Tensions on the Korean peninsula have again reached a flashpoint, as the US and South Korea trade threats with the government of North Korea. North Korea has threatened retaliation for US/South Korean provocations and has, it claims, abrogated the armistice that ended the Korean War some 60 years ago.
On the other side, the US and South Korea held a three day naval exercise last month that included, among many other warships, an American nuclear-powered submarine. This month, the US and South Korea are conducting another joint military exercise, this time with the US flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Korean peninsula.
Much of the current escalation came after the US drew up yet another set of sanctions for the UN Security Council to impose on North Korea. US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who drafted the language, promised that this round of sanctions “will bite and bite hard.” That is unlikely, as sanctions have a pretty lousy track record. However, the North Korean government retaliated against the new sanctions with bellicose threats to launch a nuclear first strike against the US.
The US response to the threats has been entirely predictable. Rather than seek a way to tone down the rhetoric, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon, which just weeks ago claimed the “sequestration” would leave the US defenseless, would spend another billion dollars to deploy additional missile interceptors along the Pacific. This means money and jobs for a military-industrial complex that never really faced any threat of belt-tightening, as both parties continue to view the military as essentially a jobs program.
Secretary Hagel, when announcing the additional $1 billion spending spree, sounded far more hawkish than his recent dovish defenders probably hoped, stating, “We will strengthen our homeland defense, maintain our commitments to our allies and partners, and make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression.” Obviously, monthly US-South Korean joint military exercises near North Korean borders are not considered aggression. Only North Korean bellicosity. I wonder how the Obama Administration would view a Chinese-Mexican joint military exercise on the Texas border.
Where will it all end? From the look of it, not well. The US foreign policy playbook has only one page: do the same thing over and over that has not worked in the past and hope it begins to work in the future.
The real question is why are we still in Korea at all. Why, after 60 years, is the United States military still occupying South Korea, patrolling its borders, inserting itself into the dispute between North and South? What might have happened if the US had not maintained such a force in Korea, enforcing the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) and keeping families on either side from having contacts with each other?
The popular view is that because North Korea is an isolated dictatorship run by irrationals, the only possible US response is to keep the situation militarized. To maintain the military threat. To continue to provoke. And always, impose more US-authored sanctions. However, one reason North Korea is isolated is the isolationist policies of the US government. It is isolationist to impose sanctions, to prohibit Americans from doing business, to impede or forbid travel by US citizens to countries with which the US government disagrees. North Korea is isolated in part because our government has isolated it. North Korea threatens to attack South Korea and the United States partly because South Korea and the United States continue to mount very provocative military exercises on North Korea’s border. That does not mean that I am in favor of the North Korean government. Far from it. Nor do I believe they are necessarily in favor of peace. But I do recognize when a policy is counter-productive.
I am the opposite of an isolationist. I believe we must engage the rest of the world, not with force or arms or hectoring about internal political developments. We must engage the rest of the world with our ideas, bringing people together rather than building walls or DMZs to keep them apart. A change in our policy may not produce an instant opening or improvement, but haven’t we tried the old, failed approach long enough? Does continuing to provoke North Korea show any real hope of diffusing the gathering storm?
What is the real Korean threat? The real “Korea threat” is the threat to the US economy by over-reacting to saber rattling by a third world country with another billion dollars in military spending. We cannot afford this empire, and sooner or later it will end.