The U.S. media continues to promote a very one-sided view of developments on the Korean peninsula. The danger is that this one-sided view may, intentionally or not, encourage actions likely to lead to a new Korean war, possibly a nuclear one.
The most important thing to say is that since the end of the Soviet Union and the breakup of the Soviet-centered trading system that supported the North Korean economy, the North Korean government has sought to normalize relations with the U.S. It has called for direct negotiations and the signing of a peace treaty to finally bring an end to the Korean War; at present we have only the armistice which ended the fighting.
The U.S. has largely rejected all overtures, preferring to keep the North isolated and weak. For example, the U.S. continues to embargo the North and veto its attempts to join the World Bank and IMF.
The North, for its part, has found that the only way it can get the U.S. to the negotiating table is with military threats, thus its past missile firings and testing of nuclear weapons. However, the negotiations rarely last long, an outcome that only restarts the cycle in ever more dangerous ways.
The issue here is not whether one likes the North Korean government. The issue here is whether the U.S. government is sincerely interested in peace on the Korean peninsula.
The current crisis on the Korean peninsula was touched off by massive South Korean organized war games–involving over 70,000 soldiers, 600 tanks, 500 warplanes, 90 helicopters, and 50 warships–that were explicitly directed at the North. As part of the war games, the South Korean military engaged in live artillery fire into waters claimed by North Korea.
The North repeatedly demanded that the South halt the firing, and when the South refused, the North fired its own artillery at a South Korean military installation on an island some seven miles off the North Korean coast. Two soldiers and two civilian military contractors were killed. The South then fired back, causing unknown causalities in the North.
The U.S. government responded to these developments by sending the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington (carrying 75 warplanes and a crew of over 6000), and other warships to conduct additional joint war exercises with the South Korean military.
Thankfully, it appears that a further escalation has been avoided, at least for the moment. The North has apologized for the deaths and the South has decided not to renew its coastal live-fire artillery exercise.
The key to understanding what is happening now on the Korean peninsula is the fact that the a state of war continues to exist. Without direct talks aimed at achieving an end to the Korean War and the normalization of relations between the two Koreas and between the North and the U.S., the region will remain a tinderbox.
This is not an impossible task. For example, in October 2007, an inter-Korean summit meeting between Roh Moo-Hyun (the previous South Korean president) and Kim Jong Il (the North Korean leader) produced a commitment by both sides to negotiate a joint fishing area and create a “peace and cooperation zone” in the West Sea in order to transform the heavily militarized waters into a maritime region for economic cooperation. Tragically, a few months later, the newly elected (and current) president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, rejected the agreements that were reached at that summit and at the previous one held in 2000.
This decision helped to create the atmosphere that produced the current tragedy and threat of renewed war. So did South Korean charges that the North was responsible for the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean navy corvette, which resulted in the loss of 49 lives in the waters near the North Korean coast
Significantly, while the U.S. quickly endorsed the South Korean charge, there is strong reason to believe that the ship sank because it ran aground, and that the South Korean government sought to blame the North in hopes that it could use the crisis to improve its chances in national assembly elections.
A South Korean newspaper, the Hankyoreh, did an excellent job of highlighting the problems with the government’s case in a 30 minute TV program (with English subtitles) that can be viewed below.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence casting doubt on the South Korean government’s claim that the Cheonan was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine is the fact that all the Cheonan victims died of drowning, nearly all of the 58 surviving crew members escaped serious injury, and the ship’s internal instruments remained intact. According to several scientists who have modeled the likely results of a torpedo explosion, the entire crew would have been sent flying, leading to fractured bones and the destruction of instruments.
Unfortunately, the U.S. media never reports that South Korean government claims of North Korean responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan are widely challenged in the South. Rather, the incident is viewed as another example of the North’s reckless behavior, a framing that colors popular perceptions in this country of current tensions and encourages increasingly strident calls for military action against the North.
So—what should we do? As stated above, rather than prepare for war, the U.S. government should be pressed to sit down and negotiate directly with the North. A growing number of mainstream political leaders are arguing the same, although you would not know it from reading the press. For example:
“We demonize [Kim Jong Il] as a ‘nut case,’ but I have talked to Russians, Chinese, South Koreans and Americans who have met with him at length, and all say he is extremely intelligent. What Kim wants is sustained, serious talks with the US, leading to a comprehensive peace treaty….Our problem is that every time we elect a new president, we seem to feel that we have to start from scratch with North Korea.” – Donald P. Gregg, US ambassador to South Korea (1989–1993) and National Security Advisor to Vice-President George H.W. Bush
“… One item should be at the top of the agenda, however, in order to remove all unnecessary obstacles to progress, that is the establishment of a peace treaty to replace the truce that has been in place since 1953. One of the things that have bedeviled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War. A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist.” – James Laney, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (1993-1997) and President Emeritus of Emory University
“Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ cease-fire of 1953.” –Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States
For more about the current situation, check out the following:
• “North Korea’s Consistent Message to the U.S.” by former President Jimmy Carter in The Washington Post, Nov. 24, 2010
• “Retaliation, Retaliation” by Paul Liem of the Korea Policy Institute, Nov. 25, 2010
• “Crisis in Korea?” by John Feffer, Co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus in The Huffington Post, Nov. 23, 2010
• “Obama’s Only Choice on North Korea” by Tim Shorrock in The Daily Beast, Nov. 24, 2010
• “A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex” by Siegfried S. Hecker, Nov. 22, 2010
• “Review U.S. Policy toward North Korea” by Bob Carlin and John Lewis in The Washington Post, Nov. 22, 2010