George Katsiaficas's Blog

Managing the North Korean Crisis

By George Katsiaficas

On April 10, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned North Korea that it “has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions, skating very close to a dangerous line.” The current threat of a major war resembles the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the US and the USSR nearly waged nuclear war. Peaceful coexistence was assured only after an agreement was reached for Russia to withdraw its missiles from Cuba and for the US to pull out its own from Turkey.

In recent weeks, as North Korea threatened new missile tests and to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the US sent B-2 bombers from Missouri and B-52s from Guam to fly up to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea. These flights are as close to a threat of a first strike—possibly a nuclear one—that the US can make.   

In 2006, high-ranking US officials such as former US Defense Secretary William Perry and his deputy Ashton Carter publicly advocated preemptively bombing any attempt by North Korea to test fire its Taepodong missile. Perry and Carter believed that a war resulting from a US first strike on North Korea would bring “the certain end of Kim Jong Il’s regime within a few bloody weeks of war.” Leaving aside Pentagon estimates that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would perish in the first few days of such a war, we have heard other false promises of swift victory, notably from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who believed that high-tech weapons would bring a quick victory in Iraq.

In 1993, the US nearly bombed North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. As a Harvard professor, Ashton Carter publicly stated he was asked by the Pentagon to assist in determining precise bomb targets. Only the personal intervention of former President Jimmy Carter prevented a US first strike. Carter flew to Pyongyang, met Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) and negotiated an “Agreed Framework,” according to which North Korea shut down its Yongbyon reactor and promised to freeze development of nuclear weapons. The US and its allies were supposed to supply North Korea with light-water reactors and 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually. Neither side kept their promises.

The recent US policy shift to an “Asian pivot” is perceived in Pyongyang as a direct threat to its existence. Before the Asian pivot, Saddam Hussein agreed to disarm, after which Iraq was invaded and he was killed. Gaddafi faced a similar fate after he destroyed his major weapons systems. North Korea is clearly interpreting these events as reasons NOT to disarm. The harder the US presses North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, the more they feel menaced.

In the past weeks, the American media have repeatedly called attention to the “unpredictable” character of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Yet he is a mere figurehead in the world’s most Confucian society, where young people must respect their elders and listen to them. An entrenched military bureaucracy runs North Korea, not simply the young grandson of their “Dear Leader.”

For decades now, North Korea has stated that it will forsake its nuclear weapons and missile program if the US Senate signs a peace treaty to end the state of war. (The armistice of 1953 was only a cease fire.) Whether one believes them or not, isn’t diplomacy worth another attempt to diminish the current threat of war? The Bush administration refused to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, a policy inherited and embraced by President Obama—one that has brought us to the brink of war. Bush insisted upon six-party talks, an effort long since abandoned as fruitless.

As the world’s preeminent military power, the US has a responsibility to prevent wars. One such means to do so in Korea would be for President Obama publicly to state that the US will not launch a first strike against North Korea. Rather than seeking to reduce tensions, Hagel’s recent warning follows a pattern of crisis intensification. As a result of continuing bilateral brinksmanship, Kim Jong Un’s regime gains domestic legitimacy, and US companies will sell tens of billions of dollars of missile systems to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan—and to US taxpayers.

It is not too late for the Obama administration to change course and find a peaceful solution to the current impasse—if that is what they wish to do.

The author is a professor of Humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings. He was a Senior Fulbright Fellow in South Korea from 2007 to 2008.

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