War with North Korea has now become a distinct possibility. Given that Seoul has been my home for the better part of a decade, I say that not just with a sense of dread, but also resignation.
In normal times, when the United States had a president who demonstrated a firmer grasp of reality, war was an unthinkable proposition, despite repeated North Korean provocations. As distasteful as Kim Jong Un’s blatant disregard of the will of the international community is, no sane leader was – or should be – willing to be responsible for a death toll likely to be in the millions if there’s a second Korean War.
After all, if the point of deterring a country from having nuclear weapons is preventing a catastrophic loss of human life, isn’t bringing about that result through war a self-defeating purpose?
Unfortunately, sanity doesn’t seem to be a hindrance facing our new president. In the past month, Donald Trump has threatened to bring “fire and fury” down upon the Korean peninsula, stated that “the time for negotiations is over” and called out South Korean leader Moon Jae-in for “appeasement.” Granted, Trump has proven that his tweets should all be taken with a grain of salt, but these rash statements have poured gasoline on an already volatile situation.
The problem, though, is not simply or even primarily Trump. The problem is that the country he leads has shown itself to have a capacity for violence that is matched only by its ignorance of foreign affairs. North Korea is not a threat to the United States; the only reason we fought the country in the first place was because the Truman administration split the peninsula immediately after World War II, then committed U.S. troops when Kim Il-sung sought to reunify the country in 1950. The consensus view on Vietnam is that it was a mistake for America to get involved. Why is a war fought for the exact same reasons a decade earlier in Korea not regarded in the same light?
Questions of history aside, regarding North Korea as a threat to the United States profoundly misjudges the nature of the regime. Yes, it is tyrannical, cruel and repugnant. But it is not unpredictable or suicidal.
Rather, it is driven by a singular goal of reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal that cannot be achieved while U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea. Rather than view nuclear weapons as a defensive measure, we should be thinking of them as a way that the North intends to threaten us into packing up our military. Launching a nuclear strike on San Francisco or Los Angeles that would guarantee the end of its regime is not on the agenda, but the constant bluster and bravado from Pyongyang seeks to convince us otherwise.
An American public that is naturally predisposed to fear and war has bought the act hook, line and sinker – to the point that a recent CNN poll found half of the respondents supporting military action against North Korea. This number is sure to rise in the coming days as the media falls all over itself to report about the “aggressive, unpredictable” nature of the regime, and political leaders add their voices to the call for war.
Rather than join the chorus, U.S. leaders should start thinking of ways to atone for our original sin of dividing the peninsula in 1945. Kim Jong-un isn’t going anywhere, and neither is his stockpile of nuclear weapons. In the meantime, South Korea’s president has gone on record that he supports the idea of a “low-level confederation” with the North Koreans as the first step toward reunification. This was also laid out by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, as part of his “sunshine policy” with North Korea.
Perhaps it’s time for American leaders to get behind a proposal to reunite Korea rather than plot ways to destroy it once again.
Geoffrey Fattig, originally from Sacramento, is a former speechwriter for the U.S. State Department and is now deputy international editor of the Hankyoreh newspaper in Seoul. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.