by Thomas Walkom
Here’s an idea for cooling nuclear tensions between North Korea and the United States. Why not start by negotiating an end to the Korean War?
Technically, the war that began in 1950 when Pyongyang invaded South Korea is still ongoing. An armistice in 1953 halted the fighting, the idea being that the warring parties would meet within three months to hammer out a formal peace treaty. But the meeting never occurred.
With Donald Trump as U.S president, that war is in danger of reigniting.
The history of American involvement in Korea is tortuous. It began at the end of the Second World War when the U.S. supported one Korean government in Seoul and the Soviet Union backed another in Pyongyang. It solidified as these rival governments vied for position. It turned hot in 1950 when the U.S. persuaded the United Nations Security Council to authorize armed force against North Korean troops invading the South.
On paper, the war was waged between North Korea and the 16 nations of the UN Command (including Canada). In practice, it was a showdown between the U.S. and Pyongyang, the latter aided by Chinese “volunteers.”
The war was brutal and nasty. American bombers flattened the North. Hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout the Korean Peninsula were killed or wounded.
And it taught the regime in the North two lessons. First, it could wage war against the world’s most powerful nation and survive. Second, China – while a reluctant ally – would in the end and for its own geopolitical purposes always come to Pyongyang’s aid.
Both of these views still seem to hold in the North – which is why Trump’s strategy of bluster and intimidation is unlikely to work.
Since the presidency of the first George Bush, Washington has been trying to figure a way to cool North Korea’s ardour for missiles and nuclear weapons. Negotiations have been held, approaches made.
At one point, America agreed to supply North Korea with technology for peaceful nuclear power if it gave up its weapons program. At another, it agreed to provide the country with oil.
Occasionally, success seemed imminent. But then political reality would intrude. A new U.S. president would be elected on a promise to get tough with the North. The North Koreans would revert to hostility mode.
Washington rarely trusted North Korea. At one point, George W. Bush famously called it part of the “axis of evil.” The feeling was reciprocated.
Pyongyang twisted and turned. But throughout, it kept returning to the same reality – in a world dominated by the hostile Americans, nuclear weapons were necessities. The downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya showed what could happen to regimes without weapons of mass destruction. North Korea wasn’t about to make the same mistake.
In short, don’t expect the North’s current dynastic dictator, Kim Jong Un, to give up nuclear weapons just because Trump is talking tough. Other U.S. presidents talked tough with Kim’s grandfather and father. Both survived.
Similarly, don’t expect China to work miracles. China may have little patience for its ally’s grand nuclear ambitions. And it is exerting some economic pressure on Pyongyang by, for instance, refusing to buy North Korean coal.
But the dynamic that brought China into the Korean War still holds. A belligerent regime in Pyongyang may not be good for China. But chaos, or the prospect of America dominating the entire Korean Peninsula, would be worse.
Which brings me back to the Korean War. It is the great piece of unfinished business. If Washington and Pyongyang are to ever trust one another, they – along with South Korea – must negotiate the peace that will finally end this war, without preconditions.
Will wrapping up the war convince the North Koreans to forego the development of nuclear weapons? I doubt it. It is too late for that. But the world has survived nuclear-armed regimes in India, Pakistan and Israel. It should be able to survive more.
China argues that the answer to the U.S.-Korean standoff is negotiation. China is right. A peace treaty that finally ends the state of war between these two eccentrically led nations would be a good place to start.
Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services