Is the Korean Demilitarized Zone poised to become “ground zero for the end of the world”? Historian Bruce Cumings, the author of The Origins of the Korean War, raised this question in a recent article for the London Review of Books, and judging by a series of exchanges between the United States and North Korea in recent weeks, the possibility may not be as remote as it once seemed.
In April, North Korea warned of the imminence of “a thermonuclear war,” a prospect seemingly acknowledged by President Trump’s declaration that, “We could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” On May 2, a US carrier strike group patrolled the waters off the Korean Peninsula in anticipation of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, which never happened. Nevertheless, on May 14, Pyongyang test-fired a new class of missile into the waters between the North and neighboring Japan, prompting the US to move a second heavily armed carrier strike group, equipped with Aegis missile defense systems, to the Korean Peninsula. These two strike groups, which jointly field a total of some 160-attack aircraft and are escorted by substantial support fleets, considerably raise the stakes in the region.
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According to Cumings, the latest high-stakes exchanges between the United States and North Korea are a continuation of six decades of US foreign policy which, “Since the very beginning … has cycled through a menu of options to try and control the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea].” According to The New Yorker, in this asymmetric conflict, North Korea uses “belligerent propaganda — not to mention nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles” to counter what it perceives as a persistent existential threat from the United States.
Noam Chomsky has described the current situation as the logical outcome of the propensity of the United States to “play with fire” rather than making genuine efforts to achieve denuclearization: “Over and over again,” he observes, “There are possibilities of diplomacy and negotiation … which are abandoned, dismissed, literally without comment, in favor of increased force and violence.”
Republicans and Democrats have historically shown great unity in this approach toward North Korea, with the notable exception of the Clinton administration, whose direct talks with Pyongyang achieved an eight-year freeze on all North Korean plutonium production (from 1994-2002). However, in 2001, George W. Bush abruptly inducted North Korea into the “axis of evil,” prompting Pyongyang to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and return to the reasoning that nuclear weapons alone could prevent an inevitable full-scale attack by the US in the future.
More recently, President Obama’s much-touted “pivot” to Asia — essentially a policy of isolating North Korea while boosting Japanese militarism — has succeeded only in laying the groundwork for a new regional cold war. Under the Trump administration, the pivot to Asia is overtly accelerating the militarization of the entire region, with some $7.5 billion being invested to boost infrastructure, equipment, and new troop and asset deployments. This amount accounts for nearly 14 percent of the total $54 billion increase in military spending requested by the Trump administration.
North Korea experts point out that, “Even with its nuclear program, North Korea is a weak country with an outdated military and a very small population,” incapable of anything but an insignificant military threat to the US. Yet US mainstream media pundits and government officials have tirelessly molded public perception of North Korea, portraying it as a determined, bristling adversary bent on raining destruction upon the US mainland with little or no provocation. Rounding out the propaganda image of the fearsomely irreconcilable foe, North Korean leadership itself is regularly depicted as irrational by the US, and often labeled with pseudo-psychiatric diagnoses. Most recently at the UN, US Ambassador Nikki Haley endeavored to display her psychiatric insight by “get[ting] into Kim Jong-un’s head,” and pronouncing him to be “in a state of paranoia … incredibly concerned about anything and everything around him.”
Such sophomoric appraisals of North Korea, while lacking historical and analytical perspective, play well to public fears. The characterization of North Korea as the unequivocally irrational and constantly threatening “other” have skewed US public opinion over the span of six decades. Pew public opinion polls show that “78% of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the North, with 61% holding a very unfavorable view.”
A YouGov survey ranked North Korea first among a list of 144 countries considered by Americans to be an “enemy,” even though, according to a New York Times survey, only 36 percent of Americans polled were able to locate North Korea on a world map. This “one-sided and ahistorical” characterization of North Korea, in Cumings’s words, has been the centerpiece of US foreign policy toward the two Koreas, with the specter of North Korean cross-border — and increasingly, intercontinental — aggression being used to justify harsh economic sanctions and increased military exports, and weapon system deployments to South Korea.
The systematic demonization of North Korea is dangerous. As the practiced propagandists who eagerly sow such fears know all too well, it is far easier to annihilate a nation that has already been dehumanized. What is needed are alternative perspectives capable of harmonizing the relationship between the United States and North Korea by making heard those voices that have been drowned out by six decades of unending hostility. These are the voices that tell of the persistent human costs of the war, of family members torn apart between North and South Korea, and of the Korean diaspora — particularly in the United States — whose stories can raise critical awareness of the ongoing human legacy of the unresolved Korean conflict and provide the basis for a discourse of reconciliation, and ultimately of peace.
Nearly 10 million Korean families were forcibly separated when Korea was divided at the end of the Korean War, with around 100,000 of those families coming to the United States.
Approximately 3,000 such family members are alive in the US today, having lived their lives permanently separated from loved ones in North Korea.
Won Chan Noh, a 93 year old who was separated decades ago from his wife and their two toddlers during the Korean War, traveled to Washington, DC, to create awareness about the suffering of families such as his. “Time is running out for us in the United States and for our family members in North Korea” he says. Noh is a member of the National Coalition of the Divided Families, an organization working on behalf of Korean-Americans whose families were divided by the Korean War. Thousands more like him in both the US and South Korea have since passed on without being able to achieve their lifelong dream of reuniting with their relatives in the North.
On November 29, 2016, the US House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res.40, a resolution aimed at facilitating the reunification of family members separated by the Korean War. The resolution highlighted the plight of these divided families, which represent the last living connections shared by the United States and North Korea, and recognized their potential for normalizing the relationship between the nations. In a May 2017 letter to President Trump, 64 House Democrats led by Rep. John Conyers urged the administration to work with North Korea to “outline steps to address humanitarian issues of mutual concern such as the reunification of Korean and Korean-American families as well as the repatriation of the remains of US servicemen left in North Korea following the war.”
While the Korean War continues to haunt the lives of survivors and their descendants on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone and across the Pacific, Soya Jung, a Korean-American activist, tells Truthout that, “Very few Americans understand the absolute devastation that the Korean War caused, particularly in North Korea, and how deeply that devastation is imprinted on the collective consciousness of North Korean people.” This widespread ignorance can undermine efforts toward sincere engagement with North Korea, for whom the trauma of war is a living memory, and the US an enemy that has never left.
Consider this fairly representative North Korean view offered by Kwang Yon So of Pyongyang’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace, during the Regional Peace Building conference in Hong Kong on June 10, 2010: “It is not us, but the United States which divided Korea and has posed a threat, including through nuclear arms as well as constant joint military exercises with the South. We are the victims. Should we not at least maintain the right to our sovereignty and the ability to defend ourselves?”
Nevertheless, American voices are increasingly calling for a new dialogue between the US and North Korea, for even though Americans by and large view North Korea as “the enemy,” an Economist/YouGov poll conducted in May 2017 found that 60 percent of Americans supported direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea. This statistic in itself speaks volumes, and shows that even in the worst of times, humans hope for commonality and view interpersonal interaction as a catalyst that has the potential of triggering positive change.
Officials on both sides of the Pacific have also begun renewed calls for dialogue amid heightening tensions. The new South Korean President Moon Jae-in was elected with a strong mandate for engagement with North Korea, and has promised a renewed emphasis on diplomacy and rapprochement. Even Pentagon chief James Mattis, noting the grave risks of open conflict, has reiterated the US commitment to working with allies in order to arrive at a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear stalemate.
As former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry recently noted, opportunities for peace and security in Northeast Asia still exist in the midst of conflict, awaiting only the political will and foresight to actualize them: “We now have the opportunity for a new approach to diplomacy. Will we have the wisdom to seize it?”
An overt shift toward diplomacy would be a welcome development for the many Koreans who still dream of an end to the painful schism imposed on their collective psyche by six decades of hostility and separation. David Kang, a Korean studies scholar at the University of Southern California, dreams of crossing the Korean Demilitarized Zone with his 81-year-old father to visit the site of the elder Kang’s hometown, which was destroyed during the height of the Korean War. “I would love to fly to Seoul with my father” he says, “and drive together to where he was born.”