North Korea is typically cast as a rogue state run by a “crazy fat kid” that is unwilling to co-operate with the international community. It is easy to join the chorus condemning their reckless behaviour but it is also curious to note that today’s discourse is limited to either imposing more ineffective sanctions or potentially considering a military option. We are told there are no alternatives. To understand how to deal with North Korea it is useful to revisit its history and re-examine its supposed lunacy.
The 1950s is an appropriate starting point. North Korea reacted to border provocations and invaded South Korea with the aim of unifying the peninsula. The U.S intervened. In the span of three years, the number of bombs dropped on North Korea exceeded the total number dropped by the U.S during World War Two. Anywhere between 12-15% of the population perished. There is more to their Anti-American animosity than state propaganda. The scars have yet to heal and so the American threat is taken very seriously by the North Koreans. If the U.S wanted to invade North Korea today, depose its leaders and force their submission to a U.S-aligned South Korea, there would be little they could do. A nuclear deterrent is one preventative measure.
Developing a nuclear weapons programme can be costly, however. It comes with isolation from the international community and devastating sanctions. But sometimes there are little alternatives, and when they do exist, they can be costly, too. Iraq faced sanctions over a similar weapons programme that killed half a million children. While the world was pushing them to dismantle its programme, North Korea watched. Saddam eventually complied and his weapons of mass destruction were destroyed. Soon after surrendering his deterrent, the U.S invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam and executed him. Iran is another example. They suffered massive losses from a U.S-backed Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. A nuclear deterrent might have been considered as an option to prevent something like that from ever happening again. But today they have complied with almost all the requests made by the international community, trying to end sanctions crippling their economy. Trump, cheered on by Israel, has recently decided not to certify the nuclear deal. If it were terminated, Iran would continue facing sanctions, having suffered only to gain nothing through years of negotiations. We have yet to see a happy ending for countries that have complied with the same demands being made of North Korea today.
It might seem that we have reached an impasse in trying to reign in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Yet in the past we have come close to stopping the program entirely. In 1994 a promise was made to dismantle the program in exchange for “full normalization of relations between the U.S and North Korea”. That fell apart when the U.S failed to meet its own obligations. North Korea had requested light-water nuclear reactors that were never built. It was not removed from the state department’s Sponsors of Terrorism list until 2008. It took six years after the agreement for the U.S to give a “formal assurance” that it would not attack North Korea, and only then were a few of the sanctions eased. Again in 2005, North Korea agreed to end its nuclear weapons program and join the non-proliferation treaty in exchange for “energy, economic aid and a U.S promise not to attack”. The U.S stalled and provoked the North Koreans by freezing some of their bank accounts. Eventually the talks collapsed and the weapons programme resumed. Today we have reached a point where a totally denuclearized Korean peninsula seems too ambitious. Now the West will settle for just freezing the missile tests. The North Koreans have also agreed to this, in exchange for a “reduced American military footprint in the Korean Peninsula”. It was immediately rejected by the U.S. A strange history of noncompliance by a country so dedicated to international security.
We could continue to impose sanctions that disproportionately target North Korea’s civilian population. We could consider a military option that would surely level North Korea to the ground and see South Korea’s infrastructure destroyed in retaliatory strikes. But we can also consider the untried option. We can understand that North Korea is acting out of rational fear and that any deal involves concessions being made on both ends. The international community could lift sanctions and push for the demilitarization of the peninsula, in both countries. The U.S could stop rejecting talks with Pyongyang, listen to their demands and meet those demands when agreements are made. A serious diplomatic approach has never been taken. It might be the time to try it.
Cover photo: Clay Gilliland
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