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North Korea Threatens Guam: A 21st-Century Pearl Harbor?

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Japanese photograph taken during the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941. © Everett Historical

August 17, 2017 18:30 EDT

Under the premise that Pearl Harbor has been a grave miscalculation, we find similarities between 1940 and what is happening with North Korea today.

The parallels between pre-World War II US foreign policy in Japan and what we are observing today in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are daunting. Economic sanctions, a consensus that “the enemy” won’t dare to attack the US and the “they’re mad” rhetoric are all resemblances revealing of the similitude of these scenarios. Could this indicate that North Korea is on the verge of repeating history in the form of a 21st-century Pearl Harbor?

“Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.” These were the words uttered by the American Congressman Hamilton Fish in 1941 after the Japanese had just launched an attack on Pearl Harbor and war doomed on the country. Similarly, a Google search with the keywords “North Korea” and “crazy” will showcase numerous articles arguing how ‘insane’ nuking the US would be.

Is it that crazy though? Probably. But that is besides the point. Like in Japan in the 1940s, the question is not whether striking the United States is a rational move or not, but whether North Korea is left with any other choice.

If Pearl Harbor were to be taken as a lesson for US foreign policy, it would lead to the conclusion that deterrence policies can have a counterproductive and adverse effect. As a side note, there is an ongoing debate on whether the US purposely pushed Japan beyond its limit to use it as a back door to enter World War II.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous

Under the premise that Pearl Harbor has been a grave miscalculation, we find similarities between the events in 1940 and what is happening now. The first and most striking similarity is the overarching consensus that Japan would never declare war on the US. This was partly justified: Simply comparing the size of both armies would show that the American artillery, for example, was 20 times bigger than Japan’s. This overarching accord serves to explain the “they’re mad” rhetoric that grew in the US after Pearl Harbor, since only very few believed the Japanese would go that far.

Similarly, North Korea’s military budget, which according to recent accounts amounts to a whopping 22% of its GDP, is dwarfed by the US annual military expenditure, estimated to be around $700 billion. This amounts to at least 70 times the DPRK’s estimated budget of $6 to $10 billion.

Further consolidating the analogy between the two East Asian countries is the often cited criticism of Western-centrism. Japan’s domestic political scene was often left unrecognized, ultimately leading American policymakers to neglect the nationalism, ideology and psychological factors swaying Japan. A Western framework that analyzes accounts in terms of balance of power severely underestimates statements illustrative of the Japanese mentality “death rather than humiliation.” Obviously, one major difference in current days is that we lack access to records of what is being discussed in the inner circles of North Korean policymakers. It is in no way my intention to assume similar statements are being uttered by DPRK officials but, rather, to stress that without appropriate cultural and societal insight foreign policy is bound to be misguided. Without any cultural and societal insight, paired with the lack of information, any understanding of North Korean foreign policy is bound to be misguided.

Lastly, the major parallel, which inspired this comparison in the first place, can be found in the diplomatic tools adopted to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions: economic sanctions.

History Lessons

On June 25, 1940, American official Stanley Hornbeck is quoted saying “nothing short of or less than the language of force.” Likewise, the incumbent American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has been celebrating the recent “strong message” to the DPRK that the most recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, which determined the cutback of North Korean exports, has sent. The emphasis on force and strength comes across as remarkably analogous.

In response to the Japanese occupation of Southern Indochina in July 1941, an executive order was issued to freeze all Japanese assets in the US. The effect of the sanctions was severe. Prior to the sanctions, approximately 80% of Japan’s fuel supplies were imported from the US. Having been cut off from most of its fuel supplies, Japan launched a pre-emptive attack on the US at Pearl Harbor to consolidate its position in the subsequent invasion of modern-day Indonesia, an alternative source of oil.

Comparatively, the sanctions delineated in the UNSC Resolution 2371 are estimated to cut North Korean exports by a third. Whether the impact of the sanctions can be juxtaposed or not is a matter up for debate. However, the historical parallels are undeniable.

Though historical parallels can be drawn, some key differences between both situations are salient. The DPRK, unlike Japan in the 1940s, does not have any expansionary ambitions. The nature of its fight differs and seems to be about regime preservation and establishing some kind of political leverage. Therefore, a pre-emptive strike in Guam — the US military base in Micronesia, ad imaginem Pearl Harbor — would serve merely the purpose of showcasing its force.

Moreover, the Japanese never announced to the world that they were going to launch an attack on Pearl Harbor. This key distinction suggests that North Korea’s aim is not so much to tangibly harm US troops but to attack what constitutes every democracy’s military Achilles’ heel: public opinion. The American public is largely opposed to a war in North Korea, and it is in the DPRK’s interest to foment internal contention through provocative statements.

So, how should the US cope with the DPRK?

Admittedly, the US finds itself in a precarious position. Avoiding nuclear proliferation in nonaligned countries comprises one of its most indispensable axioms. However, the contrary — namely, developing a nuclear arsenal — is axiomatic to North Korea’s foreign policy. How does one go about negotiating irreconcilable premises?

Pearl Harbor taught us that clashing motivations are bound to lead to war, unless a common ground can be found. Crucially, this is a reciprocal exercise; any unilateral approach taken by the DPRK or the US will only heighten tensions further. Deterrence policies, if applied too extremely, can lead to wars out of desperation, and chauvinism renders policymakers blind. Returning to the words of Congressman Fish, let us hope that, on both sides, sanity will prevail.

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

Photo Credit: Everett Historical /

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