North Korea

© Michael Bassett

Cultural Engagement, Not Military, Will End the Korean War

The Korean War is the root cause of all human suffering on the peninsula. The cycle must be broken, says Michael Bassett. 

In 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and the world responded by inducing a period of brinksmanship that came dangerously close to spiraling the unending Korean War out of control. US President Barack Obama must have imagined himself as JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, expecting to be historically embraced as one of America’s greatest for going nose-to-nose with communism, based on a nuclear gamble that could have led to global destruction.

The problem with Obama’s 2013 gamble was the lack of communication. And North Korea, unlike Cuba in 1962, poses the real concern of becoming a suicidal state. Should we push the country to the brink of suicide, there is a real danger that Pyongyang could start the first nuclear war by launching a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile from a submarine patiently waiting at the bottom of the Yellow Sea or the Atlantic Ocean into the White or Blue House, respectively.

Mass Hysteria and Nuclear Brinksmanship

Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2016, the United States’ allies have vowed a harsh response. US Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that China join Washington’s “DIS Plan,” or Demonize, Isolate and Sanction. Kerry has long-held the position that China’s plan isn’t working, while insinuating that America’s has. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) test as “profoundly destabilizing to all of Asia,” and the United Nations (UN) is now a lead vocalist in the “DIS Plan Choir.”

At a US State Department briefing after the detonation, Matt Lee of the Associated Press struck the heart of conundrum by calling out Washington for denying reality: “[You say] we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear armed state. And yet it is. You also say this about other things too. You say you’ll never accept Crimea as a part of Russia. Yet it is. Isn’t it time to recognize these things for what they are and not live in this illusion or fantasy where you pretend that things that are, are not?”

America is essentially saying that there would have been no Cold War if we never recognized the Soviet Union as a nuclear state. The US State Department responded the following day in obvious frustration that Dennis Rodman is better at diplomacy than Washington.

The catch 22: The US will not talk to North Korea without the country agreeing to completely abandon its nuclear program first, and Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear program under any circumstances. The result is a North Korea that proliferates its program in isolation, while the outside world pushes it closer to using its WMDs for something other than defensive purposes.

The US, in the meantime, believes the “DIS Plan” will change North Korea’s behavior, despite a long history of the exact opposite outcome resulting from of our misguided policies. We must try something new, such as: end the war and normalize, engage and develop North Korea if we want to see different results.

This is the essence of the stalemate, but what is the cause, and what are the solutions?

North Korea’s rationale

Following North Korea’s test of a hydrogen bomb, the Korean Central News Agency stated: “Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves.”

In other words, we cannot expect political change to precede foundational changes in society, relations and economics. It must be the other way around.

The causes of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions—the “DIS Plan,” omnipresent military provocation, and America’s history of being an unreliable negotiator—yielded the results we have now witnessed on this fourth nuclear test. The timing was predictable, given that Kim Jong-un’s birthday was two days after the test, that he is out of the mourning period, and that he is expected by some to institutionally transform the country at the WPK Congress.

North Korea, or the DPRK, has also been taught by the US that we are not a trustworthy partner in nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang witnessed the NATO offensive against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, not long after he gave up his WMD program in exchange for sanctions relief and security guarantees. Libya is now in a state of economic ruin and institutional chaos, and portions of the country are occupied by factions of extremist radicals. When Saddam Hussein let nuclear inspectors into Iraq, they looked for and found no evidence of WMDs, but we invaded in 2003 as part of regime change, leaving the entire Middle East worse off than Libya.

In 2015, the Japanese military legally regained full operational offensive capability; annual war games trumped diplomacy; B-2s fueled Pyongyang’s paranoia; the US threatened to put North Korea back on the State Sponsors of Terror List; the UN called for Kim Jong-un to be dragged off to the International Criminal Court; and the trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement created a stronger alliance surrounding the North Koreans on three sides. Furthermore, many international officials, including President Obama, called for the collapse of the North Korean regime.

Breaking the cycle

The “DIS Plan” has dominated the perpetuation of the Korean War for at least the past two decades, and it has only resulted in North Korea refining its ability to survive via mafia tactics.

The solutions are many, but all run directly in the face of what is popular in America. The US and North Korea have a lot of trust issues because the war has continued for so long, and because there is little-to-no communication between Washington and Pyongyang.

North Korea

© Michael Bassett

While the pros and cons of sanctions have been debated, many US and UN officials support increasing them, even though North Korea continues to develop and reform its country defiantly. North Korea has been heavily sanctioned, yet in 2014 its economy expanded to $29.8 billion, or 1%. And while advocates argue about the weakness of sanctions, Keith Luse, the director of the National Committee on North Korea, points out that at the minimum sanctions agitate the North Koreans, hurt the lower classes more than the elites, and actually cripple the reforms we desire to see them implement—especially on the humanitarian front.

North Koreans joke that America would sanction the air if it could. In reality, sanctions have failed and there will be no ramification to the test, according to Andrei Lankov, who states: “Ramifications? What ramifications? A bit of noise, and perhaps another UN Security Council resolution which will change little or nothing, but nothing of substance.”

If we used rational thinking skills, Obama would use his remaining time in office to try improve relations, says Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations. The US should broker a peace treaty in exchange for a nuclear freeze, and then do everything in its power to reduce tensions and facilitate the reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula.

Alesandre Mansaurov says America should “Gorbify,” “Cubify” and “Wi-Fi” North Korea as an alternate roadmap, adding: “The only right choice is to follow the Reagan model, vigorously engage and press hard the enemy across all lines of contact because proactive multifaceted engagement offers the most potential for effecting a fundamental change in the North’s behavior, although it may be politically difficult to advocate in Washington.”

In fact, there are numerous experts pressuring the Obama administration to improve relations with Pyongyang—ranging from, but not limited to, Christine AhnDoug Bandow and Aiden Foster-Carter to Stephen HaggardJoel Wit and Charles Armstrong. But have these voices of reason fallen on deaf ears?

In reality, Washington’s inability to end the Korean War will be a stain on its legacy and global reputation for centuries to come. So, how do we get the public to support engagement, especially after something as agitating as a hydrogen bomb test?

Creating spaces for normalized relations

Former US Defense Secretary William Perry argued that achieving normalization of relations with North Korea will require the US to deal with Pyongyang as it is, not how Washington wants it to be.

North Korea

© Michael Bassett

Tone-deaf to war drums, and far behind “enemy lines,” a group of public diplomacy “artists” are mulling over the conundrum, one engagement project at a time.

At the University of Cambridge, I recently attended a consortium of North Korea engagement practitioners who converged in one of the world’s tallest ivory towers of academia to discuss and share lessons learned from each other’s experiments in diplomacy with the DPRK. One lesson was crystal clear across the board: The only way to improve relations with North Korea is to carve out spaces where ideological differences can be put aside, and bridges built by engaging through a range of public diplomacy venues.

North Korea is often referred to as “the world’s longest ongoing performance.” Practitioners at the Engage DPRK event agreed with Jean Lee, who claimed that North Korea communicates who it is as a state through sports, culture, the arts, performances and other forms of artistic expression. Together, we arrived at the consensus that the best way to communicate with and understand North Korea is to operate within these spaces and expand them.

It is incredibly convoluted for the US to expect any type of political reform without any bridges built, or any ideological differences being reduced. Washington should, therefore, take some lessons from Dennis Rodman and the various engagement practitioners at the Engage DPRK event. For the price of one nuclear weapon, the following forms of engagement can be deployed to effectively negate the need for military confrontation:

1) Tourism: Regular US-North Korea tourism exchanges will build trust and reduce misperceptions between countries

2) The Arts: Painting, dance, sculpting, music and other arts venues are conduits for knowing the heart and mind of the artist expressing their performance

3) Education: The scientific method, for example, challenges its students to think more critically and independently, learn each other’s languages, and achieve enlightenment through academic rigor

4) Sports: Focusing on peaceful competition, countries can battle out their differences within the safe confines of stadiums

These are just a few examples, but the sky is the limit. Any creative collaboration one could possibly imagine between the US and North Korea is not only theoretically possible, but an actual reality. The DPRK may seem hostile, but it is actually open for business on any of these fronts. It is time to deploy troupes of artists, rather than military troops, to end the Korean War.

To achieve these ends, the US State Department must act like the foundation of American diplomacy it was created to be and establish a “Department of Cultural Exchange.” It should start practicing true engagement based on lessons learned from the brave and underappreciated heroes of international affairs—the artists who are on the ground building bridges and making a positive difference, despite the bellicose rhetoric.

If the goal of “strategic patience” is not to achieve improved relations, then what is it about?

The obvious answer: regime change—something that will destabilize yet another corner of the world. America is probably about one regime change away from being on the receiving end of the “DIS Plan.” Hopefully our leaders are considering that reality in their policymaking process.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Michael Bassett


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