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The North Korean “Threat” is of Our Making and We Can Help Resolve it

By: James Jeff McLaren
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Opinion Piece against going to war with North Korea

The North Korean “threat” is something we have created for ourselves. They are really not a treat – unless we attack them. They are not illogical or crazy – in fact they have a very rational survival strategy. And they want real peace and security – not the semblance of peace.

I lived in South Korea from 2003 to 2011 and have many former students, friends and family living there who will be in danger if our leaders misunderstand the nature of the “crisis.” The most profound thing I learned concerning North Korea is that we, in the West, are the main cause of their aggressive words, their abuses of international law, their alienation in the world system, and the source of the manufactured nuclear crisis we keep hearing about.

North Korea is a traumatized country in a 67 year state of war. Since the Korean War “ended” in a cease fire and not a peace treaty, fighting could restart at any time. The US conducts several military exercises every year in which they practice invading North Korea. These exercises are labeled “defensive” but include a whole range of offensive weapons like aircraft carriers and stealth bombers and offensive maneuvers like amphibious invasions behind enemy lines. Imagine for a moment how Canadians would feel if the US conducted military exercises right next to our border in which they practiced invading Canada.

Consider for a moment the North Korean perspective. At the end of the Second World War it was the richer and more developed of the two Koreas. The south was a relatively neglected part of the American post war administration. Through the period of the UN Temporary Commission on Korea, there were massacres and suppression campaigns directed at the South Korean people by the occupying forces. One example I heard in my 9 years living in South Korea was a first person account of the Jeju Uprising that described events much closer to war crimes than the whitewash story we can look up today. These and other forgotten stories are the very kinds of things North Koreans are taught in their history classes. Ending this foreign oppression was one of the reasons for their attempt to unite the two artificially separated Koreas.

The Korean War of 1950-1953 did not go so well for the North. They were carpet bombed into the Stone Age; the US under UN authority bombed every building and anything that moved. The UN effort killed about 3 Million people or about 20% of the North Korean population. That is one in five killed in their country and one can imagine the number of wounded and traumatized. The events of these war years created a collective fear and trauma in the North Korean population that is brought to mind several times a year as the US practices invading their country.

Events since 1953 tend to confirm and legitimize North Korean fears. The US has invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Panama, Granada, the Dominican Republic, Viet Nam, and Cuba. And there is a longer list of countries the US has attacked without invading. Given this dangerous world that North Korea lives in it has developed a successful survival strategy.

North Korea’s strategy involves signaling to the world that, if invaded, it will not go down easily. North Korea yells and screams that it will extract a high price on anyone who attacks them and anyone who supports their attacker. Like a bullied child in a playground that is surrounded by an aggressive gang, North Korea has decided that it will not tolerate any more bullying. The child yells and screams at its aggressors that it will inflict as much pain as it can if it is bullied. Yelling and screaming is all the child can do because it really does not want a fight. North Korea knows it cannot win a war. It knows that if a shooting war starts it is finished. It also knows history. If we continue to threaten to invade them, all North Korea can do is yell and scream, test its nuclear weapons and fire missiles into the sea. If we actually attack them then the world is in major trouble.

If North Korea is attacked the costs it can impose are very high. China has consistently since 1950, signaled that it will support North Korea if it is attacked (but not if North Korea is the aggressor). Any military action against North Korea will make an enemy of China because it would be considered a first step to an invasion of China. In 1950 when the Chinese joined the Korean War they were not a nuclear power but they risked nuclear annihilation by attacking American forces. The US had dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan 5 years earlier. A non-nuclear power that attacks the forces of a nuclear power risks escalating to a nuclear retaliation. China risked this over North Korea. This shows how seriously the Chinese take an invasion of North Korea.

North Korea itself is no pushover. It has over 10 thousand well defended artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, a city with a population of 22 million and an economic powerhouse of Asia. North Korea has scud like missiles that can carry conventional, biological and chemical weapons that can hit Japan and the rest of South Korea.

North Korea has had nuclear weapons for over 10 years and they will not give them up for generations – this is a reality that the world needs to accept. Again, the North Koreans know their history and what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi just a few years after they gave up their nuclear weapon programs. North Korea’s, so far successful, strategy for self-preservation dictates that they will continue to advance their damage causing capabilities. This means they will build and test more and longer range nuclear ICBMs so they will be able to hit any city in the world. They will likely miniaturize nuclear warheads so they can create battle ground tactical nuclear weapons and so they can covertly move bombs near enemy cities. Tactical nukes and suit case bombs are the future threats from North Korea’s survival strategy – especially if we invest in missile defense - unless we start to engage with them in good faith. Confrontation, our strategy since 1950, is not working. The North Korean strategy of bolstering their damage causing capabilities is working for them. The stakes keep getting higher. It is incumbent on us to change our failed strategy – we cannot expect them to give up a successful strategy. We need a new grand strategy.

Today, the costs of stopping North Korea with armed force will make an enemy of China, lead to tens of millions of casualties in Asia, perhaps the loss of one or two North America cities and likely world-wide environmental degradation from nuclear fallout.

This is now particularly important for Canada because we may have just come in range of North Korean nuclear ICBMs. This is no longer an issue that affects just some of our trading partners. Canada was a member of the UN force that invaded North Korea and we are a strong supporter of the US. Canada may very likely be, or soon be, a potential target for North Korea’s “do as much harm if attacked” strategy. The best solution to this problem cannot be the use of military force.

North Korea is often depicted as a terrible place to live; a place with no human rights, with a lack of freedom, with poverty and starvation. This is likely very true because they are a country suffering under sanctions and in a state of war imposed by us in the West. They are in an existential crisis with enemies on their borders threatening invasion.

Consider how we have dealt with similar situations: Canada suspended a lot of our human rights during our last three existential crises when the War Measures Act was invoked. We also imprisoned Canadians of German, Ukrainian, Slavic and Japanese decent and we confiscated their property. It took Canadians a generation or more to start to address these wrongs. The point of this example is to say that compared to a state of peace, being in a state of war is not good for the people of any country. North Korea has been in a state of war since 1950. They are bound to have a very different kind of society; one more like what we may have experienced during war time; one gripped with fear and prepared to suffer the losses of war. Then add the imposed sanctions. North Koreans need to eat. Making it difficult for their population to trade does not engender trust or warm feelings. It forces them into elicit trade deals. The sanctions imposed by the UN drive a lot of their bad behaviour because they need to survive and it is all that they can do to get what they need to live.

Peace and security is the highest and best answer. Countries with peace and security tend to be the freest and best places to live. It took peace and security for Canada to return the civil rights we lost during the times of the War Measures Act. It took us generations of peace to start to address the wrongs suffered by some Canadians during those times and in other historical periods. North Korea does not have peace or security right now or any of the luxuries that come with them. It will likely take generations of peace and security for North Korea to fully integrate into the international system. One thing is clear to me: they won’t be forced and if we try to force them they will hurt us, our allies and, our trading partners.

If we want to ensure our safety and keep this from escalating way out of proportion, I believe that Canada’s goal as a middle power in the international order should be to seek peace and security in the world. In the case of North Korea we should start by working for an end to aggressive US actions. We should call for an end to the three yearly combined military field training exercises. Next, call for the removal of American combat forces in South Korea and the gradual lifting of sanctions against North Korea. We should also accept North Korea’s nuclear power status, and normalize diplomatic relations. Finally, we must not participate in missile defense because it creates a false sense of security that leads to a detached and more risky foreign policy thereby increasing, not decreasing, the chances of nuclear war.

Diplomacy matters because this is not the crisis people think it is. North Korea is not going to start a war because there is no good end for them if they do. But the US might. The US has the implicating track record and an impulsive leader. Canada should use our close relationship to the US to help avoid starting a nuclear war.

Added on: Aug 18, 2017
By: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren