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A matter of face


The Western cultures have misunderstood and underestimated the Oriental societies – China, Japan and the Koreas – and their levels of civilization, culture, political objectives and abilities for centuries. Some think we are no better at it today than the followers of Marco Polo and Jorge Alvares were in the 1500’s. As we watch the evolving failures in our attempts to meet the crisis presented by North Korea developing a nuclear threat of world class proportions, one wonders.

This tiny country, sometimes referred to as a hermit kingdom, has an economy that staggers along at the bottom of the bottom quartile, completely beholden to China for its basic existence. Its GDP, when last measured, was an estimated $25 billion in 2015 (compared with South Korea currently approaching $2.0 trillion) placing it 125th in the world (compared with South Korea at 11th.) The two nations were approximately equal in 1970.

Yet North Korea today possesses a nuclear capability second only to the major world powers in its ability to construct weapons. It has a refined intermediate range ballistic missile capable of reaching Japan and the U.S. military bases there, as well as any target in South Korea, and is on the brink of refining an inter-continental range delivery missile, capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States.

But to what end? While it might deliver a single weapon or two at these ranges, it has no capacity to sustain a nuclear attack on multiple targets, or to defend against the predicted mass retaliation that would result if it started something. We classify it with terrorist nations, but it has not sponsored terrorist activities itself since an airline disaster over 30 years ago, and has no apparent intention of doing so now. It does not consider itself an imperialistic nation nor is it beholden to any controlling religion. According to some close observers, the motive for the hermit kingdom’s quest is not to actually mount any attacks on South Korea, Japan or the United States, but merely to hold this power and this capability as a safeguard for their leader, first Kim Jong-il, now his son, Kim Jong-un, so he will not see the same end as Qaddafi in Libya or Hussein in Iraq.

To the mind of the North Korean, their strong nuclear capability is security; it is the only reliable guaranty of the country’s basic sovereignty, to ensure the continued Communist control and the rule of its despotic leader, Kim Jong-un. Once established, the maintenance of this position becomes a matter of “face,” a concept that does not translate accurately and Westerners have difficulty understanding. In this area, we appear to be missing it completely.

The United States keeps tripping over itself in missing or ignoring the Oriental concept of face, and the necessity of saving face, and the abhorrence of losing face in any transaction. From 1992 through 2002, North Korea was a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and there were no problems – at least not in this area. But it had aligned itself with Russia during the cold war fallowing the Korean Truce agreements, and this eventually lead George W. Bush to lump North Korea into the “axis of evil” countries in a speech he delivered in 2002. In the face of this insult, and with nowhere to turn, North Korea announced it was pulling out of the NPT and no longer considered itself bound.

When the U.S. started the Iraq war to upset Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong-un and then leader of North Korea, disappeared for close to two months. Later, observers said he feared an assassination attempt from the United States.

From 2003 through 2009, North Korea reluctantly participated in multinational talks to attempt to resurrect the nonproliferation treaty. All during this time, North Korea was requesting unilateral talks with the United States, which would be consistent with the North Korean objective of being treated with the prestige due a world member of the nuclear club, and clearly an element of “face.” But the United States refused, and would only meet with North Korea in multinational conference. Finally the talks broke down in 2009, with officials from Pyongyang declaring that North Korea would never return to multilateral conferences. The United States has remained just as adamant that it will not participate in unilateral talks with North Korea. This stalemate continues to this day.

Into this background, Secretary of State Tillerson arrived and arranged a state visit to South Korea during the time of the annual joint military exercises. These exercises, which are an annual event for South Korean and U.S. forces in country, are typically based on defensive operations against aggression from the north. This year, however, they included several exercises involving hypothetical missions into the far north by special operations teams, to cut off or neutralize North Korean leadership. The change in mission structure was not missed by North Korean watchers.

In a speech in South Korea, Tillerson said that the United States was about to embark upon a “different approach” with North Korea, as the efforts of the past 20 years had failed. He said he was traveling to South Korea, Japan and China seeking views on the new approach. He did not, however, approach anyone from North Korea, nor in any way solicit their view on what was needed. According to the New York Times reports, he concluded his remarks by saying that he hoped to “deepen cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea ‘in the face of North Korea’s dangerous and unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs.’” He has provided no details.

Most recently, Tillerson ruled out reopening any negotiations directly with North Korea, stating, “The policy of strategic patience has ended.” He advised that capitulation by North Korea in denuclearizing and giving up their weapons was the only acceptable step.

To anyone paying attention, the demeaning and condescending aspect of the United States’ position towards North Korea as it has unfolded over the years seem obvious. If face was important, as it surely would have been, we consistently ignore that facet in our manner of action; we were and are and have been, in a word, the Ugly American personified. We are accustomed to being the world’s cop, or thinking that we are such, and having nations listen and obey to what we say. We manhandled North Korea over the years in the manner we bullied every minor country of lesser significance, and economic standing and totally dependent upon richer neighbors. We justify this by insisting that we were in the right; our interests were pure, justice was on our side, and world peace depended upon us. We could not be bothered with the arcane, inscrutable, and to us totally irrelevant, mysteries of saving face.

Except we must. It should be obvious that with very minor adjustments in the manner and timing of communications, the United States could convey exactly the same messages to North Korea, provide it with ample assurance of its sovereignty and the security of its leaders, and do so in a manner that allows the country and its leaders to “save face” and not “lose face,” as it complies with the world demands on nuclear proliferation.

At least, it would be worth a try. Do you suppose anyone will catch on before it’s too late?

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