TENSIONS BETWEEN NORTH Korea and the United States have reached new heights. Two hot-headed leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, exchange barbs trying to out-masculinise each other.
But this could all degenerate into nuclear war. Diplomacy is the only thing that can resolve the problem. Here are four points to understand what’s going on and what should be done.
1. War would be catastrophic
Yes, North Korea is a bad regime but this doesn’t mean that bombing it is the solution. It maintains political prison camps where about 100,000 people or more are locked up. It doesn’t have any significant domestic opposition movement and is a “desert of civil society”. Indeed, the only institution that might replace Kim Jong-un is the military, but if the generals were to take over, they could be even more hostile to the outside world.
An attack on North Korea could trigger an instant response. Its military could devastate the South’s capital, Seoul, and its 25 million inhabitants. The city is located only 35 miles from the border.
And if Washington attacks first, China has made it clear it would side with North Korea, virtually guaranteeing escalation. Millions of people (North and South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Americans) would be at risk. So, we need to find something else.
2. The United States could do more to encourage diplomacy
We keep hearing that negotiations are impossible and that Kim Jong-un is so crazy that we can’t talk to him. However, North Korea has made explicit offers of negotiations to the United States, this year and before. North Korea said this: if the United States cancels its annual military exercises with South Korea, it will suspend its nuclear tests.
China also supports this approach and has correctly stated that the compromise could open the door to negotiations and a diplomatic path. North Korea recently reiterated its offers to freeze nuclear and missile testing if Washington suspends its military exercises with the South. But the United States has brushed those offers aside immediately.
North Korea’s request for the United States to stop its military exercises—which have involved nuclear-capable bombers—with the South is not unreasonable. Imagine if Russia held annual large-scale military exercises with Cuba or Mexico, just next to the United States. How would Washington react?
In addition, the United States has recently deployed the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system to South Korea. It is a missile system consisting of mobile launchers to intercept missiles flying toward the United States.
But this is only raising tensions with China, which does not like to see the United States encircle it by establishing closer military links with its neighbors. Also, THAAD’s radar detection capabilities could be used to spy on China.
3. Diplomacy is the only thing that has worked with North Korea in the past
The 1994-2002 period was one of success in engaging North Korea. In 1994, the so-called “Agreed Framework” was signed with the United States and it resulted in a freeze of the North’s nuclear activities that lasted eight years. The North stopped its nuclear activities while the United States worked to provide alternative energy sources.
Experts estimate that without this agreement, North Korea could have built hundreds of nuclear weapons by now. But in 2002, the Bush administration, in the context of the “War on Terror”, labelled North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil” and essentially jeopardised the accords, which were abandoned.
We should push to return to some version of the agreement, which worked.
4. Understand North Korea’s motivations
North Korea has been targeted by American nuclear weapons for decades. Indeed, there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 90% of which belong to the United States (6,800) and Russia (7,000). Experts estimate that North Korea has about 30.
So we have a 6,800 versus 30 nukes confrontation, not exactly an even contest. Trump should work to reduce the United States’ nuclear arsenal. But instead, he and Obama have been spending more money to modernise it.
In this respect, it’s important to understand the context for the North’s nuclear activities. First, during the Korean War in 1950-1953, the United States literally turned North Korea into a moonscape through repeated bombing. Then, during the Cold War, up until 1991, Washington stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Today, the United States still has nuclear-armed submarines and aircraft targeting the North. Sure, we can blame the North for being militaristic and careless. But look at the context, and at who’s had thousands of nuclear weapons for decades.
In short, Trump should eliminate US nukes, give a chance to diplomacy, and drop the war talk.
Julien Mercille is an associate professor at University College Dublin.
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