How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Outcome of the current game of chicken between U.S. and North Korea is uncertain

For decades the Korean peninsula has maintained a persistent state of conflict, a ceasefire acting as the thin red line separating peace from all-out war.

During the Cold War, Korea was a focus point that America even deemed worthy enough to fight for in an effort to contain communism in Asia. As the Cold War receded, many expected the fiendish regime in Pyongyang to fade with it. Instead, the stakes grew enormously higher. Without security guarantees from the Soviet Union, North Korea instead charted a path to absolute security independence. Lacking the technological hardware and capabilities of their countrymen to the south, North Korea intended to achieve their own security guarantees via a combination of nuclear weaponry and long-range missiles. The American led demise of like-minded dictators in Baghdad and Tripoli only strengthened this resolve.

seoul
The vibrant city of Seoul, with the world’s fourth-largest metropolitan GDP, lies within range of North Korean artillery fire

And this leads to the core of the problem. As the Trump administration turns the screws on North Korea’s weapons programs, they appear to be missing the point: Pyongyang has been feeling the heat since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989. Subsequent American adventurism in the Middle East only increased the temperature. But each time the mercury rose higher in the thermometer, so too did the tempo of nuclear and missile testing by North Korea. Even now, with a Trump-anointed armada barrelling headstrong toward the Korean peninsula, the North Koreans are only promising to accelerate the testing of missiles. At first blush, the ruling class of North Korea may appear about as nutty and unhinged as they come, but to the seasoned observer they are actually quite predictable. In their worldview, a robust weapons program is the only thing keeping their regime from joining Hussein’s and Gaddafi’s in the ash heap of history. Accordingly, those two leaders made a fatal flaw by abandoning their weapons of mass destruction and leaving themselves vulnerable to both internal and external opposition. The North Koreans are committed to avoiding that mistake. The more threatened they feel by America, the more assiduously they seek weapons that can target U.S. soil and annihilate South Korea. If mutually assured destruction kept the Soviet Union safe from direct conflict with the United States, surely they will do the same for the North Korea.

Given this calculus, why is the administration of Donald Trump and Mike Pence so hell-bent on inflaming the North Korean motivation to acquire ever-more weapons of mass destruction – the very thing they are ostensibly against Pyongyang doing? The answer to this was revealed by Pence himself during his recent visit to South Korea, when he said that “peace comes through strength.” This is actually a tired old bit of Republican lore that holds steadfastly to the belief that Reagan’s arms buildup somehow brought about the Soviet Union’s collapse, ending the Cold War and thus affecting a sort of “peace through strength.” Of course, this snippet of Republican gospel is about as convincing as trickle-down economics; in other words, it isn’t. The lines of communication between Washington and Moscow were quite open throughout the 1980s, and Reagan even took the audacious step of meeting with Soviet Premier Gorbachev in 1986. This type of direct negotiation with Pyongyang is anathema to Republicans today, thus omitting at least half of their own equation. We are left with a Trump doctrine that expects enemies to simply bow before American military might, and that is something that North Korea simply will not do.

There is another thing that Trump did not seem to grasp before he haphazardly took his North Korean hostility into the Twitterverse: the Korean peninsula is not just a global flash point, it’s a hostage situation. North Korea might have nothing to lose, but they do hold a captive in nearby Seoul, South Korea’s capital and one of the most technologically advanced and economically important cities in the world. There is no certain outcome to this situation, labelled a slow-mo Cuban missile crisis by the New York Times. The obstinate stances of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump means that one of these two leaders must lose face, lest Seoul and its ten million inhabitants succumb to a sea of flames.

Image: Al Jazeera

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