North Korea is a despicable tyranny but who will bell this cat? Who in the United Nations, United States, Europe or Asia wants to drive into North Korea and insist that Kim Jong Un and his military leaders stop ruling over millions of its citizens as tyrants?
The United States learned a horrible lesson from 1950 to 1953 when we tried to fight them. We sent 341,000 troops and a small number of other U.N. member troops to assist 600,000 South Korean forces in their fight against 266,000 North Korean troops and 1.3 million Chinese “volunteer” soldiers.
After bitter, bloody battles across freezing mountains and valleys, we fought to a draw on the 38th Parallel, and you can now visit that Demilitarized Zone by bus tours leaving every morning from the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown Seoul.
It is like entering a time capsule to leave behind the spanking new, 21st-century efficient South Korea (per capita income is around $30,000 per year) to look across the border into the distant past of the Cold War where North Korea’s per capita income is $1,800 per year.
Across minefields and barbed wire there are tank traps and, beyond them, 10,000 Northern Korean artillery tubes ready to shower Seoul — only 20 miles away — with obliteration and death.
Friends and colleagues returning from Seoul say things are much more calm there than in the United States, where we are less accustomed to Northern bluster.
We are all wondering these days how to tame the powerful North Korean army of 1.2 million soldiers. Lately, Northern leader Kim Jong Un has threatened war, shifted missiles to the East Coast for possible launch, tested atom bombs, broke the armistice agreement and cut communications and trade links with the South.
I work with North Korean defectors who fled to China and eventually made their way to South Korea. Some have come to the United States under a U.S.-South Korean exchange program to study English and intern in American companies.
There are three questions I am asking them — and anyone else who knows the North: Do the North’s people and the army really believe their own propaganda that the North is threatened by the United States and needs to prepare to defend itself?
Do they also believe they are strong enough to take on and defeat the South and its ally the United States?
And finally, does it matter if the ordinary folk believe North Korea is a communist hell or a worker’s paradise threatened by imperialism? Is anyone going to consult public opinion in the North?
But wait. Let’s roll this crisis back a few years to its roots. Things used to be quiet on the North-South frontier. Even positive. A North-South industrial zone opened, rail links were set to reopen, South Korean tourists visited a scenic mountain park. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and danced with local children during a visit to meet then-dictator Kim Jong Il.
What happened? American politics happened.
Back in 1994, height of the biggest thaw since the Korean War ended, U.S. State Department negotiator Bob Gallucci visited Pyongyang and signed a Framework Agreement that called for:
• North Korea to shut down its nuclear reactor and give up spent fuel rods that could be used to build atom bombs.
• South Korea and Japan would build in the North twin nuclear power plants whose fuel rods are not easily converted to bomb fuel.
• New trade and tourism facilities would be set up.
In fact, the North did shut down its nuclear plant, Albright danced and tension ratcheted down, down, down.
At the same time there was a famine in the North. The U.S. House of Representatives, controlled for the first time in 50 years by Republicans and led by Newt Gingrich, refused administration entreaties to provide emergency food relief to the communist state. The Republicans reasoned that we could not verify where the food would go and it probably would feed the very military despots who put tens of thousands of people into concentration camps.
But the Congress was shamed into acting when one of its own Republican leaders — Andrew Natsios, a federal emergency relief official under Ronald Reagan who later headed the U.S. Agency for International Development — testified on the hill that the United States cannot morally let millions die of hunger because we hate their leaders.
But after agreeing to feed the North, Congress balked at the whole Nuclear Framework agreement and opened an investigation that ridiculed and lambasted the agreement. It particularly noted that North Korea was proliferating controlled technologies for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons to countries such as Libya and Iran.
Change for the worse
Then the White House changed hands and its new occupant, George W. Bush, pulled the rug out from under the Pyongyang Spring. In doing so, he humiliated both his own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, as well as South Korea’s peacenik president Kim Dae Jung — the Nobel Peace Laureate known for his Sunshine Policy of non-belligerence to the North.
It all took place when Kim Dae Jung was in Washington to meet the new U.S. president. Powell was asked if the new administration would respect the Framework thaw with the North and he said the policy would not change.
But minutes later Bush issued a contradictory statement saying the United States would not talk with the North.
Then Kim Dae Jung was humiliated — I was in the room as a reporter when he gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that was intended to shore up support for peace in the Korean peninsula. Instead, it marked the rebirth of Cold War tension.
Soon after this shift in U.S. policy, the building of the twin nuclear power plants in the North ground to a halt. Tourism shriveled and hostility increased.
I think that the North may not have understood our system — that even if the president wants something like a treaty or accord, the Congress can throw some pebbles in the gears and send everything spinning back down hill into the past.
The result is that the North has since then built and shot off a few atom bombs at least the size of the Hiroshima weapon. It is testing rockets with 2,500-mile range. The young leader seems to enjoy tweaking the beak of the world’s superpower. And it feels a bit like 1914 all over, when a world conflict was sparked by slow-motion increases of tension, an assassination, mobilization of all sides and eventually war.
Tough talk by either side does not seem to be very effective. Sending stealth bombers and fighters to the region seems unlikely to impress Kim Jong Un, who is clearly impressed mostly with his own genius as a would-be military leader. In fact, he might welcome the chance to prove his skills even if it costs a few thousand lives.
Foreign investors in South Korea apparently are also worried about Northern threats by Kim the younger — they have trimmed workforce plans until they see how far things will go.
I propose that we consider all these twists and turns and learn from them how to proceed.
What to do
Here are some ideas:
• Bring together Albright, former Arizona governor Bill Richardson, Bob Gallucci and even Dennis Rodman — any prominent American who has dealt with the North and may have friendships there. Create a non-official, Track II public diplomacy council to discuss with the North how to defuse tension in the region and improve living standards in the North.
• Restore efforts by prominent South Korean business, religious and political leaders to open dialogue with the North, possibly at first in neutral turf such as China.
• Resume food relief shipments and state clearly they are not intended as political moves but solely humanitarian gestures to fellow human beings in need.
•Open talks with North Korean diplomats in China, Russia, Geneva, New York and elsewhere on how to end the embargoes on financial transactions and trade
• Give the North what it has wanted for years — a peace treaty with the United States that guarantees the U.S. will not attack North Korea (did we ever intend to do so?) but still pledges to defend the South if it is attacked.
• Send in the ping-pong, wrestling, basketball and soccer teams; the musicians and dancers. Begin the bilateral sports and cultural exchanges that helped melt the U.S.-China bamboo curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Resume repatriation of remains of Korean War dead.
• Withdraw or play down the additional U.S. submarines, surface warships and airplanes sent as a show of force in recent weeks. Think of other confidence-building measures to reassure Kim that his country is not in danger.
• Let us accept that we cannot or will not send half a million troops to fight a long and bloody war on the Korean peninsula once more.
Only when we adopt such measures will we be able to bell that cat, Kim Jong Un.
Ben Barber was a senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency from 2003 to 2010.