Cataclysmic Risks of North Korean Crisis
The schoolyard taunts between President Trump and North Korean leaders have quieted for now. But the underlying risks of a nuclear showdown remain, as Korea expert Tim Shorrock explained to Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Many Asia experts are concerned that the war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could turn Trump’s warning of “fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen” into a catastrophic reality.
I spoke on August 10 with long-time Korea expert Tim Shorrock, a Washington-based journalist who spent a good deal of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about the Koreas for nearly 40 years. Shorrock has recently returned from a two-month stay in South Korea where he had an opportunity to interview the new president, Moon Jae-in.
Dennis Bernstein: Why don’t you begin by giving us a sense of what is going on in the South now. Are people afraid of a World War III?
Tim Shorrock: For most South Koreans, this is a confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea. The concern is that Donald Trump will follow up on the threat he made the other day and do something crazy. Of course, there is the fear that it could spill over into South Korea, but there is not any panic going on there.
DB: The new government in South Korea is more inclined to have negotiations with the North. But the United States has not even appointed an ambassador to the South. The situation seems very confusing and dangerous.
TS: The danger is miscalculation. You have Trump basically driving nuclear war with North Korea and you have North Korea saying that they will soon decide whether to send missiles toward Guam. It is a situation where someone could mistake an insignificant launch for something very significant. Or they could misinterpret something happening on the border and things could escalate out of control.
A lot of people in Congress were very concerned about Trump’s remarks. That was true around the world, as well. Moon Jae-in won the election based on his policy of wanting to engage again with North Korea. The last two presidents had rejected engagement and the situation had become very tense because of their hard-line policies.
Moon has not gotten much of a response yet from the North. He has proposed military-to-military talks but the North has not yet responded. Now with the latest missile test by the North, Moon has reversed himself on deployment of THAAD and has actually called for its expansion. However, he said today that the door is still open to dialogue.
DB: What is the history of negotiations between the North and the South?
TS: Moon Jae-in ran on what he called the “Sunshine Policy.” This policy was started by Kim Dae-jung, who was the president from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s. He ran on a campaign to break down the barriers between the North and the South through cultural and economic outreach and political engagement. He had a summit in the 1990’s with Kim Jong-il and there was another summit with Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Noh Moo-hyun, in 2007. They made declarations about moving toward peace, demilitarizing the situation and reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons on the peninsula. During the Sunshine years, many South Koreans traveled to North Korea, and vice versa.
So there was actually a lot of contact until about 2007, the first time it had happened for 45 years or so. And many South Koreans began to see the North less as an enemy. The enmity has been broken down between the South and the North.
Now, this hasn’t improved relations between North Korea and America. Because of the death of this one American visitor who was imprisoned in North Korea and came back in a coma and died a few days later [Otto Warmbier], the US Congress moved to bar any travel from the US to North Korea. This is the first ban on Americans traveling to other countries in decades.
DB: You had a chance recently to interview the new president, Moon Jae-in. What did you learn from that experience?
TS: I met him two days before his election. He came up through the democratic movement. He was a labor rights and human rights lawyer for many years. He was very active in the opposition to the military dictator Park Chung-hee in the 1970’s. He was jailed twice for his anti-government activities. He was chief of staff under progressive president Noh Moo-hyun and was present when Noh met with Kim Jung-il in 2007.
I asked him about the Sunshine Policy and whether he thought there might be opposition from the US. He was already getting criticism from analysts in Washington and some politicians that his policies were soft on North Korea. His response was that if he could do something to reduce the tensions, especially between North Korea and the United States, that should be welcomed by the US.
I asked him about the 1980 massive uprising in Gwangju against martial law and the massacre that followed. The uprising was put down brutally by the South Korean military with help from the Americans. This is still a source of friction between South Koreans and the United States. While he said that the Americans could have done a lot more than they did at the time, he didn’t think it was necessary that the United States apologize now, when the country has moved on and is now a democracy.
Right now, Moon is treading a very fine line: He is trying to reach out to North Korea but he is under a lot of pressure from the United States to adopt a more military-first stance. Many South Koreans have been criticizing him for agreeing to extend the deployment of the missile system that the US installed last year.
DB: If the United States tried to pull off a first strike, what might that look like?
TS: It would be a catastrophe. North Korea is fully capable of launching a counterattack. With its conventional weapons it could wipe out Seoul. It could reach Japan. There would be untold numbers of casualties. South Korea does not want the US to launch a unilateral war without taking into consideration the huge casualties that would result in South Korea and without consulting the South Koreans. It would rupture the alliance between the United States and South Korea. I think a lot of what Trump has been saying is pure bluster. It is very dangerous bluster and can only escalate the situation.
DB: Many people feel that this THAAD missile system is not in place to protect South Korea but is part of an offensive program known as the Pacific Pivot to control China and the region.
TS: The Chinese claim that the radar component of the system is very strong and can penetrate China very easily. Many in South Korea believe that the missiles are there to protect US bases. But even proponents of THAAD concede that, while it is capable of shooting a few missiles down, in the case of a large-scale war, it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
It is actually more of a psychological weapon than something that can prevent an attack or a war. As you said, it is part of a broader system that is in place. Over the past few years there has been a huge military build-up in the region and particularly in Korea. This is a major confrontation and for most South Koreans the only way out is to have engagement.
DB: The American people have no knowledge of the violent history of US involvement in Korea which makes the North Koreans incredibly nervous and reluctant to give up what they see as a bargaining chip with nuclear weapons.
TS: During the Korean War, the United States completely obliterated the North. Eventually there were literally no targets left. Three million people, most of them civilians, were killed by US planes. It was a complete scorched earth policy. Trump’s rhetoric reminds people of what happened in the Korean War.
The North Koreans have a very real fear of the United States launching its military on them again. The American people have so little knowledge of this history. All they hear in the news are numbers: How far can the North Korean missiles go, how many people would be killed in a war? Nobody is talking about how we got into this situation and how we can get out.
Again and again, US officials and the US media will say that North Korea refuses to negotiate on their nuclear weapons. What they leave out is that North Korea, in every one of their statements, has said that, until the United States drops its hostile policy, they will not negotiate.
What would it mean to end our hostile policy? That is what happened under Clinton in the late 1990’s. The agreement was to end their nuclear program. At that time they didn’t have any nuclear weapons. That program was frozen for twelve years until the agreement was ripped up in 2003 by the Bush administration. After that they built a bomb and exploded it in 2006.
Most importantly, the United States has never ended its hostile policy. That is the only way this is going to be resolved. As recently as 2015, the North Koreans offered to put another moratorium on weapons development if the United States would sign a peace agreement. Obama rejected that. Even more recently the North Koreans, together with the Chinese and the Russians, proposed that North Korea freeze their nuclear missile programs in exchange for a drawback of the US/South Korean military exercises. That has also been rejected so far by the United States.
DB: Do you see it as a problem that the Trump administration doesn’t seem very interested in diplomacy? They seem to want to solve matters with B1 bombers.
TS: Interestingly, Trump has had some negotiations with the North Korean government. Soon after he took office in January, the US ambassador to North Korea met with the North Korean foreign minister and that is when we reached an agreement to free some of the Americans in prison in North Korea. But those talks were aimed toward opening the door to broader negotiations.
Less than a week ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at his first press conference that he would welcome direct talks with North Korea if they would put a moratorium on their missile tests. A couple days later, Trump makes this statement about nuclear war. I believe there is a split in the administration about this. There are definitely forces within the administration who are pushing for military action.
DB: The Trump administration has taken to blaming the Chinese, saying they haven’t done enough to rein in North Korea. My understanding is that the Chinese are pretty upset about THAAD and in general about the role the US has been playing in its attempt to surround China with this military ring. What role could China be playing here?
TS: The predominant line right now in Washington is to outsource policy to China, to have China put the screws on North Korea. That’s just not going to happen. They have a long relationship. After all, one million Chinese soldiers died in the Korean War trying to defend North Korea. China certainly does not want to have a situation in a unified Korea where suddenly they have US forces right on the border of the Yellow River. Neither is China going to put pressure on North Korea until it collapses.
China has been quite accommodating to US demands for sanctions. The Chinese and the Russians both voted at the UN for a vast expansion of sanctions which will affect one-third of North Korea’s exports. But after the vote, both the Chinese and the Russian ambassadors made it very clear that they want the United States to negotiate with the North. They see sanctions as only one part of a larger strategy. They came up with a proposal they are calling “freeze for freeze,” which would freeze North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons if the US freezes its military exercises.
Actually, I think the Chinese are playing an important role right now. Just today [August 10], they put out a statement warning Trump that his language is not helping. North Korea has always taken an independent course. They had a lot of disputes with the Soviet Union and they have had a lot of disputes with China. It has its own policies and doesn’t like to be pushed around by bigger powers.
This is a conflict between North Korea and the United States. The North Korean foreign minister just said that the only country they are going to use nuclear weapons against, if they have to, is the United States. What American officials and media would like us to think is that the United States is just an innocent bystander in Korea: “For some strange reason we cannot understand, the North Koreans just hate us so.”
Without understanding the history and the role of the United States in Korea, a lot of Americans are going along with this. We have had military forces in Korea since 1945. There are no Chinese troops, no Russian troops in North Korea.
DB: We hear a lot about poverty in the North, about hunger. I imagine that their heavy military build-up takes a toll on their own people.
TS: Absolutely. It has a huge military far out of proportion with their size and population. Of course, all this military spending deprives the civilian population of support. That was one of the factors that brought them to negotiate in the first place. In the late 1990’s there was a severe crisis when they experienced famine and floods and they lost their access to low-cost oil from the former Soviet Union. At that time, thousands and thousands of people did die from starvation.
It is still a very poor country but, even under the stiff sanctions, in the last few years North Korea’s economy has grown substantially. People who go there note that there is lots of new construction and economic activity. But I am sure that achieving peace with the outside world would certainly do a lot to improve its economy, to be able to divert resources away from military spending.
It is important to remember that, until the late 1970’s, North Korea’s industrial indices were actually higher than those in the South. They were doing well, especially by third-world standards. It is true that today the South Korean economy is miles ahead of the North. But a backward country could not be developing nuclear weapons. I believe that with years of peace and interchange with other countries, North Korea would be much better off. That should be the goal of everybody.
DB: What do you think will be the impact of these latest sanctions?
TS: Cutting one-third of exports and blocking remittances from workers abroad is surely going to hurt the people there. Any time you have sanctions it is the ordinary people who suffer. We saw this in Iraq. There could be some very tough years ahead for North Korea.
DB: Maybe we can come back to the geopolitical angle. Many critics of US foreign policy in the region feel that this is not about North Korea or South Korea, it is about the United States drawing a ring around China in order to control the resources, the trade routes. This is about the uppity North getting in the way of US interests in controlling the region.
TS: Certainly that conflict is there and the United States has moved very aggressively against China in many ways. But this particular conflict goes way back to the early days of the Cold War. The Korean War was one of the first hot battles of the Cold War. This is part of the legacy of the US intervention after World War II, of the choices the US made as to who would govern South Korea, consciously using those who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation.
I don’t see the question of Korea as a side issue from the broader picture. It is very important to find some solution to the Korean standoff. By this point, the US and Vietnam are almost military allies. The United States has been able to get past the war in Vietnam. It is about time we were able to do the same with Korea.