How To End This Tiring Game of War

On the few occasions I bring out the world atlas, I feel pitiful. The total areas of the United States and China, which have interfered with our fate, are 44 times and 43 times bigger than the Korean peninsula, respectively. As for Russia, it is 77 times bigger. Japan is 1.7 times bigger. Considering only South Korea, the U.S. is 98 times bigger, China 95, Russia 170, and Japan 3.7. A small nation surrounded by giants is divided in two, and each part is aiming gun barrels at the other.

By purchasing $7.8 billion worth of weapons in 2014, South Korea became the number one importer worldwide. $7 billion worth was imported from the United States. Not being satisfied with nuclear weapons, North Korea is now boasting it will create hydrogen bombs, which are up to 100 times more powerful than nuclear weapons. The South and the North are spending too much energy torturing each other.

Looking with eyes illuminated by the history of civilizations, it is evidently a form of self-harm. Since Dangun Wanggeom founded Ancient Joseon, the Korean people have apparently been invaded 931 times. As if the shame of living as colonial slaves were not enough, the country has been split in half at the hands of world powers and is fighting to the death. The stress from chronic hatred and hostilities is releasing the toxins of exclusivism and selfishness. It is a strange and harsh fate.

The North Korean nuclear provocations — four times already — can only be resolved if the United States and China step up to the plate. But the two powers continue to keep their arms crossed and blame each other. China, which holds the key to sanctions against North Korea, has no plans whatsoever to shut off the oil pipeline that runs under the Amrok River from Dandong to Sinuiju. While it is disgraceful to watch North Korea play with fire and keep Korea and China from forming an ideal relationship, China does not want to give up the buffer zone [formed by North Korea] and go alone against the triangular alliance of Korea, the U.S. and Japan. It has no reason and no time to consider Korea’s anxiety and rage.

The U.S. is largely responsible for our current state. While Barack Obama neglected North Korea for the past seven years, citing “strategic patience” as the fancy-sounding reason, North Korea has performed three nuclear experiments. Joel Wit, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., estimates that if North Korea continues on its current path, it will be able to manufacture about 100 nuclear weapons by 2020. The formality of flying a B-52 strategic bomber over Korean airspace following the nuclear experiment will not lead to any changes.

In 2008, while he was a presidential candidate, Obama said, “I will hold firm and direct talks even with my enemies.”* Obama did reach a nuclear deal with Iran and establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, but he neglected North Korea. Of course, it is true the U.S. was disappointed to see North Korea launch a long-distance missile immediately following the North Korea-U.S. agreement on Dec. 29, 2012, which stipulated North Korea cease all nuclear programs in exchange for the U.S. supplying 240,000 metric tons of food.

China suspects the U.S. is “deliberately” neglecting North Korea. It reasons that the existence of a “nuke-possessing North Korea” will serve as a justification for pressuring China via the triangular alliance of Korea, U.S. and Japan. It is true the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Korea is progressing due to the existence of “Northern nukes,” despite opposition from China. One year ago, North Korea suggested that if the U.S. and Korea were to temporarily cease their joint military exercises, it would temporarily cease all nuclear experiments, but the U.S. immediately denied the request. During that time period, a New York Times editorial criticized Obama, demanding the “U.S. start exploratory conversations with North Korea.”* During his New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un criticized the “hostile U.S. policy toward the North” while frequently advocating for the conclusion of a North Korea-U.S. peace treaty, but the U.S. did not respond.

The Shinzo Abe administration is delighted to see the artillery smoke rising out of Punggye-ri [a nuclear test site in North Korea]. After securing collective self-defense rights under U.S. protection, Japan has even received an additional bonus with the resolution of the comfort women issue, opening opportunities for serious re-armament. Kim Jong Un is also probably enjoying the resurgence of the once-forgotten “Northern nukes” issue, as the November presidential election approaches. This is our reality: As if nukes were not enough, we now have to live with worries about hydrogen bombs. The U.S., South Korea’s ally nation, and China, its cooperative partner, are avoiding the issue, so would turning up anti-North propaganda speakers have any real effect on the North Korean constitution considering that acquiring nukes is written down firmly in its preface?

North Korea is playing with fire, and if we want to make sure the U.S. and China are not going to treat it as a mere war of words, South Korea has to show intent that cannot be ignored. It has to lead the way to international cooperation, so powerful sanctions can take place. But the sanctions must not lead to failure scenarios. They must always function as a process that leads to dialogue and negotiation. Ultimately, they have to create the conditions for dialogue between the North and the U.S. To do so, South Korea must first improve the relationship between the South and the North and convince North Korea. Only then will the U.S. be able to make a move. While it may be difficult, South Korea must respond with reason rather than emotion.

North Korea must change as well. During his first speech as successor in April 2011, Kim Jong Un said, “I will make sure that the people will no longer have to tighten their belts.” If that statement was true, then he needs to remove the unrealistic slogan of parallel progress for nukes and the economy.

If we give up because it is too difficult, the giants around us will neglect the suffering of the Korean peninsula. There is only one way to escape from the self-harm of this tiring game of war and restore peace. It is waking up from the magic spell of dependency on world powers and becoming the masters of our own fate.

*Editor’s note: The original quote, although accurately translated, could not be verified.

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