Missile tests by North Korea and threats against the United States by her leader, Kim Jong-un, and an unprecedentedly firm response of “fire and fury” from President Donald J. Trump combined this summer to create what may be described as a panic over the prospect of a nuclear attack on American soil.
Thousands turned to Google to find out what to do in the case of a detonation. In Hawaii, the state emergency management office issued instructions — get underground immediately and don’t try and watch the blast because the light can blind you — and in California, fallout shelter retailers did brisk trade.
This is all understandable, but for people like me, and around 51 million others who live in South Korea — Seoul is about as close to the border with North Korea as Washington, D.C., is to Baltimore — there is something not right in this American response. It’s as if fake news has taken over and driven everyone crazy. Americans are buying fallout shelters? Is this from The Onion?
The journey to that conclusion starts with this question: What exactly does North Korea want? To figure that out, consider the unusual context. Unlike any other neighbors in the world today, the two Koreas — the North and, our ally, the South — with straight faces, claim sovereignty over each other. Each treats the other’s government as illegitimate and forbids any people-to-people cross-border contact.
This civil war, for that is what it is, sometimes hot and sometimes cold, started with the rift of Korea into two states after World War II. It exploded into military conflict that pulled in the U.S., China, the Soviet Union and 15 other nations in 1950, and has been held in check ever since by a fragile ceasefire.
There have been no serious steps towards resolving the underlying conflict that prevents real peace. South Korea has still not changed the part of its Constitution that says, for example, that the people in North Korea are South Korean citizens. North Korea’s ruling Labor Party Constitution, for its part, still commits the regime’s leaders to take over South Korea by means fair or foul. (They are obliged to go for foul, i.e., stir up a war again, because, if they were to ask fairly — by, say, a referendum — South Koreans would vote against them 99.99 percent).
But in truth, this 70-year battle is over. We know South Korea has won. It is the real Korea in this modern world. The problem is that the North’s leaders have not acknowledged their failure. They have not turned the corner and adopted a new national strategy of focusing on the economy instead of defense, or rejoining with the better South. They are stuck, caught like a deer in the headlights of a future that doesn’t need them.
Given this outcome, some analysts believe that Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons serve to help his regime survive. With nukes as insurance, Kim Jong-un can keep the U.S. and South Korea at bay, all while maintaining the fiction in the eyes of the people that their lives are in danger and that they need tough leadership to protect them. If these analysts are right — and I’ve been waking up four mornings a week for the last 25 years agreeing with them — then American belligerence is playing into their hands. Perhaps we should take a new tack and try to convince Kim Jong-un that we and our South Korean allies mean no harm. We should encourage him to follow a new path. We should engage him with sincerity, agree to a proper Korean War Peace Treaty, commit to non-interference, open diplomatic relations, join hands and sing Kumbaya. Otherwise, this will just go on forever.
But the other three days a week, I wake up at home, which I should point out is just a few hundred yards from the Blue House, South Korea’s White House, which would surely be ground zero, with a very different thought. Yes, we think the North Koreans have lost to South Korea. But what if they don’t? What if all their talk of war and unification is not just propaganda? What if the dream is still alive? What if they think they can achieve it?
Then the role the nukes play is completely different. And so is what Kim Jong-un wants from America.
Consider: Kim Jong-un is not stupid. He knows a popular pro-North Korean revolution in South Korea is no longer possible. Not only would 51 million wealthy, freedom-loving South Koreans never rise up and ask him to be their leader, but also, if he took them over forcibly, they would be a nightmare to control. Believe me, the reason the North Korean dictators are so horrendous on human rights is because their Korean subjects are so fractious. Controlling them is like herding cats. So, subduing South Koreans calls for extraordinary measures.
In that vein, some other analysts now believe that Kim Jong-un’s solution, as unbelievable as it may seem, is to use nuclear weapons against some part of South Korea and move in to take over the shell-shocked remains, rather as the United States did with Japan at the end of World War II.
If this analysis is the correct one, then the United States is not a useful tool for regime survival, but an obstacle. Right now, Kim Jong-un knows that one nuclear missile headed for Guam, as he threatened, let alone Hawaii or the U.S. mainland — or South Korea — would mean the end of his country. His unification strategy will only work if U.S. military support for South Korea is neutralized. In such a picture, his reason for deliberately stoking the recent tension was to scare Americans into talking about peace and for the two sides to arrive at a Korean War Peace Treaty that would include the important provision of ending American support for South Korea.
It is important to consider this now because, with the recent war of words and the fallout shelter-buying spree behind us, talk of talks is picking up as if it is the grown-up thing to do.
If this scarier analysis is correct, there is no need to refuse to talk. But we should do so smartly. Our objective in engaging North Korea should be for the singular purpose of infecting as many North Koreans as possible with the freedom virus. We should do what we did with the Soviets: talk, engage, swap embassies and ballet performances and all that, and get the two Koreas doing the same — not because this will lead to peace, but because the whiff of freedom will get up their noses and work its destructive magic.
But there is something else that we did with the Soviets that was equally as important and which, if there is no solution soon, the South Koreans might do — and that is to start an arms race that the poorer enemy can never win.
• Michael Breen is the author of “The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation.” He lives with his family in Seoul.
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