The year 2017 was a time of massive risk of war on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb as well as an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). US President Donald Trump promised “fire and fury” in retaliation and dispatched aircraft carriers and stealth bombers.
Things climaxed early this month when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boasted of the nuclear button on his desk. Trump retorted that he had a bigger one.
Korea was a pressure cooker looking for a release valve. Many feared war was imminent. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, and with the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics looming, South Korean President Moon Jae-in launched his “Pyeongchang Initiative.” He invited the North Koreans to the Games and asked the US to postpone joint South Korea-US military exercises.
In his New Year’s address, Kim responded to Moon’s overtures. Trump supported the initiative. For the first time in two years, North and South are talking. The world breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Good news? Not to everyone, apparently. A highly vocal chorus of pundits rang the alarm bells.
The naysayers hail from major US think-tanks with close links to the US government and US corporations. They include The Heritage Foundation (Bruce Klingner), the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (Robert Litwak), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Michael Green), the Asia Society (Daniel Russel), the Council on Foreign Relations (Scott Snyder), and the American Enterprise Institute (Nicholas Eberstadt), as reported by Tim Shorrock and John Feffer. US government officials from Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to US Forces Korea Commander General Vincent Brooks also chimed in.
Their basic argument goes like this. South Korea should not be naive about North Korea. It should be wary about taking its bait and appeasing it, or it could be duped. North Korea has ulterior motives. It is buying time to perfect weapons while trying to extort economic aid. Or, Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, forcing a break in the alliance.
Certain reporters and academics further this narrative. After North Korea perfects a nuclear ICBM, it intends to use it to kick the US out of South Korea. Then it will swallow South Korea while holding the US at bay with its nukes, they say.
All this is reminiscent of debates last August at the height of the brinkmanship between North Korea and the US, when some called for a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korea War, finally putting an end to the uneasy Armistice.
Many of the same people came out in opposition to that idea. Examining their arguments, I wrote, “There is a kind of in-built blackmail in the story. It seems to say, ‘Peace Treaty? The US will have to pull out and we may not be there to save you again. So don’t think about it.’ It really sounds like propaganda designed to instill fear in order to preserve the status quo and the South Korea.-US alliance.”
Actual facts on the ground, however, disprove the allegations behind this blackmail propaganda.
Allegation: South Korea will be fooled by North Korea.
Reality: South Korea is a mature democracy with its own national interests. Liberals like President Moon believe in dialogue while also applying pressure to denuclearize North Korea. It is in South Korea’s national interest to avoid war and denuclearize the North.
Allegation: North Korea has ulterior motives.
Reality: Countries advance their own interests, and North Korea is no exception. In fact, North Korea may not have advanced its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs over the past 25 years were it not for a possible US ulterior motive: advancing missile defense.
Allegation: North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.
Reality: The status of the alliance between South Korea and the US is up to them, not North Korea. As a rogue/pariah state, North Korea’s priority is regime survival. To do this, it needs to normalize relations with South Korea and the United States by bringing the US to the bargaining table.
Allegation: In the long run, North Korea intends to kick the US off the peninsula and swallow South Korea whole.
Reality: It is practically impossible for North Korea to swallow South Korea. The South has double the population of North Korea. South Korea is a wealthy cosmopolitan democracy; North Korea is a backward and isolated dictatorship with a personality cult. Economically, South Korea’s gross domestic product is about US$1.5 trillion vs the heavily sanctioned Northern GDP of approximately $30 billion. South Korea spends about 1.5 times as much on its military alone as the entire size of North Korea’s GDP. As well, the US cannot be intimidated by North Korean nukes when vital interests are at stake.
Allegation: Author Bradley K Martin and Professor B R Myers say that Kim Jong-un cannot abandon the idea of forced unification with South Korea because it would mean the end of the Kim dynasty, and his people would turn against him.
Reality: Through the Joint Communiqué of 1972, the joint entry of both Koreas into the UN, and the Joint Declarations of 2000 and 2004, North Korea has expressed interest in peacefully co-existing with South Korea. Kim’s public statements indicate that he bases his legitimacy on the Byungjin Line: creating a strong and prosperous nation, not on forcing a unification with South Korea. Certainly, North Koreans, like South Koreans, hold reunification dear to their hearts and must pay lip service to it. But nuclear arms are not a weapon of conquest and blackmail but regime survival: domestic prestige, external deterrence, and a means to pull the US to the negotiating table.
It may seem as if the Korean situation is intractable, but peace is possible if we focus on the pragmatics, not the propaganda.In international relations, you deal with what is real and what is possible. You don’t dwell on fantasies about some stated aims, ideology, desires or fears – especially when facts on the ground suggest otherwise.
Those against talks are hardliners who promote the well-worn blackmail propaganda that has upheld the status quo over the decades. Moon’s Pyeongchang Initiative assures peace – at least until the end of the Paralympics in late March. Before then, there is a potential for real progress.
It is time to support the Koreans – not sound false alarm bells.