Diplomacy versus Aggression: How to Avoid War with North Korea
By: Mary Bohn
The threat of the United States entering a nuclear war with North Korea has become not only a reoccurring topic in the media, but also has begun to resonate within communities as both viable and imminent. Many people have previously regarded war with North Korea as unlikely, assuming that the regime would be dismantled or surrender its nuclear arsenal. This assumption has become increasingly unlikely as aggression grows on both sides. The question of how to avoid a potentially catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula is vital, and there is a single answer: the current administration of the United States must seek diplomatic talks with North Korea.
As North Korea’s progressively frequent nuclear tests showcase the country’s nuclear weapon program, domestic and international audiences alike are growing more alarmed and frustrated. On September 3rd, 2017, North Korea performed a nuclear weapon test with a bomb powerful enough to sink the 83-meter mountain top, under which the test was performed. The regime announced that North Korea had tested a hydrogen bomb soon after U.S. seismic tests detected the explosion. Following this, the U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis tentatively confirmed the regime’s declaration, estimating the size of the explosion to have been at least 100 kilotons. This nuclear test followed North Korea’s launch of a missile in late August that reached across Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. These demonstrations display the magnitude and reach of destruction North Korea could incite, and we are not yet aware of North Korea’s nuclear program’s full size. The threat North Korea’s nuclear weapon program may pose to the Asia-pacific region and the West Coast of the United States is deadly. These recent demonstrations are neither singular nor surprising, as they come after a long string of North Korean nuclear demonstrations which began with Kim Jong Un’s leadership in 2010. Since then, North Korean leadership has been emboldened to further showcase its willingness to go to war with the United States and South Korea through the regime’s nuclear and missile tests.
In response to the North Korean regime’s showmanship, there have been varying responses among world leaders. The two most prominent positions are that of the South Korean president Moon Jae-In, who seeks diplomatic relations with North Korea, and that of the United States’ president Donald Trump, who seeks to intimidate the regime into submission. The voice of Moon Jae-In has been smothered by the U.S. president’s bold antagonism towards North Korea. The threatening tweets and declarations of President Trump have only exacerbated the tense situation and legitimized North Korean narratives of U.S. aggression in the minds of North Korean leadership.
Elected in May 2017, leftist President Moon Jae-In hopes to advance South Korea’s halted economic cooperation with North Korea and begin conciliatory talks with North Korean leadership. While right-wing Korean leaders hold similar views to the U.S., maintaining policies to disengage, isolate, and threaten North Korea, left-wing political leadership has historically vied for more amicable relations with its northern neighbors. These relations have included programs of economic cooperation and allowing for families torn apart by the Korean war to visit each other. After the impeachment of far right-wing South Korean President Park Geun Hye in late 2016, space has opened in South Korea for leftist leadership to advocate for a recommencement of diplomatic relations between the two Koreas.
Diplomatic relations between the North and South would reduce the intense animosity between the once-unified Koreas. With the decrease of animosity on the Korean peninsula, the possibility of war erupting is low. A war with North Korea would almost definitely result in a massive loss of life on the Korean peninsula, and likely spread to other territories as well. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has repeatedly threatened to fire missiles at the US territory of Guam “if the US grows ‘more reckless’” in hostile rhetoric or action. Kim Jong Un will likely not hesitate to use the nuclear bomb North Korea now possesses to harm the U.S. or South Korea if conflicts begin. However, despite rhetoric of North Korean leadership claiming that North Korea would demolish the US in a war, North Korean leadership is well aware of the dismal situation which would ensue if a war were to break out. It is improbable that Kim Jong Un believes North Korea to be capable of winning in a nuclear clash; a simple google search provides information on the U.S.’s extensive nuclear arsenal and military resources. While Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership are certainly petulant and violent, they are not suicidal.
The North Korean regime may not be suicidal, but it is fiercely nationalistic and willing to wage war in order to protect its sovereignty. North Korean nationalist propaganda permeates all levels of the society: nationalistic posters are hung on almost every wall in the streets of Pyongyang, families are required to hang pictures of their nation’s venerable leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in their homes, and all forms of cultural expression such as media, literature, and news are controlled to emulate socialist and nationalistic ideals. The influence of North Korean propaganda is widespread; according to North Korean officials, more than 3 million citizens have already volunteered to aid in war efforts against the U.S.. This figure is not hard to believe considering the strong anti-U.S. sentiments international journalists encounter when they visit Pyongyang. North Korean messages of nationalism couple a deep hatred towards US “imperlialists;” North Korean anti-US propaganda often includes violent scenes of hostility towards the U.S. and its citizens.
High-level North Korean officials maintain that war with the US would be “preventative” of US aggression rather than stemming from North Korean desire for conflict. North Korea has repeatedly pointed to the United States’ increased aggression as the reason for conflict between the two countries. The current president Donald Trump’s tweets naming Kim Jong Un, the nation’s revered leader, “rocket man” and threatening to “totally” destroy North Korea if the regimes harms the U.S. only serve to feed North Korea’s anti-U.S. narrative.
When North Korean representatives are asked by U.S. representatives if a combination of economic benefits and security guarantees could inspire North Korea to surrender their nuclear program, the answer is an unbending “no.” North Korean officials believe that, if they were to surrender their program, the U.S. would undoubtedly invade the nation, dismantle North Korean leadership, and take control of the country. They cite Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as evidence for this supposition. Eight years after Qaddafi agreed to surrender all of his weaponry, the U.S. and NATO overthrew the leader. Qaddafi was captured, killed and humiliated. With North Korea’s determination to stand strong and sovereign against foreign powers, the U.S.’s goal of coaxing the country to yield its nuclear program through negotiation or intimidation is improbable.
The current approach of the U.S. administration is only escalating the threat of nuclear conflict. In order for this war to be prevented, the U.S. must attempt to conduct diplomatic talks through the U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. foreign representatives entering conversation with North Korean officials. The U.S. Secretary of State has repeatedly voiced his desire to search for alternative solutions to possible conflict with North Korea. In order for diplomatic efforts to proceed, the U.S. President Donald Trump must voice his support for seeking such alternative means to alleviating tension and explicitly endorse the diplomatic efforts of the Secretary of State. In addition, the U.S. must drop its requirement of North Korea to give up its nuclear program. There is no indication that North Korea will ever surrender its nuclear arsenal, as the regime views their nuclear program as key to maintaining the regime’s sovereignty. An agreement must be proposed between the two nations that allows for North Korea to maintain its nuclear program while demanding for the regime to cease hostile military displays. The U.S. must seek to avoid a war wherein millions of Koreans, Americans, and perhaps even more civilians may perish. Countless human lives are more valuable than the belligerent pride and nationalism of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.