Both the US and North Korea are making threats without any clear idea of what they are trying to achieve.
The present cliff edge in US-North Korean relations stems from the Trump administration being solely focused on the symptom of the nuclear threat rather than the underlying disease that has brought us to this point. A more profound diagnosis is needed if we are to resolve this problem peacefully.
North Korea needs neither be an intractable problem, nor an issue that can be resolved by force alone. Unlike many other international dilemmas, there are no incompatible outcomes to the disputes that divide Pyongyang from the rest of the world. North Korea does not lay claim to the territory of any other nation and is not trying to proselytize its ideology or foment revolution abroad. Compare this with the overseas policies of Iran, Russia or China. They all claim territories beyond their borders and have all actively sought to subvert the political systems of other countries.
North Korea has done neither, nor has it even aspired to, since its failed invasion of the south in the aftermath of the Second World War. North Korea has of course done many horrible things: the cruel persecution of its own people, the assassination of political opponents, the kidnapping of innocent Japanese and the sinking of South Korean vessels. But similar charges could be brought against some of America’s closest allies too. So, why is North Korea a problem at all?
The reason is that the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is determined to develop his nuclear and missile capability to ensure his own survival and that of his regime. His paranoid fear that the United States wishes to force regime change in North Korea has some foundation, and he has reasons not to trust US intentions. The most recent significant rupture in relations with the US was the failure of the agreement between Washington and Pyongyang at the Six Party Talks in September 2005. Back then, North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear-weapons development and return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the same week in which the deal was signed — including a pledge from both North Korea and the US to respect each other’s sovereignty, to coexist peacefully and to normalize relations — the US administration imposed sanctions on the Macau-based Delta Asia Bank, where North Korea had many important accounts.
Pyongyang saw these sanctions as contrary to American commitment to non-aggressive relations, and in retaliation boycotted the Six Party Talks and made it clear that North Korea would not return until the sanctions were lifted. Throughout 2006, Pyongyang sent diplomatic signals that it was willing to negotiate with the US. The Bush administration rebuffed or perhaps misunderstood all of Pyongyang’s overtures. In late 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test and the current cycle of crises was launched.
North Korea’s regime and the cult of personality it is grounded in has its roots in the Shinto mythology of the Japanese imperial rule of Korea until 1945. In those days, the Meiji emperor was believed to have divine power to rule over his racially pure Japanese subjects and their subject nations. The Japanese promulgated the concept of sonno joi — “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” — and associated the emperor with the mythology of the sacred Mount Fuji. Moreover, they established a personality cult that worshipped Emperor Hirohito.
After 1945, the Japanese Empire and ideology were dissolved, but the latter was not eradicated in communist Korea. In fact, the great leader, Kim Il-sung, adopted and adapted to the Japanese approach. He initiated the philosophy of juche — a xenophobic, racially pure self-reliance similar to sonno joi. Kim Il-sung also invented the myth of the mystical and sacred Mount Paektu bloodline, which gives Kim Il-sung’s descendants a transcendent right to rule the country, again similar to the myth of Mount Fuji. Above all, he established the pervasive personality cult that exactly mirrors the Japanese worship of Emperor Hirohito.
But unlike prewar Japan, North Korea has not sought to establish an empire and, since the Korean War, has pursued self-reliance and internal self-sufficiency. Kim Il-sung learned well what happened to Japan in 1945. Nevertheless, North Korean xenophobia and insecurity have nurtured a national persecution complex. The loyalty of the army is the foundation of the Kim family’s hold on power in North Korea. Combined with chronic paranoia, the result has been an enormous military machine, the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Let it Collapse
The North Koreans have also been keen observers of what has happened to other countries that have failed to develop convincing defense against super-power strength. They know that Iraq and Libya would have been dealt with differently if they had possessed nuclear weapons. They have noted how the international community has negotiated with Iran rather than threaten it.
Unfortunately, and possibly unwittingly, the US has fed North Korean paranoia by a process of negotiating agreements and then reneging on their commitments. Of course, the US might and does put forward the same charge against North Korea, but this has brought us to the point where both sides are now making threats without any clear idea of what they are trying to achieve.
No one wants a catastrophic war with North Korea. What North Korea, or rather Kim Jong-un, wants is to be left alone, to remain in power and to pursue his own destiny — a grim one for the North Korean people but not one that threatens destruction of its neighbors. The inevitable crumbling of the ridiculous North Korean regime will bring the same problems and opportunities to the region that the end of the Soviet Union brought to Eastern Europe, as well as a much more preferable set of problems than the aftermath of a nuclear exchange or even a North Korean artillery bombardment of its southern neighbor.
Let it collapse under its own contradictions. The US and the region should have no interest in forcing the issue.
Despite their peculiarities, the North Koreans have showed themselves to be rational actors and willing to agree verifiable treaties under international safeguards. Trust is currently low but could be built up again to 2005 levels. Threats of “fire and fury” from President Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un’s promise to annihilate Guam are not a promising start to what will be a long journey. Mature, thoughtful leadership from the White House, supported by China, could take the first step. Fortunately we have such leadership … . Oh, wait.
*[This article was updated on September 3, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.