Last Thursday, nothing could have been further from my mind than politics and world affairs. I am currently studying abroad in Venice, and last week I was on spring break, on the most emotionally powerful journey of my life, visiting my ancestral hometown of Castrofilippo, Sicily for the first time.
But somehow, breaking news always has a way of shattering tranquility. After we had visited the old house of my great-great-grandparents, one of my Sicilian cousins came up to me and said something about North Korea and an attack. Taken by surprise, I went online and found that war did not in fact break out, but that North Korea had authorized a nuclear strike on the United States, was readying its missiles for launch, and had restarted its nuclear reactors at Yongbyon.
Before now, I have never taken North Korea’s threats seriously. They are usually extremely outlandish and bizarre, accompanied by laughable rhetoric and shoddy propaganda videos that are more of a punchline and a laughingstock than anything else. Using rudimentary special effects to show the stylized destruction of New York to the tune of an instrumental version of “We are the World,” a song originally intended to promote peace and raise money for AIDS relief in Africa, is irony at its finest. Also, growing up with the unflattering, hilarious portrayal of Kim Jong-il in Team America: World Police didn’t exactly help matters either.
But even though North Korea’s latest threat could be seen as just another instance of a long line of over-the-top theatrics, I think this threat is much more credible than ones in the past. Apparently I’m not alone in this sentiment: the US has cancelled a planned missile test in fears of sending the wrong message, is in the process of deploying an anti-missile defense system to Guam, and the South Koreans have sent Aegis destroyers just off the North Korean coast. In addition, American and South Korean generals in Seoul have cancelled a meeting in Washington, D.C. scheduled for next week, suggesting that matters are suddenly much more urgent on the Korean peninsula.
Curious as to what the outcome of this latest crisis may be, and preparing to write this piece, I had the brilliant idea of e-mailing one of America’s most pre-eminent intellectuals of our time: Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at MIT, best-selling author and Renaissance man, and asked for his opinion about what could happen on the Korean Peninsula.
In his reply, Chomsky wrote that the costs of a possible war, both in terms of money and lives lost, would be catastrophic. He also felt that the chances of North Korea using nuclear weapons would be “vanishingly small” and that “their leaders may be the worst in the world, but they have never shown a taste for instant suicide, which would be the consequence.”
I am inclined to agree with Chomsky here. Even though it appears that Kim Jong-un is more aggressive (and thus more unpredictable) than his father was, the love of power and the desire to acquire and maintain it, as espoused by Machiavelli in his seminal work The Prince, trumps all else.
However, Chomsky gave me a challenge, a challenge that I am eager to take up. I had asked whether or not North Korea had, if any, “moral high ground.” Chomsky replied, “Perhaps a better question would be one that we rarely permit ourselves to ask: Do we have any moral high ground?” Chomsky was also gracious enough to attach an excerpt from a recent talk he made in Ireland concerning this question to help me out.
In order to properly answer this question and analyze its implications, we need to understand the collective psyche of North Korea, developed through both actual history and propaganda. This means that we have to look at this problem, at least for a little while, from North Korea’s point of view, something that is uncomfortable, unsettling and for some, even offensive. I am not arguing that North Korea is right or that the US is wrong; rather, I am acknowledging the historical facts and established truth in order to find the best course of action for America.
For most of their history, the Koreans have been a subjugated people, constantly living under foreign rule and conquest. At the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula, formerly occupied by Japan since 1910, was split in half on the 38th parallel. Through a United Nations agreement, the Northern half was to be Soviet-dominated, while the US assumed control of the Southern portion. In 1950, under the leadership of Kim il-Sung (Jong-il’s father and Jong-un’s grandfather), North Korea launched an unprovoked invasion of South Korea, thus starting the Korean War. The War ended with an armistice in 1953, but a peace treaty was never formally signed.
This excerpt from the speech Chomsky forwarded to me details the destruction that the American bombing during the War wreaked upon the North Korean landscape, particularly an attack on a vital irrigation dam:
“It [the attack] was highly successful, causing a flash flood that 'scooped clear 27 miles of valley below.' Along with other attacks on dams, this devastated 75 percent of the controlled water supply for North Korea’s rice production. It sent the commissars 'scurrying to the press and radio centers to blare to the world the most severe hate-filled harangues to come from the Communist propaganda mill in the three years of warfare.' To the Communists, 'the smashing of the dams meant primarily the destruction of their chief sustenance – rice.' Westerners can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this staple food commodity has for the Asians – starvation and slow death.”
It’s important to remember here that the North Koreans instigated the War in the first place, and committed countless war crimes and atrocities against American and South Korean POWs and innocent civilians, including the Bloody Gulch and the Seoul National University Hospital Massacres.
But in the American bombing of the dams, this gave the North Korean government enormous propaganda fodder to build up the image of America as, to kindly borrow the words of Iran, a sort of “Great Satan,” and to promote their juche ideology of self-reliance, isolation and unwavering dedication to their ruler.
There have been numerous incidents on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since 1953 that have not led to war. But in recent years, both the US and North Korea have made moves that have not exactly promoted peace and stability.
In 1993, America successfully pressured Israel to reject a deal that would have ended North Korean missile exports to the Middle East in exchange for the North receiving diplomatic recognition. And in 2002, once George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the so-called “Axis of Evil” and rattled the sabers a bit, the North felt threatened and resumed its missile testing and nuclear weapons program, which culminated in the testing of the long range Taepodong-2 missile and their first nuclear weapons test, both in 2006.
Yet the North’s 2010 sinking of the South Korean destroyer Cheonan (sinking the ship and killing 46 sailors), and shelling the island of Yeonpyeong later that year (killing four South Korean civilians and injuring 20), has pushed the peninsula even closer to war. At some point, in this tit-for-tat game of brinkmanship, does it even matter anymore if the chicken or the egg came first? This does not excuse the aggressive actions taken by either side, but demonstrates how complex the issue has become.
Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: China. While China backed the North in the Korean War, it seems that China, considering its recent rebukes, now sees its eastern neighbor as more of a hindrance and a liability. China’s trading relationships with South Korea, Japan and America are much more valuable than having North Korea serve as an outdated relic, buffer state in the post-Cold War world. As for Russia, I expect them to be a relative non-factor, the same stance the Soviets assumed regarding the peninsula over 60 years ago.
So to answer Noam Chomsky’s question, I do believe that America has the moral high ground against the North Korean high command, but certainly not against its people, most of whom are starving and brainwashed by the North Korean propaganda machine. With that being said, this moral high ground is not absolute by any means. The only way that America will continue to maintain the moral high ground is if it follows these four steps:
a) It does not goad the North Koreans, or overtly threaten them. Much to the chagrin of neo-Conservative warmongers and warhawks, this means no B-2 and B-52 bomber flyovers of South Korea near the DMZ. I think President Obama understands this now, as evidenced by the cancelled missile test I mentioned earlier.
b) It does not launch a preemptive strike, despite pressure from neo-Conservatives. This is crucial, as America does not need, and cannot afford, being seen as the aggressor by the international community. If North Korea attacks first, America holds the moral high ground for good, barring some unlikely catastrophe.
c) It does not use nuclear weapons in the event of war. Of course, in a worst case, doomsday scenario, if North Korea is somehow able to lob a nuclear weapon towards Hawaii then all bets are off. But a couple of mother-of-all-bombs (MOABs) in the direction of Pyongyang would do the job just fine, without the nuclear fallout.
d) Once the war is won, that America turns over occupation duty solely to South Korea. With the memory of Iraq still fresh in the American conscience, this is a decision that will save the lives of countless American soldiers and trillions of dollars. It is Korea, after all. Let the South Koreans take control of the North and rebuild their institutions and infrastructure in a reunified peninsula, and let the Koreans mind their own internal affairs once the conflict comes to an end.
Ultimately, if the above four conditions are met, China, Japan, and most of all South Korea would be grateful for America’s help in deposing Kim Jong-un in the event of war. In the aftermath, America would most likely have considerably more leverage than ever before in the Pacific Rim. It then could begin to apply pressure on China concerning human rights, and push for reciprocal, fair trade agreements (rather than the disastrous free trade agreements America already has) with not only China, but also with South Korea and Japan as well. But that’s a different story entirely, and now I’m just getting ahead of myself.