“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you” Joseph Heller
When Kim Jong Il, ruler of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, died on December 17, 2011, and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un, onlookers began to assume that the little nation would open itself up to the world. Kim Jong Un had, after all, been educated in Switzerland and surely had a better understanding of the world than either his father or grandfather. He also had a pretty wife who actually appeared with him in public. It was hoped that he would seek friendlier relationships both with his neighbor to the south and with the United States.
Instead, the North has become more bellicose than ever by proudly boasting of nuclear weapons and long-range rockets equipped to carry them, and issuing inane threats to obliterate both Washington, D.C., and Seoul. After first threatening to do so unless the United States and South Korea canceled their annual military exercises, North Korea committed its final “irrational” act of canceling the truce agreement that has served to maintain a modicum of peace on the Korean peninsula for 50 years, an act that has unleashed a firestorm of condemnation by the corporate owned media and various governments around the world. Never mind that the truce agreement has been violated countless times over the years by all signers of the agreement.
The invective hurled at Kim Jong Un by the media is parroted by the average citizen with some interesting twists added in.
Why is Kim so fat when his people are starving?
Why are so many of the country’s meager resources committed to maintaining its military forces?
Don’t they know that attacking the United States would mean their total destruction as a nation?
Well, of course they do but the hysterical overreaction to their threats and actions suggest that at least they have succeeded in getting our attention.
Most of these questions and others like them are based on an over-reliance on a very skimpy understanding of history and the inability to move outside Western thought patterns. The lack of historical understanding cannot be cured in a brief article like this but to put matters in very simple terms, America has done a lousy job of relating to Korea over the years, beginning with Washington’s major role in dividing the nation at the end of World War II. One could even make a case for saying that America’s primary intention in Southeast Asia for the past half century has been the demise of North Korea.
In that context, the actions and rhetoric of the North seem more defensive than aggressive.
Regarding the thought patterns, Americans who would seek to understand the bellicosity must try to stop thinking like citizens of the most powerful nation in the world and try to place themselves in a tiny nation with a population of under 30 million surrounded by hostile forces and with virtually no allies. It has existed for many years under the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. The most powerful nation in the world has for decades threatened its destruction and a recent president of that nation lumped it along with Iraq and Iran as “an axis of evil.” When the U.S. invaded Iraq the lesson was not lost on North Korea.
The United States has also persuaded the rest of the world to impose the strongest sanctions ever enforced on any nation. In response to successful nuclear and rocketry tests, Washington convinced the UN to sponsor even stronger sanctions.
Given these realities it may be possible that North Korea is reacting defensively in the only way it has available.
Since the cessation of hostilities in 1953, North Korea has requested three concessions from the United States: replacement of the armistice agreement with a genuine peace accord, a non-aggression pact, and diplomatic recognition. The United States has refused to consider all three.
The aggressive stance of the United States has not worked and the result has been to push North Korea closer and closer to a war-time posture.
Calls for diplomatic solutions have, in the past, been labeled naïve. But the real naïveté lies in continuing the counter-productive policies of the half-century since the end of the war.
A more pragmatic stance would be one that has worked, for brief intervals, in the past. Get together and talk it through.
Gene Matthews is the co-author of “More Than Witnesses: How a Small Group of Missionaries Aided Korea’s Democratic Revolution.”