The Asian cold war conflict originally escalated from two diametrically opposed ideologies. A division between the communist north and the democratic south primed the country for civil war. As casualties eclipsed million after million and up to 30 percent of the north’s population was slaughtered, a profoundly deep anti-American sentiment festered. No, this isn’t Vietnam: it’s North Korea.
The historical context of any foreign policy issue is critical. Grasping the extent to which the Korean war still plays a vital role in North Korea’s foreign policy to this day is crucial to understanding their concerns. It doesn’t help that the Korean war — dubbed the “Forgotten War” for good reason — has largely lapsed from the United States’ historical record. For context, with an astonishingly similar population size, about six times as many North Koreans were killed in the Korean War than in the Confederacy during our civil war — over 2 million people. Though the southern American states have largely forgiven, North Koreans haven’t forgotten the conflict as easily.
The Korean war, along with the millions of civilian deaths for which the United States is largely responsible, has created a cliché but relevant attitude of anti-Americanism. State news often attacks U.S. imperialism and dominance worldwide.
This perspective has culminated in a policy labeled ‘deterrence’ — that is, an exclusively defensive effort to resist U.S. influence. After assuming this vantage point, North Korean foreign policy is not only coherent, calculable, and justified, but most importantly, it emerges with precedent.
World War II delivered a gift to many smaller countries employing a deterrence strategy against the United States: the nuclear weapon.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the effectiveness of deterrence in a 2001 memo. “Universally available WMD technologies can be used to create ‘asymmetric’ responses that cannot defeat our forces, but can deny access to critical areas in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.” He continued, explaining that “‘asymmetric’ approaches can limit our ability to apply military power.”
Current Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote in a 2008 op-ed that “An Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable,” citing its increased capacity for deterrence if Iran became a nuclear power. Rumsfeld and Coats both outline the tactical perks for smaller countries that prompt them to acquire some sort of WMD.
One only needs to look to North Korea itself to understand their angle. After a nuclear test in January 2016, North Korea state media specifically invoked Iraq and Libya as historical rationalizations for their consistent pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord,” Korean Central News Agency, the official state media, said. Once the two countries abandoned their WMDs or nuclear programs, KCNA asserts, the United States swiftly administered regime change. Following the logic, North Korea believes the same principle applies to them, but this time there won’t be another victim of U.S. regime change.
Lack of context from the media isn’t helping either. The 83 U.S. military bases and 28,500 troops in South Korea ought to aggravate its northern counterpart alone, but the continuation of joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises along the demilitarized zone provokes the dictatorial nation. U.S. and South Korean military bombers fly across the Korean peninsula, threatening to turn north at any time and commence a bombing campaign. Often, North Korean missile tests and ‘threats’ occur as a direct result of U.S. aggression, but news media outlets fail to mention it.
Amid this turmoil, North Korea still pursues a peaceful option. North Korea regularly offers the U.S. and South Korea a proposal involving a cessation of their nuclear program in return for ending military operations along their border. The Telegraph reported on March 9 that “Washington has rejected China’s proposal that North Korea could halt its nuclear weapons program if the U.S. and South Korea suspend military activities in the region.”
It’s not just Trump either. The Guardian reported Obama saying on April 24, 2016 that “he does not believe North Korea is sincere in its offer to halt nuclear tests if the U.S. suspends military exercises with South Korea.” These diplomatic efforts seriously undermine the narrative that Kim Jong Un is a madman aspiring to obliterate the United States.
Considering all of the international sanctions placed on North Korea, their failed attempts at industrialization and frequent famines aren’t surprising. It’s astonishing, though, that they still seek to work with the United States. Americans, especially those in control of the military, should aim to comprehend North Korean concerns instead of dismissing it as a crazy, power-hungry regime. They should take the perfectly sane, rational, and predictable Kim seriously.