By Liu Jianxi with Bruce Cumings | September 19, 2017
Originally published in Global Times
The nuclear crisis in North Korea is growing more serious in the wake of nuclear tests and war games. Decades after the Korean War (1950-53), how is the tension escalating? Is new war likely on the Korean Peninsula? What should be done to alleviate tensions? Global Times reporter Liu Jianxi (GT) talked with American historian, lecturer and author Bruce Cumings (Cumings) on these issues. Cumings specializes in modern Korean history and contemporary international relations.
GT: You once mentioned that Washington’s North Korea policy is a failure at the fundamental level. To what extent has the US contributed to the nuclear crisis, and why is Washington’s policy a failure?
Cumings: The US has sanctioned North Korea for decades, but none of these sanctions or embargoes worked to change North Korea’s behavior. Instead, the regime has become very defensive and feels it has its back to the wall, and that the US is a sworn enemy in all of that. No positive results have come out of almost 70 years of sanctions. American war games have only helped South Korea and the US to coordinate their military activities while North Korea feels very threatened by both. So the war games tend to heighten tensions on the peninsula.
But the fundamental reason that North Korea has developed missiles and bombs is that the US has had a policy of nuclear intimidation toward North Korea going back to 1950 during the Korean War, including the installation of hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea after 1958. For decades, American war plans called for using nuclear weapons very early in any new Korean war.
American generals who previously served in Korea told me that they’d be willing to use nuclear weapons in the Korean but not the European theater because in the Korean theater North Korea had no nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang knew this and as a result, it had to build thousands of underground facilities for its own defense against these weapons.
North Korea’s missiles and bombs are the things that the US has helped to build by blackmailing the North with nuclear weapons. This doesn’t justify what North Korea is doing, but makes the country’s behavior much more understandable. Over the long run, this is the primary reason that North Korea has been attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
GT: North Korea has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and just had its sixth nuclear test. Given that Pyongyang may soon have the ability to launch a nuclear attack against the US, how will this fact change the US’ North Korea policy?
Cumings: Firstly, for North Korea to warn of an ICBM that can hit the US is a simple tit-for-tat. North Korea is attempting to intimidate the US the same way it was once intimidated. When I say “intimidate,” I’m not just talking about threats. Both former president Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have brandished US nuclear capability by showing bombers on TV in an attempt to deter and intimidate North Korea. Any country would try to develop a nuclear deterrent against such threats.
Secondly, if North Korea has developed the ability to hit the US, American military commanders worry that North Korea may use that threat to launch a conventional war, but not a nuclear war, against the South, preventing the US from coming in with nuclear weapons to defend South Korea.
I don’t think that’s very likely. The North Korean army is much weaker than it used to be, and so I don’t think North Korea is going to attack conventionally. But the logic of American commanders can be understood. In the past, the US has been attempting to deter North Korea with conventional and nuclear forces. If North Korea possesses usable nuclear weapons, it might make it very difficult for the US to deploy nuclear weapons in defense of South Korea. This is one of the hidden reasons that American officials oppose North Korea’s nuclear program.
Thirdly, a lot of people in Washington, including the Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, said recently that Kim Jong-un is irrational and unpredictable, and therefore the long-term standoff the US had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War doesn’t apply to North Korea. North Korea has been very calculating and rational for decades in responding to South Korea and the US.
North Korea’s world view is different from that of the US. The country’s primary goal is reunification with the South, but the US doesn’t want this. North Korea is very focused on what it wants while the US has interests all around the globe and only pays attention to North Korea when there’s a crisis. How do you have deterrence if you think your enemy is irrational?
GT: China proposed a suspension for a suspension, hoping to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula and seek a breakthrough in the North Korea nuclear crisis. But Washington rejected this proposal. What was Washington’s concern?
Cumings: I support a freeze-for-freeze proposal. This was already done in 1994 when the US was trying to get a freeze on the plutonium that North Korea had. The US had conducted Team Spirit war games with South Korea going back to 1976. As part of American concessions to get North Korea to freeze plutonium, the US stopped Team Spirit. Haley says that the US can’t do a freeze-for-freeze because North Korea is testing missile and bombs while the US is just defending its allies with routine joint military training exercises that do not threaten North Korea. All we need to say to Haley is that the US did a freeze-for-freeze back in 1994, so why not now? It’s also important that both China and Russia support a freeze-for-freeze, so the proposal has a lot of backing.
GT: The Six-Party Talks platform is no longer working. How do you view the possibility of bilateral talks between Pyongyang and Washington?
Cumings: I wish the Six-Party Talks would come back, because all concerned parties were involved in the talks. In general, the platform was designed to get the US and North Korea talking to each other. Everybody knew the central problem was between these two countries. The Six-Party Talks platform is also one of the first diplomatic efforts in Northeast Asia to have international forums that existed in Southeast Asia with ASEAN or in Europe with the EU.
Previously there were few arrangements in Northeast Asia for concerned countries to talk to each other, so the Six-Party Talks were a real breakthrough. American historian Francis Fukuyama wrote an article where he thought the Six-Party Talks were a precursor or foundation for international organizations of many types to develop in East Asia. The platform drew the US and North Korea into multi-party discussions with lots of ideas coming from other countries.
If it were just the US and North Korea in the talks, probably the discussions would go back and forth on things that divided Pyongyang and Washington for decades.
I also would support bilateral talks if the Trump administration wanted to talk to North Korea, which of course is a positive thing. But the Six-Party Talks are superior for these kinds of negotiations.
GT: The UN Security Council adopted the seventh round of sanctions on North Korea last week. To what extent will the sanctions curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile activity?
Cumings: I would say there’s a two or three percent chance of that happening. It’s much more likely that North Korea is going to test more missiles and bombs because it is angry about sanctions. There was a demand to impose a full oil embargo on North Korea, and China refused to do that. So the UN cut one-third, which is supposed to be the amount of oil the military uses. All that will happen is the military will use the next third, and the third third will be left for the people of North Korea. So the sanctions basically hurt the people of North Korea.
The country’s textile exports will also be blocked. This will hurt North Korea, but won’t impose enough pain to get the country to stop testing. If you look back to 2002 and 2003, North Korea wasn’t exporting much coal to China, but then coal became a big export worth upwards of $1 billion a year. Now China has cut back on importing coal from North Korea as a part of previous sanctions earlier in the year. So the worst thing that can happen to North Korea is that the country goes back to the 2003 situation. Likewise, textiles are a recent export. North Korea actually hadn’t exported or imported a lot up until recently as the Kim Jong-un government was engaging in market activities and letting North Koreans engage in market activities for the first time in the country’s history.
These latest sanctions really hurt not Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program but the country’s market activities and trade, which we should be encouraging. The textile industry is always the industry that countries use to industrialize in the first instance and could bring major changes to North Korea’s economy. But now the UN is trying to block it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was exactly right when he said that North Koreans would eat grass before they give up their missiles and bombs. North Koreans had the experience of eating grass back in the 1990s during the famine. I was glad to see President Putin say that because it is a realistic judgment. The UN is trying to sanction North Korea into denuclearization. It’s just not going to work and it never has worked.
GT: Trump warned “we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” How likely is real war on the Korean Peninsula?
Cumings: He never should have said that. That was very irresponsible. His remarks about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” are even more irresponsible. Trump actually echoed former US president Harry Truman’s statement after the Hiroshima bomb but before Nagasaki that if the Japanese don’t surrender, “they [Japan] may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Many people in the world view Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes that killed hundreds of thousands of people. It is very bad for the American president to threaten that against North Korea, a smaller country than Japan.
Everybody knows that the US can turn North Korea into a “charcoal briquette” as Gen. Colin Powell said in 1995, if it wants to, but it’s undignified for the president to say that. I don’t think there’s going to be a “major, major conflict” with North Korea. President Trump will sooner or later realize that there’s no real military solution to the Korea Peninsula.
GT: You once mentioned “in the West, treatment of North Korea is one-sided and ahistorical.” What factors have contributed to this phenomenon? What can be done to help North Korea reintegrate into the international community?
Cumings: American policy toward North Korea has always been remarkably one-sided, and the US has basically set up a South Korea government and then defended it ever since the Korean War. It’s also one-sided in that the US assumes North Korea has no reason to exist, no interest or values that anyone should respect and so the best thing that could happen is if North Korea collapsed and disappeared.
The long history going back 72 years to 1945 of American actions in North Korea is generally not known to the American people. The US always talks about the present and the future of the North Korean crisis, but never the past where the US intimated North Korea with nuclear weapons going back to 1950, and installed nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. North Koreans know this very well, but the American people don’t know it. This is a part of a much deeper problem that Americans always look at the present and future, but not the past.
Going into the history of our relations with North Korea would be a good start to educate the American people on the Korean War. Even well-informed people don’t know that the US occupied Korea for three years from 1945 to 1948 and set up a military government there. It would be good for the American media to investigate the past. Now both Democrats and Republicans say that the US can’t negotiate with North Korea because Pyongyang always breaks its agreements, which completely ignores the eight-year freeze on plutonium from 1994 to 2002. North Korea went along with a lot of what the US wanted at that time, and things looked very rosy until George W. Bush messed it all up.
Either Six-Party Talks or bilateral talks between the US and North Korea can help Pyongyang reintegrate into the international community. Things could become integrated if North Korea feels secure.
Bruce Cumings teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of The Korean War: A History. He is a Korea Policy Institute Associate.