US President Trump has expressed increasing impatience with the diplomacy of patience that the United States has followed since the Obama presidency with regard to North Korea’s nuclear and missile build-up. If China is not able to induce North Korea to give up making an intercontinental ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear weapon that can reach Washington, D. C., Trump has warned, the US is ready to address the situation by its lonesome, laying all its terrible options on the table.
If China fails, it is not its fault. The US may be overestimating the influence of China with North Korea. The Democratic Republic of North Korea is not a mere client state of China. It has asserted itself as an orthodox communist state distinct from China and the defunct Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which have spectacularly transformed China and which have considerably influenced other Communist states have had apparently no effect in the DPRK. For its efforts at persuasion, China reportedly has been castigated by the DPRK for dancing to the tune of the US.
The US has sought to apply economic sanctions on North Korea through asking China to cut off its trade with the DPRK in essential commodities, something that China fears may bring down the government and sow disorder and strife in the Korean peninsula causing an untold number of refugees streaming through the borders into China. The US has also imposed sanctions on Chinese banks and other companies doing business with North Korea. It may be incredibly naïve of the US to think that a country on pain of economic deprivations that it is used to anyway could give up a program that it considers vital to its security and national pride. Other poor countries previously developed nuclear weapons even if their people ate grass. (In fact, nobody ate grass!)
Yet the threat of President Trump to take matters into his own hands is alarming. With his America First policy, Trump might venture into a course of action without regard for its consequences for the people of Korea and nearby countries. Those consequences could be considered most tragic because they are borne of a failure on the part of the US to comprehend the anxieties and tensions of the North Korean leaders and people brought in no small measure by its very policies and actions.
The US obsession with the nuclear and missile program of the DPRK is like dealing with the symptoms rather than the disease. The disease began with the division of the Korean peninsula, became malignant when the peninsula broke up along the ideological divide of the Cold War with opposing governments established on each half, and both governments claiming to rule the whole peninsula. The Armistice of July 10, 1951 did not end the Korean War but did in fact prove to be, as the dictionary defines the word, but a temporary cessation of hostilities.
President Kim Jong-un has justifiably traced his bellicosity to the continued existence of a state of war between South Korea and North Korea. Little of the history of relations between North and South since the armistice belie this point. The United States, with the help and cooperation of China, should have spent its diplomacy on brokering a peace treaty between North and South Korea that would not only bring final closure to the Korean War but also open a new era of peaceful coexistence between them. As one expects today to happen naturally between neighboring countries, the treaty should provide for more active exchanges in trade, economic development, cultures and all kinds mutually beneficial and fostering friendship, goodwill and trust. As one would expect of a peace treaty, there should be provisions about demilitarization and denuclearization of the peninsula.
It might have been a more productive diplomacy if the question of the nuclear and missile build-up in the DPRK was considered in the context of a peace treaty that puts aside decades of enmity and mistrust among the parties concerned.
There have in fact been several attempts at reconciliation between the two Koreas, some of them even resulting in declarations of common intention to work at bringing about a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Why these efforts fizzled out is attributed by analysts to the difficulties brought about by the increasingly different political and economic systems of the two Koreas. But the hand of the United States could be seen in one well-publicized attempt to bring better relations between the Koreas. In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung initiated his “sunshine policy”. As recorded by online historians, US President George W. Bush did not support the policy. In the wake of 9-ll, Bush branded North Korea as a member of an “Axis of Evil” even though no North Korean was involved in 9-ll. Subsequently, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, sent away International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and fast-tracked its nuclear and missile program. The next President declared the sunshine policy of his predecessor a failure.
I thought the admission to the UN in 1991 of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as separate, sovereign countries was a positive thing, that their working together as such in the international community could be a basis for their undertaking in common even the most ambitious projects for the harmony and progress of the Korean peninsula. By the way, I found the North Koreans I worked with in UN conferences as genial, competent individuals with no less a sense of commitment to the good of mankind, especially those in the developing world. The portrayal in the media of North Koreans as robotic denizens of an isolated, inhuman country is sheer malicious propaganda.
Any peace treaty concluded today would be well-based on lessons to be learned from the many attempts at reconciliation and better relations between the two Koreas. It may be realistic and wise to found a peace treaty on the basic principle of the Koreas as two separate, sovereign nations. Reunification of the Korean peninsula cannot be an instant or short-term objective. The two Koreas have been so different politically and economically, reunification may only be possible after a journey of many steps.
That journey can be sustained by the thought that throughout its history before the Cold War, whether free or colonized, Korea was one nation, and despite vocabulary variations brought about by their physical separation, North and South speak the same language.
Who knows? As in EDSA in 1986 and in Berlin in 1989, a miracle might happen in the Korean peninsula.