US-North Korea Contretemps

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It was almost inevitable that the longstanding antagonism between the United States and North Korea would come to a head sooner rather than later, in the early days of the Trump presidency. Many people do not realize that the Korean War is not over. The year 1953 only represents an armistice between the two Koreas divided by the 37th parallel. North Korea is a state which has become somewhat paranoid because of its history of subjugation by the imperial Japanese before and during World War II. The North Koreans have not forgotten the brutality imposed on the Korean people by the Japanese war party, an egregious example of which was the enforced prostitution suffered by Korean women servicing Japanese soldiers during World War II. The Korean War pitted the United States (and its western allies) against North Korea and China. From the founder of North Korea, Kim il Sung to his grandson, the wildly eccentric and cruel, Kim Jong Eun, the North Korean people have suffered what many writers consider to be an extreme version of Stalinism. North Korea is the only state in the world which still adheres to Stalinist principles, while the rest of the world has rejected Stalinism and Communism. Not unexpectedly, while South Korea is thriving through its capitalist ideology, North Korea is seriously poor and has an income around 16 times less than South Korea. In a country which is almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, where there is no internet or social media sources to inform its benighted citizens how far behind they are lagging from their neighbors, South Korea, China and Japan, life for most is nasty, brutish and short.

Meanwhile the no-war and no-peace standoff between a US supported South Korea and a North Korea which is comparatively isolated with only the Chinese government providing a political, economic and trade outlet to it, is a situation fraught with uncertainty. North Korea which is extremely afraid of US supported South Korea (around 32,000 US soldiers are stationed in South Korea) bristling with US supplied weaponry has devoted whatever resources it has largely to become a nuclear weapon power. It has recently also demonstrated troubling advances in its ability to mount nuclear warheads on it ballistic missiles. Kim Jong Eun, the erratic North Korean leader, has boasted that his country’s nuclear missiles could reach the United States. North Korea would not hesitate to use its nuclear and conventional arsenal to defend itself against a preemptive attack by the United States or through a combination of US and South Korea.

Not only South Korea but Japan toward which North Korea has fired some missiles recently, which fell into the sea but also China is deeply concerned in case intentionally or unintentionally war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula through an American preemptive attack to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear assets and possibly effect regime change in North Korea. Some circles in the United States who are members of the Trump administration are advocating a militaristic approach to the standoff. It is not known whether President Trump will authorize military action against North Korea. What is perhaps better known is that the North Koreans are well-prepared to confront a military attack. It is unlikely that given Pyongyang’s military and nuclear assets that it will cave in to an American blitzkrieg. North Korea is not Iraq. The former will be a much tougher nut to crack. The South Koreans and the Japanese are extremely nervous at the deployment of the US military option against North Korea, as their populations are likely to suffer the most in the expected North Korean riposte. China could be no less worried because in the event of war and the ensuing chaos, thousands if not millions of North Korean refugees displaced by the war would be streaming toward China for food and shelter.

The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who is visiting South East Asia, has had meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and reportedly agreed to persuade North Korea to desist from its militaristic posturing. Let’s hope the two officials can calm down Kim Jong Eun. It would be important as a measure of de-escalation for the US to restart the six nation talks with North Korea to consider not only the nuclear issue but the wider issues relating to effecting a permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula between the United States, South Korea and North Korea. It should be clearly understood that diplomacy and not the drums of war can bring this crisis back from the brink. Countries like the United States, China, Japan and South Korea have to work in concert to persuade North Korea that the diplomatic option is once again in play.

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