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Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 12:14 am

The U.S. and North Korea: Give peace a chance

This triangle of the world is where the two world powers brush up against each other in a perilous friction caused by an upstart nuclear power. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, threatens to hit us with nuclear fire. Perhaps after decades of failed U.S. policy it is time to try something new. 

From the perspective of North Korea, a small fry among big fish, keeping big marauders at bay using nuclear threats makes good sense. Kim Jong Un is no fool. He looks a bit funny to our eyes, but his people view him as defending their small country. His sole objective is to remain in charge. Yes, the maniacal repression of his people and the imposed isolation and dire poverty of the populace is reprehensible. Nevertheless, his proclamation that he is defending the homeland from foreign attackers by developing nuclear missiles makes sense to his people. The U.S. is seen as a lurking marauder that strikes countries at will. Their Exhibit A would include the Congo with Lumumba, Iran with Mosaddegh, Suharto in Indonesia, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Allende in Chile and, more recently, Hussein in Iraq.

What do these countries all not have in common? Nuclear retaliatory capabilities. In the view of North Korea leaders, these countries lost their leaders because they had no nuclear counterpunch. So what should a rational North Korea do to protect itself in such a vulnerable world? Very simple: acquire nuclear weaponry and rockets as soon as possible. This they have done. They now threaten South Korea, the U.S. and Japan with their artillery and nuclear missiles.

China is the major player in this neighborhood and is now a giant power in Asia. History tells us that major powers, and especially China, do not want pesky, unfriendly countries next to them. Historically, China had sufficient cultural and military power to surround itself with subservient powers. How long will China allow a close U.S. ally nearby? South Korea is very close, just across a bay of water, and bound in alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the U.S. has 35,000 troops stationed only minutes away from North Korean artillery. Even after 65 years, no peace treaty has been signed between the two Koreas. As we all know, the U.S. cannot use military power against North Korea because our troops and the 3 million Koreans in Seoul are held hostage by North Korean artillery.

One new factor in the neighborhood is the just-elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, who was elected on a platform to seek peace with the North. Possibly the South Korean people are tired of living on a knife edge.

Is it possible to break out of this perilous deadlock? Removing the fuse of North Korea would be a win-win for many countries. The U.S. wants security from North Korea while North Korea wants security from the U.S.; China wants stability in North Korea and a neutralized South Korea, while South Korea wants peace and stability on its peninsula.

History reveals that often a radically altered perception of the nature of the problem is the only way to break out of an existing mindset. Rather than, in our case, thinking more sanctions will do the trick, perhaps what is needed is a new way of seeing the problem. Metternich did this for Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, inviting France to the peace conference. World War I exploded because European powers failed to reevaluate the conundrum of nationalism.

So what radical new overview of North Asia might be used to bring all four countries together in negotiation? Could it be a peace treaty between South Korea and North Korea, brokered by the U.S., Japan and China? The treaty could stipulate that the Korean peninsula be nuclear-free, along with the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, including the lapse of the U.S.-South Korea security treaty. In addition, the U.S. and China could guarantee the security and sovereignty of both North Korea and South Korea. China and South Korea could provide aid for the development of North Korea. Kim Jong Un would be a national hero to his people, bringing them peace and security and economic development. China would no longer fear a mass inflow of people from war or collapse of the North Korean regime. The U.S. would be safe from attack.

To accept the existing U.S. and North Korea standoff as unresolvable is unacceptable. To believe that military power will solve the geopolitical situation in North Asia is folly. Why not try something new?
 
Roy Wehrle of Springfield, formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. State Department, is now Professor Emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield.
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