Live from the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russian President Vladimir Putin “North Korea will ‘eat grass’ before giving up nukes.” The simple truth and logic of the statement came through loud and clear for most sane people – sanctions and sabre rattling always serve to aggravate and separate nations. But Mr. Putin’s pragmatism provokes the question, “What about what North Korea wants?”
Has anyone every relayed the other side of the Pyongyang’s side of the unending crisis on the Korean peninsula? If anyone did, I know no American citizen was ever made aware. Since the Soviet Union and the United States separated Korea after World War II a constant state of friction has existed between North and South. And since North Korea invaded the South causing the Korean War (1950–1953), the socialist North has been in a constant state of readiness with militarism at the forefront of society. Without going into a full history lesson, North Korea has good cause for maximum military preparedness these decades, especially when Korean War strategies by US generals are examined. The Korean War was a war of attrition and the real start point of a Cold War that would sap the energies of all nations on Earth in the end. For China’s part, the North Korean contributions to the Chinese Communist victory have never been forgotten since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. When China felt threatened and entered the war, the threat of global nuclear war became a real possibility. With the geography of Korea in mind today, it’s easy to see President Putin’s warning of the current situation blossoming into a full fledge “global catastrophe” are not sensationalism. A US intervention on the peninsula today would almost certainly lead to a bitter break in relations between key nations.
The people of North and South Korea have never been the concern of other nations. This is the hard-cold reality of today’s crisis there. Korea has always been about containment and geo-strategy. This was first acknowledged (unintentionally) when President Harry Truman admitted in his autobiography that the “police action” was meant to confront the Soviet and Chinese communist regimes. This fact was also outlined in the declassified (1975) National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68). Quoting from President Truman’s book:
“Communism was acting in Korea, just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores. If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threat and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors.”
But North Korea’s position, the people of that nation’s real desires have never been addressed. All we know of is the narrative of containment and crisis to this day. From here forward we can choose to explore the murky truths of yesteryear, to try and justify perpetual conflicts of interest, or we can examine the ideas and policies that will create a perpetual peace. Who started the Cold War, which nations were at fault or defensive back then, matters little if progress is to be made. In answer to the question “What does North Korea want?”, it seems clear independence and prosperity are the answers. But since the fall of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of support from Moscow the bold Juche Idea of self-reliance of Kim Il-sung has met in a kind of paradoxical catastrophe. Sustainability is impossible, especially with useless spending and effort toward militarism. Now Kim Jong-il faces and almost unstoppable downward spiral of internal and external policy unless given an alternative. The way I see his regime’s nuclear posture, is as a call for attention to the needs of his country in which he and his supporters do not lose face. But US President Donald Trump and the Japanese allies are not building any bridge the North Korean leader can cross. The reasons for this are plainly obvious – the US impetus needs ongoing conflict to be sustained.
Evidence of my contention here is abundant, and especially where South Korea’s Sunshine Policy is noted. In 2000, South Korea’s leader Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful implementation of the Sunshine Policy, which was exactly the “bridge” I call for. The Bush administration saw to it this re-connect in between North and South could never succeed. Barack Obama played his role as crisis perpetuator, and now Trump has been whipped into shape doing the same. Providence Magazine author Anne R. Pierce called the strategies of that president, “Obama Administration’s Feckless, Heartless North Korea Policy”, and that’s just what it was. For those unfamiliar, the Sunshine Policy resulted in greater political contact between Seoul and Pyongyang, and many more historic moments in Inter-Korean relations including several high-profile business ventures. When Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-Il met in 2000 hopes for reconciliation ran very high. Some readers may recall that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States administration called North Korea part of the Axis of Evil. It was after this that North Korea severed ties with the South again. For my argument the implications are crystal clear. And as to the question of what North Korea wants, “normalization” of relations should be the unarguable conclusion we take away. Gestures of equality and friendship provoked a positive result, but somehow US policymakers advise Donald Trump to threaten like Bush did. As Vladimir Putin suggested the other day, American diplomats seem unable to formulate intelligently. The assertion that the Sunshine Policy was the key to alleviating the Korea situation is also supported by Patrick McEachern, the author of Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics, who compared North Korea’s nuclear demonstrativeness under the Sunshine Policy and afterward. The fact the North rattled nuclear sabers more frequently since the policy failed bears looking at.
Now that Russia’s Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae have met in Vladivostok, there is talk Moon will soon adopt a new Sunshine Policy with the help of Moscow and Beijing. Some readers will remember it was Moon who acted as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, Korea’s last liberal president, the man who continued the “Sunshine Policy” of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung. This brings me to a final point where Moon, Putin, and even Japan’s Abe are concerned. There’s a Nobel Peace Prize still waiting for Putin, and whoever cements a future for Korea North and South will certainly snare the prize. Putin’s increasing role on the world stage, his clear moves toward the East, and especially his moderation during an aggressive stance by the West are positives the Koreans need.
The hard truth of this situation is that Pyongyang desperately needs a lifeline, they just don’t want to beg for it. From my perspective, I don’t blame them one bit. Showing my country’s oligarchs weakness is like blood in a shark tank. The North Koreans are starving but too proud to grovel, this should be abundantly clear. I think if Donald Trump were more interested in solving these crises than in appearing to have “grandes bolas”, the world would be far better off. “Shock and Awe” on the Korean peninsula with fallout headed to China, Russia, and Japan simply won’t fly. I’ll bet Putin gets the food flowing to North Korea soon.
Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.