What to do about North Korea, Mr Trump

Nuclear Weapons
United States
North Korea

So President Trump will avoid visiting the demilitarized zone on the border between South and North Korea and staring his enemy in the face this week.

A White House official has revealed that the ritual, performed by most US presidents, is not on Donald Trump’s schedule because ‘it’s a bit of cliché’ and ‘there isn't time’.

It means the world’s media is denied the drama of the US president peering sternly through binoculars at the ‘rogue’ communist state that is busily building up its nuclear-ballistic capacity – to aim at the US.

Instead Trump is visiting Camp Humphreys, a military installation (more comfortably?) south of the South Korean capital, Seoul, on the Korean leg of his Asia trip which also includes China, Japan and the Philippines.

In North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump appears to have met his match in terms of aggression and volatility.

The young Korean leader’s ballistic emissions are often timed to coincide with sensitive international meetings and cause embarrassment to the great powers, China included. Trump’s taunts (‘Little Rocket Man’) and vengeful responses are equally unhelpful to world peace.

But what’s the alternative?

This is a question repeatedly asked (but not answered) by western media, including the BBC. In this, journalists seem to be wilfully ignoring the fact that viable solutions have been proposed more than once – and rejected or simply dismissed out of hand by the US.

North Korea, together with China, made the same suggestion more than once, saying it would freeze its nuclear and missile programme if the US stopped its threatening military exercises with the South

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the US. Those military exercises on North Korea’s borders include simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s, by the way.

It’s not the first time the proposal for concessions on both sides has been made. In fact, North Korea, together with China, made the same suggestion more than once, saying it would freeze its nuclear and missile programme if the US stopped its threatening military exercises with the South.

And there’s the rub. The US won’t budge. And a compliant western media seems reluctant to even acknowledge that the offer is on the table, let alone recognize why North Korea should be wanting to build nuclear capacity in the first place.

North Korea’s reasons for having nuclear weapons are exactly the same as those of the existing nuclear powers – nuclear capacity is a deterrent.

As Isabel Hilton of China Dialogue notes: ‘The North Korean regime has tended to be characterized as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense…’

Even the showing off.

She goes on: ‘Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilizing, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.’

There is a grim but hard to resist rationale. North Korea is doing what Israel, India and Pakistan did when they nuked up. None has been invaded in recent times. Whereas the nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, which suffered ‘regime change’ or invasions at the hands of the US and its allies, did not possess nuclear weapons.

North Koreans do not need to look far beyond their own borders for a reminder of the scale of US aggression and fire-power. As Noam Chomsky notes:

‘North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing [during the 1950-53 Korean War], and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which “the Asian” depends for survival.’

According to Isabel Hilton: ‘The US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.’

The military and nuclear noose that the US has been developing in the Pacific and the South China Sea (see John Pilger’s The Coming War on China) is, for those living in the region, further provocation.

‘North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing during the 1950-53 war, and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left’

In terms of world peace and security, nuclear proliferation is a zero-sum game that threatens us all. The wise course is disarmament, as recognized by the 122 nations that in July this year signed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination.

But if a major nuclear power like the US (the only country to have actually used a nuclear bomb in war) will not play ball, what right has it to try and compel smaller, more vulnerable countries to do so?

Right now, the US could de-escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea by indicating that it will cease its aggressive, provocative military exercises with South Korea.

Instead Trump is choosing to pick a trade war with China while chastising it for not doing more to bring North Korea to heel.

And far too many of us are just nodding along – as though this were a rational course of action and there is no alternative.

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