Nothing arouses the press like conflict easily juxtaposed. And the divided Korean peninsula pretty much has that game trademarked.
South and North, capitalist and communist, prosperous and impoverished, reasonable and rabid; if it is dichotomies you are after, look no further.
The same goes for easy adjectives – and for Pyongyang you don’t usually need to get past “b” in the dictionary; for bellicose, belligerent, bluster, bombast (or bomb blast).
Manichean dichotomies seldom season cool analysis however and with the goose-stepping soldiers and bizarre KCNA hyperbole in such rich supply, dispassionate deconstruction of what is actually going on in the region tends to be in short supply.
Nuclear tests, missile tests, satellite launches; for anyone who has paid attention to the peninsula for long, the predictable trajectories of both press coverage and political reaction elicit little reaction, even as the broader hysteria grows ever more shrill.
Out come all the established tropes: The “international community” will be “united in its outrage at Pyongyang’s escalation of tension”. The Japanese or Americans will pledge to shoot down the missile, then back-peddle furiously. North Korea will be a “grave threat” to world peace. Elderly South Koreans will burn an effigy of the latest Kim and the more hawkish of its statesmen will announce that Seoul must also become a nuclear power. It is a pattern as predictable as West Sea clashes in the contentious crab fishing season, North Korean fury at routine military exercises across the border or provocations by Pyongyang ahead of South Korean elections. And it changes nothing (although it allows us our continued outrage).
Nobody likes moral relativism, particularly when it pertains to perhaps the most obnoxious regime in the world, but it is an interesting exercise to consider how North Korea views itself. From Pyongyang, the narrative is that it is defending itself; that it is perennially on the cusp of American invasion, that its poverty is the result of vicious sanctions; how dare the US call it “evil” over a smattering of nuclear tests: America has conducted over 1000 (1030 to be precise) and as for those “gulags”, what about Guantanamo Bay or the fact that the federal prison population has soared a staggering 790 percent in just three decades? To each – in a phrase beloved by international relations specialists – their own shit smells sweet and this is worth remembering, because in the eyes of the octogenarian players and their pudgy new overlord in the North Korean capital, they – with their universal healthcare and their excellent traffic cops, their clinging to a perceived cachet as the last holdouts against US hegemony – they are the rational ones.
The mainstream meme, meanwhile, remains as constant as the geostrategically comfortable status quo sometimes gets vaguely shaken but rarely properly stirred: North Korea is a rogue state, it is irrational, it has threatened its neighbours by conducting a nuclear test/missile test/threatening war. It must be punished like a recalcitrant child, have its inappropriate toys taken away, be firmly slapped and then shut in its famine-ridden bedroom while it wails and smashes things. Careful, meanwhile, not to get too heavy-handed (or too diplomatically engaged) in case something actually changes… Rewinding four years, to when the North tested a nuclear weapon, foreign policy doyenne and Harvard professor Stephen Walt had the most reasonable response. As the perennial crises on the peninsula are so contained by the geostrategic facts on the ground, it applies this time round too.
“North Korea’s defiance is annoying, perhaps, but it’s not like the act of testing a nuclear weapon tells us something new about their regime… “The other reason not to get too bent out of shape is that there is little we can do about it…There are two reasons why our hands are largely tied. First, we don’t have extensive economic ties with North Korea, so we can’t pressure them by threatening to cut off aid, trade, or investment. Second, using military force to disarm or topple Kim Jong Il’s regime or to impose a full economic blockade could unleash an all-out war on the Korean peninsula. All-out war could do considerable damage to Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the border, and the sudden collapse of the North Korean state could create a massive humanitarian problem and make it more likely that some of its nuclear materials would escape reliable custody.
“So the best response is to remain calm, and stop talking as if this event is a test of Obama’s resolve or a fundamental challenge to U.S. policy. In fact, the tests are just “business as usual” for North Korea, and it would better if the United States “under-reacts” rather than overreacts. Instead of giving Pyongyang the attention it wants, the United States should use this incident as an opportunity to build consensus among the main interested parties (China, Russia, South Korea, Japan) and let China take the lead in addressing it. Above all, the Obama administration should avoid making a lot of sweeping statements about how it will not “tolerate” a North Korean nuclear capability. The fact is that we’ve tolerated it for some time now, and since we don’t have good options for dealing with it, that’s precisely what we will continue to do.”
There are alternatives. There is waiting for a North Korean revolution, reform or state collapse – and many have been predicting the imminent above for decades. There is ramped up military pressure and sanctions that have done little to affect change. There is sustained diplomatic engagement of the kind that so nearly bore fruit at the tail-end of the Clinton administration. Or there is war; devastating war guaranteed to bring in every regional player – and once more have China, Japan and the United States jostling for influence on the peninsula as they have since the nineteenth century – but war so unsavoury and unsettling that for all the cries of alarm, a nuclear North Korea safely in its cage provides a reassuring buffer against the thought of it.
Those with a cooler eye note meanwhile the relationship between Japan and China should be the more genuine cause of alarm when eyes turn to Northeast Asia. A recent report by the International Crisis Group is a case in point. Titled “Dangerous Waters” the executive summary pointed out that the two countries “lack the mutual trust and communication mechanisms to manage incidents, let alone to discuss intentions or operating protocols … In the event of a skirmish, heightened nationalism, especially in China, could constrict the room for diplomacy to de-escalate the situation” The report by the respected think tank went on to state starkly: “The two countries’ traditional means for defusing crises have been unravelling. Top leaders mistrust each other; back-channel diplomacy has waned.” With historic animosity rife and nationalism rampant, the highly disputed waters of the East China Sea are of far greater concern than the heavily mined DMZ between the two Koreas. As for what to actually do about the ossified face-off between the latter, that is a tale for another time – and one that involves considerably less histrionics and considerably more historical context.