North Korea: A Bridge Too Far
One of the hardest things for Americans to do is to watch suffering live. We are a country that gives tax deductions for charitable donations and we routinely give to campaigns for starving children that are shown to us on television or through the direct appeal of mail. That is perhaps why the humanitarian crisis in North Korea as eloquently and poignantly outlined in the Aquariums of Pyongyang calls to the better angels of our nature and asks us to respond with that visceral human phrase: “Do something!” What is problematic, and more importantly, what is reality, is that to get to those starving innocents, especially those children, we have to cross the literal barbed wire that we have strung across the Demilitarized Zone – and it is in confronting that task that the many intricate knots of US/Korean/Asian policy are laid bare and are seen to be very tightly intertwined.
It should first be noted that America’s current foreign policy has strayed far from the intentions of our Founding Fathers. George Washington warned against entangling alliances and urged peace and commerce with all. Yet, in the 21st Century, America is confronted with a “one China” continued ambiguity regarding Taiwan, and a de facto “Two Korea” policy – based on the tripwire of 30,000 US soldiers placed on a peninsula in the same position they have been in since Harry S Truman was our President.
It also needs to be said that America has no business maintaining a large network of foreign bases – over 900 on the latest list that the Pentagon is willing to admit exist – and that list excludes any of our recent bases in Turkmenistan, etc. that surround the Caspian Sea and embody the real reason that America is interested in the Middle East (and always has been, in the stated goal of the Eisenhower Doctrine): oil. America has no business being in Germany half a century after a war has ended, and America has no business dividing Koreans from Koreans 50 years after an armistice was signed. It is high time for America to bring our troops home and let the Koreans work out their differences. Standing troops based abroad in sovereign countries is in itself a tripwire to future conflict. To see how truly “foreign” the concept is, ask Americans how they would feel about a German Air Force Base in California. The look of confusion which would inevitably follow such a question perfectly captures the overreach of our current basing policy.
It should further be noted that concomitant with a policy against foreign basing comes a policy against “nuclear policing”. As the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons aggressively, against civilians no less, America possesses zero moral authority in determining “whom” may benefit from nuclear technology. Apparently, India and Pakistan are okay (despite the fact that they have havens for terrorists), but North Korea and Iran – they are not okay. What guides this arbitrary foreign policy? The mistaken notion that America can indefinitely remain the unsurpassed superpower of record. This pretension to be the new Rome conveniently forgets (and how easily, because it doesn’t take history or the Founding Fathers into account, thus debasing and shortening the narrative) that any empire falls when its blood and treasure are overextended. And the American Empire is now at that breaking point.
Our policies towards North Korea are decidedly Janus-like, but that is necessarily because America has “dug in” indefinitely in Korea. When you’re “here to stay” you feel free to try all sorts of policies. The contrast between the 1994 Agreed Framework and the now and future Six-Party Talks are just a few of those policies.
The 1994 Agreed Framework is decidedly pacifist and somewhat appeasing. The former is not bad, the latter is not clear. It was pacifist in its requirement for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to enter into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was appeasing in that it rewarded aggressive militaristic behavior with economic rewards. If the DPRK would simply stop its militaristic nuclear ambitions, we would help with more benign uses of the atom. Not surprisingly, this agreement, non-binding by law or treaty (it was simply a resolution) eventually fell apart.
We failed to deliver the ripest plum of the agreement – full recognition of North Korea and normalization of economic relations. Our delay, for political reasons (what else?), rightfully raised suspicions among the North Koreans, and they resumed their work, kicking the seemingly ubiquitous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors out. We then decided to move towards full animosity, adding North Korea to the list of undesirables: the infamous “Axis of Evil” which included Iraq and Iran.
When “tough talk” (read here denouncing a regime you have tried to undermine for half a century, to no avail, and have punished civilians through economic sanctions in order to try to prick the heart of a regime that doesn’t have one) didn’t work we turned the face of Janus to be one of smiles – the 6 Party Talks.
The 6 Party Talks – a sort of modern day, non-cynical type of Vietnamization, sought to involve the entire region in the issue of North Korea. If Asian bodies can see how their own self-interest is at stake, it was thought, than perhaps change could occur. It also understood the famous Von Clausewitz maxim correctly: “war is an extension of politics”. America had decided to try politics first.
As of the writing of this policy memo (November 2007), the 6 party talks continue and seem to be making decided progress. As of this moment, they seem to be a success for two reasons: 1) the talks have brought North Korea, hungry for world recognition and the chance to trade freely, to the table and kept it there; 2) the talks seem to be making marked progress during each phase. “Ars longa, vita brevis” could easily be modified with the substitution of “diplomacy” for “art”. While it is the more painstaking way, diplomacy is often the way of peace, and it is the vernacular that civilized nations must speak. Perhaps, for all its uncalled for meddling in Asian affairs (which will come to an end when China has decided it will kill the tiger instead of staying on its back), America is finally contributing something useful in pursuing peace.
This peace, however, cannot be lasting with an occupation of 30,000 American soldiers on foreign soil. For there to be peace in Korea, indeed, for there to be Korea once more and no longer a divided Korea, we must come home.
As for the atrocities in The Aquariums of Pyongyang, they are certainly heartbreaking. While the atrocities seen in that book do not occur in the United States to any degree of similarity, we do have to remember that the phrase “charity begins at home” did not originate in this century. Its wisdom is ages old, and we would do well to heed it. Before we sally forth abroad to cure the woes, both real and imagined, of our friends and foes, we would do well to look in the mirror and to our own domestic troubles. Kim Jong-il may not have modernized his industry, but we have exported all of ours. His people may be starving, but we still have homeless, hungry, and starving here in America. North Korea may not be a full-fledged member of the world community, but we, the epitome of a rogue state, refuse to participate in the world community, rejecting Kyoto, the World Court, and even the UN, ironically housed on US soil.
When America is willing to accept that Korean problems are only American problems when they affect us directly, it will begin to understand that the path to peace in Korea, and indeed, in the world, is paved by the path of a retreating military that has simply reached too far. What Neoconservatives like the elitists who are part of the Project for the New American Century would like Americans to believe is that we are engaged in “guardianship”. What we are really engaged in is worldwide tyranny. It is not “American” to have our nose and guns pointed into every corner of the world. At some point we will learn that. And if we don’t learn that and end our militarism now, it will be the end of the Empire. The Republic is long dead.