During the Presidential campaign we were treated to a discussion of candidate Trump’s hand size and what it could mean. “[Rubio] hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands, I’ve never heard of this before. Look at those hands, are they small hands?” Trump told the audience in Detroit. “And he referred to my hands, ‘if they’re small something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it.”
Now, months later, the talk about North Korea has returned to size. Is their missile large enough to really reach L.A. or Chicago? Was that a hydrogen bomb rumbling underground or merely an enhanced standard nuke? Without commenting on the size of our commander-in-chief’s hands, the size of North Korea’s hardware has become another in a long string of dangerous, but meaningless distractions that does little to move us toward a durable peace.
Missiles are nothing new to the Kim family or North Korea. In 2012 after speaking to a peace conference in Pyongyang, I was taken to a huge military parade. Watching dozens of missiles on mobile launchers passing by in an apparent show of force, my host asked “How did you like it?” I could not hide my feelings, telling him, “It deeply hurts me to see how we cheer weapons whose only real purpose or end-product is to to kill women, children and grandparents.” His eyes grew larger, shocked by my reply. “Oh, no, no, no,” he quickly added. “Defensive only. Defensive. We must be able to defend ourselves.”
I was not persuaded that the larger weapons lead to peace, but I understood that North Koreans, after watching our illegal invasion of Iraq, feel increasingly threatened by our South Korean military presence, with nearly 30,000 U.S. troops and dozens of bases and posts in a country the size of Indiana. South Korea was convinced, over great local opposition, to build the largest naval base in the world on Jeju Island in the China Sea, and President Trump recently announced spending more than $133 million on the construction of two new U.S. bases in South Korea, all allegedly in response to “the threat” of North Korea.
Add a litany of U.S. President’s statements that fuel reaction including “decapitating” their leadership, using U.S. nuclear weapons preemptively, calling their leader a “madman,” or “pygmy,” and the stated use of surprise military exercises in the Pentagons Operation 5030, designed “to force North Koreans to head for bunkers, and deplete valuable stores of food, water and other resources,” and we can be opposed to proliferation, but understand why they might pursue their own weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile we’ve watched two decades of inaction by U.S. administrations and an unwillingness to “reward” the DPRK with talks, thereby allowing them to recklessly rattle an even larger more nuclear saber at the region and now at the U.S. mainland. But with each larger weapon have things really changed? Even without ICBM’s or nuclear weapons, it’s long been estimated that within 48 hours of a military conflict breaking out casualties in Seoul could surpass 100,000 and over 90-days later the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that a war could produce 200,000-300,000 South Korean and U.S. military casualties, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Despite such projections we still pretend that a military option is still on the table — a table that sits empty while both sides huff and puff and threaten “fire and fury.”
So what did the U.S. do after the DPRK fired its recent ICBM or hurled another that passed over northern Japan? Besides calling for more isolation and sanctions, a policy that has done little to rattle the North, we declared “talk is off the table,” and we engaged in our own live-fire exercises using surface to surface missiles, while buzzing the DPRK with our nuclear capacity fighter jets. Our war “games” dropped large bombs not far from the border to demonstrate to the North our own “firepower.” No small hands here.
The unspoken truth lost in the smoke is that our trillion dollar military is actually impotent when it comes to solving such diplomatic quandaries. Does it really matter who has more fire and fury? Watching the dueling taunts from Washington and Pyongyang it leads one to ask where is the kindergarten teacher who can separate the kids on the playground and say enough is enough? Teaching tolerance and mediation is not merely a curriculum for school children, but a way of living in peace so we can survive safely.
Even before its begun, President Trump says the “time for talk is over.” Negotiations are perceived as weak and a “reward for bad behavior.” When we view “bad behavior” as only deserving punishment we avoid the reality that bad behavior is the very reason to meet and talk. North Korea is a sovereign nation state not an out of control child who needs to be sat in the corner and punished. Diplomacy takes courage (and some very large hands) to follow Winston Churchill’s advise after the horrors of World War II that, “it’s better to talk, talk, talk, than to fight, fight and fight.”
But the Trump Administration declares that America has “lost its patience.” Well so have I, but for me it’s with our leadership. When will our country lead rather than bully? Do we maintain credibility when we call on them to restrict their weapon growth while we expand our bases, enhance our nuclear portfolio, missiles and warplanes and show it off along their border twice a year? Why can’t we take the higher ground and suspend provocative war games while we meet and discuss a full peace treaty promised by our nation over six decades earlier? I’m sure the DPRK has lost its patience with waiting for us to comply with our signed July 27, 1953 Armistice agreement to leave Korea within a few years and execute such a treaty. The tit for tat and trail of broken promises on both sides is “Huuuge.”
Why no peace?
Someone must be profiting from maintaining this state of war for over 60 years, even after the collapse of the Cold War, otherwise this standoff makes no sense. I’ve seen how the Kim regime in the DPRK uses the threat of war to maintain its power. In turn this week the White House said Trump gave South Korean President Moon his “conceptual approval” for “the planned purchase by Seoul of billions of dollars of US military equipment.” In Korea the endless state of war preparedness has pumped billions of dollars into the coffers of some of the biggest defense companies in the U.S., such as Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Co. The most significant overseas weapons sales for the United States in the past ten years has ranked South Korea as one of the largest buyers of weapons in the world. Could this be a motivating factor behind the forgotten peace in Korea?
Second, geo-political factors impact U.S. decision making as the DPRK threat is used as a justification to maintain and expand our military presence in North Asia. A peaceful North and South Korea, China and Japan would be an ominous economic superpower that would end the justification for multi billion dollar bases and thousands of U.S. troops in the region. Is maintaining instability in Korea actually spelled C-H-I-N-A?
Finally, the elephant in the room is race. Seoul, whose metropolitan area boasts 24 million people, is larger than New York or Los Angeles. The power of the DPRK to kill millions of South Koreans or Japanese even with conventional smaller missiles has existed for decades. Yet, when we fear a larger missile exists that can reach the U.S. mainland, the media and public jumps into a frenzy. Sadly, since Japanese internment in World War II, to Hiroshima, the illegal carpet bombing of civilians in the Korean War or the mass offensives with napalm and carnage in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, we’ve devalued Asian lives as expendable. This pattern continues as Trump flipently noted to Senator Lindsey Graham “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”
Addiction and Hope
Through the dark clouds, a major ray of sunshine has emerged as South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in, a progressive lawyer who has been to North Korea, has called for unconditional meetings with the North and negotiation of a comprehensive peace treaty. But with the recent nuclear tests and missile launches he is under great pressure to buy into the fire and fury response. Moon will need the full support of the international community and U.S. citizens to stand behind the power of engagement and dialogue and the futility of war; to tell the U.S. government to not expand its militarism, nor fan the flames, but step up to support the will of the majority of the Korean people for exchange, relationship and reconciliation.
There are well-established alternatives to remaining stuck in the past or in an increasing cycle of violence and militarism. My contribution has been traveling to Pyongyang and Washington and sharing my “12-step” plan for peace in Korea. I first revealed it to a Peace and Reunification conference in Pyongyang and to the President of its National Assembly Kim Yong Nam. I returned home and presented it to the U.S. State Department and Congress.
The 12 step model draws upon proven models of conflict resolution that can relate to how we daily treat one another, but equally applies to international affairs. Nations can choose to move from reaction to relationship, rebuild respect, engage in key mediation strategies to listen better, build more harmony, formalize relationships and most importantly let go of the tug-of-rope, not a harbinger of weakness but as a show of strength and understanding.
Such approach is nothing new. In 1945 the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-2 ratified the UN Charter Treaty and it became under our constitution the “Supreme Law of the Land.” In order to “save succeeding generations from the scourage of war” it mandated that “the parties to any dispute “seek a solution by negotiation, mediation or other peaceful means.” It outlawed “threatening war” and our Secretary of State declared that until now “millions of men, women and children have died because nations took to the naked sword instead of the conference table to settle their differences.”
It’s time to sit down unconditionally and talk. This can begin with re-evaluating our making formal diplomatic relations a bargaining chip when it’s really a prerequisite to respectful dialogue. We have such relationships with many countries whose governments routinely violate human rights such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, the Philippines or the Sudan, or even that have secret nuclear weapons programs such as Israel. We need our people on the ground, building relationship and dealing with nuclear weapons, human rights or even the wayward tourist who engages in a petty act of vandalism.
The old ways of resolving disputes with bigger weapons, threats and demonization will never serve the people of Korea nor the planet. But as with most addicts, there is much blame and denial to overcome. It’s time for the “Great Negotiator” to go to Korea, do what no President has been able to do — let go of the rope and seal the deal.
Eric Sirotkin is the author of Witness: A Lawyers Journey from Litigation to Liberation and founder of Lawyers for Demilitarization and Peace in Korea.