We’ve been Wrong with our Approach to North Korea for Years
It’s that time of year again, when fears of global thermonuclear war flood newspaper covers, Facebook feeds, and arguments over the family dinner table. Are we afraid of India and Pakistan finally snapping this time? Or is it Israel – Palestine? Nope, Kim Jong-Un is back in fashion. Everyone’s favourite geopolitical punching bag, North Korea, is once again in the news, with more fear-mongering of impending nuclear attack and the outbreak of World War III. Same old story. Or is it?
Unfortunately, now might just be the time to get serious about the DPRK: while the country has always been a source of concern for international safety, it has seldom been more than a game of call-my-bluff. Despite G. W. Bush’s famous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech, it has also rarely been a plausible scenario that the United States would ever instigate a conflict with North Korea or allow one to develop. In the past, China has always been pivotal in ensuring this: as one of the nation’s only allies, China has deterred the west from intervening in Korea, both through actively fighting against the UN during the Korean war,through opposition to foreign initiatives in the region.
But now, things are different. Firstly, Trump is no average President. For better or for worse, he has shown himself to be hawkish even by American standards, performing a massive U-turn on his non-interventionist campaign promises. Trump’s decision to send warships to North Korea shows how he is clearly not afraid to use force in the region, something which previous Presidents have shied away from. Adding to that, China has joined the United States in drawing a red line on North Korean missile tests, and has even sent troops to border regions. Both of these factors combined have altered the status quo regarding North Korea, and the prospect of war no longer seems so far-fetched.
Trump’s “strong” foreign policy actually seems to be the desire of many, especially among neo-conservatives. Following Trump’s use of the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ in Afghanistan, many supporters are now praising the President’s and the Secretary of Defense’s particularly hard-line approach. Many are calling for a similarly violent solution to North Korea as was used in Syria; some in the name of humanitarian intervention, others in the name of peace preservation. And yet, both of these approaches are wrong.
A conflict between the western world, South Korea and North Korea, even if China stays uninvolved, would imply the death of hundreds and thousands of people, as well as placing neighbouring countries such as Japan and South Korea in huge jeopardy. While a Western victory in such a conflict is certainly plausible, even likely, the violent reunification of Korea would be followed by years of civil unrest from the still indoctrinated Northern population, economic turmoil, and likely an influx of refugees into China. Furthermore, while North Korea most likely does not have the capabilities to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, there is always the fear that a conflict may result in the use of a nuclear weapon on South Korea or Japan – after all, North Korea is unpredictable even in peacetime, or at least as close to peacetime as the Korean peninsula can get (technically the two are still at war). Thus, a violent conflict is not only unnecessary, it would likely cause far more harm than good.
What approach should be taken then? In one word: dialogue. Many people often fail to consider just why North Korea is so defensive. We’re dealing with a nation that has been at the centre of scrutiny for decades; it has been the target of sanctions for the most part of its existence, and it has constantly perceived itself as being under threat of foreign interventions. Is this to say that North Korea’s nuclear proliferation or military-first philosophy is justified? Absolutely not. But it does suggest that dialogue with the country may ease tensions. After all, the last time ‘sunshine policy’ (the term given to the cooperative approaches taken during the 1990’s/Early 2000’s) was tried, North-South Korean relations were improved, fear of war was far lower, and the North behaved far less aggressively.
We may even consider that most powerful of unifying factors: trade. Following the terrible famines of the 1990’s, small markets (called ‘jangmadangs’) began popping up in North Korea, restructuring the country’s centralised economy and giving thousands of North Koreans access to South Korean and American films and TV shows. This alone has done more to spur change in the DPRK than sanctions or threats of war have ever done.
Only through dialogue can North Koreans learn about the outside world. Only through trade can North Koreans learn the benefits of capitalism. Only through peaceful cooperation will North Korea ever change.
This brings me to the crux of my argument: the North Korean people are the key to change in the DPRK. The only way to see change in the country, and to guarantee peace on the peninsula, is to allow the people of North Korea to learn about the outside world, to experience capitalism and to break free of a lifetime of indoctrination. Many people seem to forget how vulnerable a society becomes, as it transitions out of totalitarianism. North Koreans will never view western military intervention as liberation, but instead as imperialists and invaders. As such, in the case of Korea, violence will only beget more violence: it’s time for both the DPRK and the USA to stop flexing their muscles, and to start working towards a long term, peaceful answer to the Korean question.
Richard Mason is a European Studies Student at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Initially coming from the UK, he got involved in the Liberty movement after coming to Maastricht, but has been a passionate libertarian for much longer. He is currently the Vice President of Maastricht Students For Liberty.
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