un’s orders.
While the North Korean regime has a long history of conducting periodic purges against perceived internal enemies, high-ranking victims were rarely killed: instead they were either sent to the country’s ever-expanding network of prison camps or else exiled. The current wave of executions signals a new phase in the ungluing of the regime.
Besieged on every side by enemies both real and imagined, Kim Jong Un has one card left to play: the threat from the West. As long as he can present himself as the bulwark protecting the people from the “Yankee imperialists” and their “running dog lackeys” in the South, he retains his hold on legitimacy. The “Foal Eagle” exercises and rumblings of war emanating from Washington bolster his faltering regime.
Just as George W. Bush’s spiking of the Sunshine policy was motivated by the need to appease the neoconservative wing of the Republican party and thus retain legitimacy on the home front, so Kim Jong Un’s belligerence is dictated by the need to legitimize his dynastic succession to the throne of Pyongyang. North Korea’s foreign policy, like that of any other state’s, whether despotic or democratic, is determined by the political needs of the rulers at the time.
Once we begin to understand the implications of this universal principle, and apply it to the Korean conundrum, the outlines of a solution are visible.
To begin with, it’s time to face facts: there is no military solution to the problem posed by North Korea. Pyongyang is holding the entire peninsula hostage. War is unthinkable – although, unfortunately, far from impossible.
As dire as the situation may seem, it’s not too late to prevent a catastrophe: a political solution is still within reach. The recent impeachment of the South Korean President – the daughter of a former right-wing military dictator – means that her successor will be a liberal politician in the tradition of Kim Dae Jung. With the South Koreans ready to give the Sunshine policy another chance, and an American President famous for making deals, it’s entirely possible that a deal with the North can be struck.
However, this depends on the Trump administration having a) some knowledge of the intricacies – and particularly the history – of the two Koreas, and b) the imagination to reject the old Bush-neocon policy of confrontation.
Also, it won’t be along before the Trumpians realize that Trump’s oft-stated policy of depending on the Chinese to bring Pyongyang to heel is a non-starter: relations between the two ostensibly Communist regimes haven’t been good for a long time, and they just got worse with the missile tests and the death of Kim Jong Nam.
Indeed, the North Korean leader’s half-brother had long been under the protection of China, where he had lived with his wife, his two daughters, and his mistress in Macau. Beijing was reportedly nurturing him as a possible replacement for the troublesome Kim Jong Un, which is why he met such an untimely end.
No, China is not the key to ending the impending North Korean crisis: with the installation of an antimissile system in South Korea, which the Chinese think is aimed at them, they aren’t likely to cooperate in any meaningful way. And, in any case, their influence is very limited, since their relations with Pyongyang have never been worse.
The initiative is going to have to come from Seoul, which has the most to lose if war breaks out. And when this initiative does come, Washington must welcome it, and do everything to foster it. When Trump was campaigning for President, he questioned the US presence in the South and wondered aloud why we had to risk war and bankruptcy providing for Seoul’s defense. His instincts were right: now perhaps we’ll get to see if his policies match his campaign rhetoric. I’m not optimistic – pressure from the John McCain wing of the GOP is relentless, and Trump may not want to fight on this terrain – but you never know.
The ultimate goal of any negotiation must begin the process of reunifying the Korean nation, a process that can only end with the withdrawal of all US forces. This would pull the rug out from under Kim Jong Un’s nightmarish regime, depriving it of an external threat on which it bases much of its legitimacy. It’s long past time to bring the Korean war to a formal end – because the only alternative is a resumption of hostilities. And in the nuclear age, the meaning of that ought to be clear enough.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now in South Korea as part of his trip to the region, where he met with Japanese leaders as well. He is declaring that we need “a new approach” to North Korea. As to what this means, exactly, is not at all clear: Tillerson is not currently revealing any details, although his statement that “the people of North Korea have nothing to fear from us or our allies” is encouraging. He is reportedly headed for the DMZ, where hopefully he’ll react in a far different way than George W. Bush did.