North Korea’s budding developments in nuclear weaponry coupled with its belligerent intransigence to world pressures for non-proliferation presents a significant risk to the entire world. These are not happy times, and most desperately hope that something can be done.
But mislabeling this tiny nation as a terrorist state is the wrong way to go.
Our President has already exacerbated the unfolding situation by an inexplicable stream of insults and derisive comments aimed at Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator. He has confused the developing situation even worse by causing inconsistent and confusing diplomatic declarations to emanate from the Whitehouse, the Department of State, and the Department of the Defense. It does not appear that there is any coordination by President Trump or any of his Whitehouse spokespersons with either Secretary Mattis or Secretary Tillerson, as Trump repeatedly contradicts statements emanating from both.
He has deliberately cut the legs out from under Secretary Tillerson every time Tillerson appeared to be attempting to open channels for diplomatic discussions with North Korea, despite this being where the solution has to be found and despite this being what China’s Xi Jinping is advocating.
The upshot here is that circumstances in North Korea continue to appear unstable, and our action of unilaterally listing it as a terrorist state will not be helpful.
Shortly before setting out on his trip recent trip through Asia, Trump finally declared that he intended to allow China’s Xi Jinping to take the lead in working out a solution to the North Korea situation. This is a step that most experts in Asia affairs believe essential if any long term solution is to be found. Most noted with interest that once Trump made this declaration, the provocative actions and messages emanating from North Korea appeared to slow to a crawl. There were no tests or threats of tests of either missiles or weapons for some time, and no provocative tweets from the leader, Kim Jong-un. It is as if Kim was watching to see what China would propose and how Trump would respond, and was giving it all a chance by his inaction.
Trump, however, could not keep his mouth shut and has not kept out of Xi Jinping’s way. Our President continues to deride Kim Jong-un personally in in tweets and in speeches throughout his Asian tour. He continues to pressure Xi Jinping to impose harsher economic sanctions upon its neighbor. Finally, Trump recently announced that the United States would return North Korea to its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” thereby paving the way for harsher economic sanctions to be imposed unilaterally by the United States.
By this action, the United States links North Korea with Syria, Iran and the Sudan, all notorious hot beds of radical Islam, fostering terrorist activities by al Qaeda and ISIS and their offshoots. There is no evidence that North Korea has any interest in radical Islam, or any connection to the activities of al Qaeda or ISIS.
To many knowledgeable students of Asian affairs, listing North Korea as a terrorist nation is a huge mistake. Although North Korea is a brutal dictatorship with few if any saving characteristics, it does not fit the description of a sovereign state sponsor of terrorism, and mislabeling the country will make diplomatic resolution of the problems that are actually presented that much harder. Trump has repeatedly expressed the importance of other nations demonstrating “respect” for the United States, but he has no understanding of the importance of the United States reciprocating with a demonstration of respect for others.
In particular, Trump clearly has no comprehension of the importance of “face” to the Asian culture. North Korea was insulted when George Bush lumped it together with the problem countries of the middle-east, referring to them all in an address to Congress as the “Axis of Evil.” The insult sabotaged efforts then to re-open negotiations towards nuclear non-proliferation. Trump’s actions today re-ignites the same insult, and may have the same result.
North Korea got itself put on the terrorist list once, for the 1987 incident of blowing a civilian South Korean airliner out of the sky, killing all aboard. It had also been selling weapons to known terrorist groups and harboring known terrorists who had fled to North Korea and sought sanctuary. North Korea renounced all terrorist activities shortly after being placed on the list, and kept itself out of this caldron of trouble until finally, in 2008, then-President George W. Bush de-listed it. This was as part of some attempts by the U.S. to move North Korea back into the non-proliferation pact nations, and was in exchange for North Korea’s agreement to dismantle a nuclear facility at Yongbyon. Although further attempts to get North Korea under the non-proliferation pact were unsuccessful, Bush did not renege on his agreement to de-list North Korea from the terrorists list.
Throughout all of Obama’s term, the United States repeatedly considered requests to put North Korea back on the list, but declined. The episodes raised as grounds for re-listing the country as a terrorist nation were considered military actions, not terrorist, or not sufficiently connected to terrorists activities. The decision of who to add to the list is exclusively that of the United States; this is not an international list in which any other country participates. The terms are not defined. The United States can do what it wants.
Kim Jong-un has consistently repeated the same explanation offered by his father and grandfather for building and maintaining a nuclear weapon capability: that he is not a terrorist but only intends to defend his country and the Kim legacy from being overrun by the West. It is plain wrong-headed diplomacy to lump North Korea in with al Qaeda, ISIS and the Arab nations supporting radical Islam, or with ISIS directly in the sponsorship of terrorist activities. The world’s particular immediate problem with North Korea is centered exclusively on its potential for developing a working nuclear weapon delivery system and the potential for a thermonuclear disaster. This is universally considered to be a military threat by a nation at war, not a potential terrorist activity.
The basic logistical requirements and the technical demands of sophisticated nuclear weaponry take any real threat of thermonuclear weaponry out of the realm of the terrorist entities. It is conceivable that terrorist groups might make use of nuclear devices that are less sophisticated – the so-called dirty bombs that might fit in a suitcase – but this technology is already widespread and not particularly exclusive to North Korea. There is no actual evidence that has been made available to the public that North Korea has any significant interest in these low-level terrorist activities. The world generally does not consider North Korea to be a threat through support of radical Islam, nor from any sudden and unexpected participation in terrorist activities there. From all appearances, its entire effort has been towards the development of thermonuclear devices and intercontinental delivery systems capable of reaching the entire world – which by definition and practical application is considered to be a national military endeavor.
It is time to overhaul our thinking in this area from the ground up. Get a big table set up and invite Kim Jong-un to come sit at it. Give Kim the stature and recognition he requests as a world leader on the nuclear stage. Consider, with the interests of China and Russia in mind, conditions under which North Korea may continue to control its arsenal of weapons for purposes of national defense. Examine the potential for economic development of North Korea, rather than economic oppression, as a more productive force for encouraging change. Leave the issue of reunification alone, to be dealt with over time by the people of the peninsula working independently and without external pressures.
Finally, after over 63 years, replace the general’s truce and get a peace treaty up to end the damn war. Then we can bring the tiny and unnecessary token combat force we have stationed over there home.
Maybe it’s time to take our foot off Kim’s neck and our thumb out of his eye and actually listen to him for a change.