By Jonathan Power*
LUND, Sweden | 26 January 2024 (IDN) — Last November the dangerous arms race between North Korea and South Korea in what is in effect a civil war was wound up a few more notches. South Korea said it was going to scrap a security pact made with North Korea in 2018. The pact halted all military exercises along their common border.
The South made this move in retaliation for the North’s decision to launch a military reconnaissance satellite, violating UN Security Council resolutions banning the use of ballistic missile technology. This month the war of words has escalated further. North Korea tore down an impressive monument symbolizing union with the South, according to reports on January 23.
Peacemaking initiatives have come and gone. Both the Biden Administration and its partner (erstwhile?) in this endeavour, the Chinese government, appear to be treading water.
When, soon after the election, President Barack Obama invited Donald Trump to the White House we didn’t learn much about their conversation. But we were briefed on one thing: Obama had told Trump that North Korea would be the most pressing and difficult issue on his agenda. It remains so. Trump arranged a festive meeting in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in 2018. It was showbiz and came to naught. President Joe Biden has not even attempted to get to grips with the issue.
The Americans have seemingly missed the boat. It’s as simple as that. What’s done is done. While Washington has dithered and dithered through five successive presidencies, missing opportunity after opportunity, North Korea has gone from zero nuclear weapons to an arsenal of at least 40 to 50. North Korea now has a few intercontinental ballistic missiles said to be capable of striking the US. Experts believe it has miniaturised a nuclear warhead that can be fitted into the cone of these rockets.
One thing is certain, albeit many Western politicians will dispute this: North Korea would never have become a nuclear-bomb-possessing nation if the US had honoured its early agreements.
The Clinton Administration negotiated what it called an “Agreed Framework”. The US started to build in the North nuclear light-water reactors that could only manufacture electricity. For a time, North Korea was the major receiver of American economic aid in Asia. Clinton sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang where she was received with honours. North Korea softened its attitude.
Just before he left office President Bill Clinton believed he was on the cusp of a deal. But then right at the end of his presidency Clinton got diverted by crucial Arab/Israeli negotiations that seemed like they would bring peace to Palestine. (In the event, needless to say, it did not happen.) At the same time Republicans in Congress never stopped drilling holes into what had been already agreed with North Korea. Promises made by the US government to the North Koreans were sabotaged and undermined by the Republicans.
Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, kicked Clinton’s good work aside
The stand-off between the US and North Korea is a precarious one. The American military knew that if the US fired its weapons North Korea would aim south its arsenal of conventionally armed rockets and destroy Seoul, only a couple of minutes of flying time away.
For its part, the North Korean military knows that a (thin) majority of American public opinion, according to polls, would back a large-scale retaliatory nuclear attack if the North Koreans launched towards the US even one rocket armed with a nuclear warhead.
Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, kicked Clinton’s good work aside, despite the views of his secretary of state and former military chief, Colin Powell and most of the academic political science and international relations community, who thought this was a worse mistake than going to war with Iraq. North Korea then decided, and only then, to complete its work on building a nuclear bomb.
We can’t wind the clock back to Clinton’s “Agreed Framework”, but we can create another- slowly. But first the North has to be “warmed up”- with some of the same techniques that in the end helped undermine the Soviet Union—cultural, educational and sporting exchanges—regular visits of US soccer, baseball teams and symphony orchestras, the New York City Ballet and Opera, Broadway musicals, pop musicians and building branch campuses of major US universities that teach, besides arts and sciences, human rights (which has been done by Western universities’ outreach programs in some Chinese universities).
Then the US must agree to two things Pyongyang really wants: to open talks on a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War which terminated with only an armistice in 1953. Second, to limit American military exercises around the Korean peninsula.
We need no more bluster. The US needs to get on with searching for a peaceful solution. Being positive is not easy but in the end, after tortuous years of progress followed by retrenchment, it’s informed optimism that counts. Where there’s a will surely there’s a way. And now after many missteps we do know the way to go, if we want to. Unfortunately, to be realistic, it will not happen until the Republicans are in a minority in both the House and the Senate. Otherwise, they will sabotage any president-led agreement. [IDN-InDepthNews]
*Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years. For 17 years he was a columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune (now the New York Times). He has interviewed over 70 of the world’s most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons. Jonathan has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival.
Photo: US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in October 2000. Credit: Dog-Min Chung, AFP
This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 26 January 2024.
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.