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Joseph Mariathasan: Blundering and blustering in Korea

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President Donald Trump has now declared that diplomacy is a waste of time when it comes to North Korea, overruling Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state.

Investors are getting acclimatised to regular bouts of risk aversion when the latest North Korean provocative act of a missile launch or and nuclear test occurs. It is easy to dismiss the aggressive military posturing of North Korea as driven by just the actions of a paranoid leadership.

There may well be some truth to this, but Trump’s response of threatening “fire and fury” the like the world has never seen before in response – and shying away from further talks – harkens back to the very reasons why North Korea, unlike Vietnam, still harbours such hate towards the US.

Korea has certainly experienced what war with the US meant in the past in terms of civilian casualties.

Numbers vary significantly depending on the source. According to one (Beyond Numbers: The Brutality of the Korean War by Ji-Yeon Yuh) , an estimated 5m people were killed during three years of warfare. Of these, 1.2m were soldiers including 217,000 for South Korea, 406,000 from North Korea, 600,000 from China and 36,000 for the US, with 5,000 from other UN allies.

The remaining more than 3m deaths were Korean civilians. Given a population in 1950 of 30m for the whole Korea, this represented 10%. Many of these were killed in massacres, or executed as political prisoners by either the South or North Korean armies.

The capital city of Seoul changed hands four times during the three years of war, with each change accompanied by massive political killings of civilians. There has never been a formal peace treaty signed.Now, the Seoul area accounts for half South Korea’s 51m population – all within easy range of North Korean artillery. 

North Korea has become the “hermit kingdom”, cut off from the outside world (in the eyes of Americans at least). The underlying ruthlessness and cruelty of the regime seems clear from the accounts of refugees.

Myths surrounding key issues, such as the craziness of its leaders or the influence of China, detract from a rational approach to dealing with the regime. Trump blames previous US administrations for allowing the situation to get out of hand.

Caution may have been a realistic option in the past. However, Colin Kahl, a national security adviser to the Obama administration, has suggested that the inevitable progress in North Korea’s capabilities – to the level where it would be able to hit the US itself with a nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile – is a gamechanger.

It poses the dilemma: Would the US trade San Francisco for Seoul? If Trump has the mindset that diplomacy is not an option, then the problem becomes that the longer he waits for a military confrontation, the more time it gives to North Korea to develop its capabilities to retaliate – even if suicidally – through attacking the US mainland.

It would be nice to believe that the US may have moved beyond tolerating huge numbers of civilian deaths provided US military casualties were kept to a minimum. But instead of reassuring the US’s democratic allies in east Asia, Trump has done the opposite:

It is not just investors who are hoping that diplomacy triumphs over warmongering.

There may be a game-changing development in North Korea’s capabilities, but perhaps the end objective should be a formal peace treaty and the eventual demilitarisation of the Korean peninsular. It may mean guaranteeing the existence of the Kim regime and possible withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, but if that ensures a demilitarised Korea, it seems a better option all round. (This, however, will require China and Russia as guarantors – which may be more of an issue with North Korea than the US.)

North Korea may still win its ultimate objective – the preservation of the regime. But for the rest of the world, that is a small price to pay to avert catastrophe.

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