Is North Korean diplomacy possible?
At a moment when tensions are at an all-time high between the United States and North Korea, it might behoove our country and the media at large to take a look at context, history and statements put out by North Korea. History is wonderful because it provides opportunities to learn, but you can’t learn from history if you aren’t willing to properly consider it.
North Korea has repeatedly asked the U.S. and South Korea to stop conducting military exercises depicting a fictional war, acting out the toppling of its regime only a few miles from its border. The U.S. government has conducted the exercises annually since 1968 and refuses to consider desisting as an option.
Despite the fact that much of the world seems to think North Korea is hell-bent on the destruction of the world, its actual demands have been absurdly simple. North Korea’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Su Yong was very clear in April 2016 about what it would take for the DPRK to put its nuclear tests to rest: “Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean peninsula,” Ri said. “Then we should also cease our nuclear tests.”
Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump have all said they were vaguely open to dialogue with North and South Korea about how to de-escalate tensions. However, North Korea has been committed to its stance and, in January 2015, offered to suspend nuclear tests if South Korea and the U.S. would also suspend their military exercises. Nonetheless, the U.S. effectively mocked this offer and laughed it off the table.
Jen Psaki was a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department at the time and said this offering “inappropriately” tied the U.S. and South Korean military exercises to North Korea’s nuclear testing. The only problem with that statement is that the U.S. refuses to listen. If you want to negotiate but refuse to listen to the other people at the table, you won’t get anywhere. If you want to get somewhere with North Korea, you need to listen to North Korea.
“There can be neither trust-based dialogue nor détente [the easing of hostility or strained relations] and stability on the peninsula in such a gruesome atmosphere in which war drills are staged against the dialogue partner,” an official North Korean statement asserted.
Dislike of a country doesn’t justify its destruction
North Korea is indeed a repressive country that, as a result of self-inflicted isolation, is not largely taking part in 21st-century modernization. Its buses and trains are old, people aren’t allowed to watch foreign media, and most of its citizens are living impoverished lives. The capital, Pyongyang, is a fictional utopia where the country’s less desirable citizens, including those in wheelchairs, are not allowed. There are many things to dislike about North Korea, but none of those things are justification for its complete destruction.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy toward North Korea has been excessively hostile, threatening to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In typical 45 style, Trump has name-called Kim Jong-Un “Rocket Man,” an aggressor who may leave the U.S. “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The U.S. is an international bully and the rest of the world knows it. North Koreans remember what happened when Libya gave up its weapons in 2003 at the request of then-President Bush, only to have its country dismantled by the U.S. eight years later. The rest of the world watches as the U.S. destroys the Middle East, dropping preposterous amounts of missiles, including the “Mother of all Bombs” for debatable intentions with equally debatable results.
Besides internal repression, North Korea has a track record of being relatively harmless. It has definitely picked fights with South Korea on occasion, but compared to the U.S., North Korea’s foreign policy could be called saintly.
On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in the U.S., who then retaliated with the war in Afghanistan, creating a death toll of over 100,000 Afghans and over 2,000 U.S. troops. The rest of the world has seen this, and they don’t really want to be anywhere near the vindictive U.S. military. North Korea doesn’t want to fight a war with us, but they want us to know that they can go down swinging.
The U.S. has an overall pleasant geographic position. The Canadians don’t want to meddle in foreign conflicts, and Mexico also keeps to themselves. We are not in a war-torn, conflict-riddled part of the world. If Canada or Mexico were hosting military exercises targeting the U.S. just outside our border, would we not want our president to show a strong stance against these forceful taunts?
If you lived in North Korea and the U.S. was acting out a militarized play centered on your destruction with your neighbors, would you not also want your leader to disagree? If your leader kept asking for it to stop and no one listened, would you support your leader’s decision to develop weapons that make the rest of the world take you more seriously?
Nuclear weapons largely appear to be bargaining chips, developed solely to prove North Korea’s legitimacy as a country that deserves to have conversations about its own self-interests. Listen to what North Korea wants, consider taking those requests seriously, and who knows, maybe we’ll actually get somewhere. You’re right Trump, conducting war games annually for decades hasn’t done anything productive for our relationship with North Korea and “Rocket Man.” So perhaps we should give suspending those exercises a try, and we might as well listen to Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” because that’s pretty cool too.