If North Korea and the US enter a war, think twice before taking side
A few days ago on September 19th, President Donald Trump made a speech at the UN General Assembly asserting that “if [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” The words “totally destroy” were obviously not well received in the country of Kim Jong Un, who replied on September 22nd to Donald Trump’s speech. And he is not any less aggressive. He said: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U. S. dotard [aka Donald Trump] with fire.” These extreme words from both sides are worsening and quickening the threat of a conflict between the two nations, scaring many in the world about what will happen tomorrow.
This conflict is not just about North Korea and the United States. If a bomb was to be dropped by the Korean side, it might be directed at US allies: Seoul maybe, or Tokyo, my home. President Trump is safe in Washington DC, but we are not here and I would like to point out why this conflict is more complex than a good side vs bad side and why it should be solved diplomatically before it is too late.
America is the land of the free, North Korea is the land of censorship and propaganda. America has been the world’s leading economy for decades, while in North Korea the famine of 1994–98 killed an estimated 1 to 16% of the population. America is a democracy, North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship. If a war erupts between the two countries, there is no doubt that the US would win, and that North Korea would be crushed. But is that really so simple?
North Korea defends its project to develop nuclear weapon as a mean to entrench its legitimacy as a nation state, capable to defend itself against foreign pressure. Before condemning it, let’s try to understand how North Korea reached this position.
To understand the conflicts in Asia we may start by mentioning the history of the past 200 years there. The West (Western Europe and the US) came to the East for trade, diplomatic ties and religious conversions. It always bore a superior position to the East, eventually colonizing, occupying, or coercing into opening most of Asia in order to obtain the economic, cultural, political and judicial power they desired there. A countless number of wars have been fought between Asian and Western countries since the opium wars, while none were actually fought in mainland Europe and United States by the same belligerent. Later in history, during the cold war, the conflicts in Asia were proxy wars fueled by both the American and the soviet sides. It is in this context that North Korea was formed in 1948. After the Chinese communist revolution the next year, Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un) aimed to reunify Korea under the communist banner. My point from this very quick historical review of the region is that the contact between East and West has been rather one-sided and violent. The most cynical would say this is the history of mankind, but in our era of globalization, of international institutions, things could hopefully become different. An American attack of North Korea now would only repeat a history of Western dominance, and we can foresee that if solving anything in the present, it will simply nurture tensions in the future.
Culturally, why is North Korea shutting itself from the world? Hollywood movies, American music labels, video games, American food chains are all over the place now. Is that really because the American way is the best way? My humble opinion is rather that culture tends to rely on money. The US more than any other country developed means to produce huge budget movies and advertise them worldwide. They can promote the most charismatic singers and groups, or conquer fast-food and coffee markets with cheap and popular brands. Of course the US is doing great culturally and cannot be blamed for that, but we must see that culture is not neutral. It promotes certain thoughts and lifestyles and generates a lot of money. When all the culture is produced in the same place and promoted all over thanks to big investments, the weaker/poorest voices lose their chance to promote their own vision of life or to get money for the cultural industries.
And every country recognizes this threat: China is filtering foreign culture to maintain room for Chinese stuff, Japan has a very strong domestic pop culture which sort of naturally blocks American references, France has quotas on the radio and on TV to promote French songs, series and movies… Every country has its means to make space for its own culture against the overwhelming American pop culture. North Korea is responding radically by shutting down the country. Of course this demonstrates a totalitarian desire to prevent the people to realize that life is better elsewhere and to rebel, but to some degree it also demonstrates that the capitalization of culture is a threat to every nation-state, to which the most reluctant countries can either reply through extreme measures, or accept to be Americanized like the rest of the world.
Militarily now, the United Nations Security Council unanimously denounced the nuclear trials of North Korea, but it is always important to remind ourselves that the five permanent members of the UNSC are also the five countries more equipped in nuclear weapons, the US and Russia possessing together about 15.000 nuclear bombs, as if a few dozen was not enough. Those weapons have been used through the cold war as threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and still now represent a strong asset for the countries’ hard power. And they also have done nuclear tests in their territories as well as in the oceans last century. In that regard, YES one can be scared of a dictatorship such as North Korea having a nuclear bomb, but one also have to reckon that they are simply following the rules of the current international relation game. After all, the first country to develop and make use of the nuclear bomb is the US.
Here thus stands North Korea: afraid of the economic, cultural and military pressure of the US. I do not want to defend the governance of Kim Jong Un, but rather to try to understand the roots of his extremism and to reflect on ways to avoid repeating the tragedies of the past.
I believe in democracy, in freedom, in basic human rights and I wish one day North Korea will free itself from its authoritarian regime. It will take time and efforts to happen, and Trump declaring that he is considering “totally destroy[ing]” North Korea does nothing to help.
We hopefully live in the Internet era, where information comes from different sources, allowing us to develop a more complex opinion of current events than a Manichean view. Yes, the North Korean regime is dictatorial and scary, but so are the Americans now for the 25 million North Koreans who just got openly threatened last week, in front of the UN, to be killed. What does this statement accomplishes but to fuel resentment and fear in North Korea about the West? Killing civilians to protect your country and your allies from a possible threat, and risking those same allies to get bombed because of your action and your words, does not seem to me more helpful than Kim Jong Un developing nuclear weapons. We hopefully live in a time where diplomacy can work, where economic ties can prevent wars, where we reckon that the enemy can be an ideology rather than a group of people. It is time to make the right moves and stop this war of language which offers no solution but a disaster.
Moreover, the issue does not quite end there. The conflict between the US and North Korea might be the trigger to unpredictable moves in the geopolitics of Asia. China has risen and is now a superpower to take into consideration. It is also the main economic partner of North Korea and can exert a very strong influence in the country’s decision making. But China would not want the implosion of North Korea: this would mean a possible reunification of the two Koreas creating more economic competition, big numbers of refugees entering its territory and a possible American occupation at its border. (French speakers can listen to the many podcasts of Bernard Guetta on FranceInter on the topic)
Today North Korea VS the US, tomorrow China VS the US? Just the idea of all those disputes is terrifying and seems, to this day, unnecessary. But what are the alternative to all those looming conflicts?
Increasing the tensions between North Korea and the US can lead nowhere but to war and the death of millions of innocents. To solve the issue diplomatically, both parts need to make compromises. North Korea needs to be assured that its legitimacy as an independent nation state is recognized and that it risks not being absorbed by South Korea, like it happened in Germany. While it is controversial to recognize the legitimacy of such a regime, the choice is between working with or fighting against Kim Jong Un’s government and North Koreans. Opening a better discussion with North Korea and showing that the West does not aim at imposing its ways anymore might allow socio-political situation in North Korea to improve, maybe not following the American way but creating its own Korean way without the fear of annihilation. The US on its side needs to come back on its threats of total destruction and the UN to reconsider the sanctions based on the North Korean cooperation. As for the nuclear weapons, there is no easy solution but a nuclear deal like the one found with Iran could be reached with patience and capacity to compromise on everyone’s side in order to keep our world in peace and to respect every country’s sovereignty.
But the true main agent of those negotiations might be China. To convince China to mediate the conflict, the US needs to relinquish posting military bases at the border of China. The latter would win worldwide recognition as an efficient mediator to solve conflict, thus asserting its new geopolitical status in Asia and in the world. South Korean and Japanese governments could also join the negotiation table in order to work together in building a more peaceful region out of the current crisis in East Asia. And the United States should accept that not all decisions made by China, by North and South Korea and by Japan will benefit America. The US has been involved very actively in East Asia since WWII, arguably failing to bridge the nations together; it might be time to let them do it by themselves. The European Union and other allies of the US can assist in offering alternative to Donald Trump’s dramatic solutions. They can on one side work with America to find better solutions than total destruction, and on the other help presenting and negotiating them with North Korea and China.
The world, as always, in changing. There has been no war between countries of the European Union since WWII, and young adults like me were raised in this optimistic environment, taught that sustainable peace and systemic alternative to armed conflict could be possible. The capitalist system of laissez faire is challenged by the rise of a socialist state and by alter globalists all around the world who dream of a world more rational and less oriented towards wealth. The US, once the acclaimed world leader, now has to reconsider its position in front of the still powerful Russia, of the rising China, of the European Union which will sometimes disagree with its historical ally, and many more rising regional and national powers. There is no more just one or two ideologies to chose from in geopolitics as debates are becoming more complex and diverse, now focusing on peace, equality, environment… The world is hopefully heading towards more representation of its citizens, and we live in the era where we can decide if that means working towards towards imposing one’s way or finding compromises together.
My final message for you who have read me so far is thus to think twice before taking side on the US/North Korean conflict. If you ask me, I would stay neutral. Yes on one side there is an ally of the country I am from, a democracy and a world power. But neither of these attributes justify the threat to annihilate 25 million civilians, or to impose one’s ways into another country. In my humble, and maybe naive opinion, both countries and in fact all of us have to learn from this conflict and review our perspectives in order not only to maintain the peace today, but also to avoid new tensions tomorrow. In the past 50 years, the US have been involved in many controversial conflicts in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in many other places. If Donald Trump’s America preemptively attacks North Korea, it will face contestation not just over there, but among its people and allies. The world can find better alternatives than destruction, and it is time to demonstrate it.