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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The US Should Stop Blocking Reconciliation in Korea

If it was possible for East and West Germany to reunify, why not North and South Korea?

While observing the prattling of political pundits over the Korean “crisis,” I remembered one day when I stepped out onto the porch and saw that the lid of a small trashcan was askew. I peered inside and saw that an opossum had fallen in and was trapped in the small space. For the first time, I was nose-to-nose with an opossum, and he proceeded to show me every one of the dozens of sharp teeth filling his large mouth. His message was clear: “You may be bigger and stronger than me, but if you stick your hand in here, you are headed to the emergency room.”

Kim Jong-un is backed into a corner, and the Washington political class has learned nothing from history.That opossum is a lot like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, backed into the corner in a tiny country with a trashed economy and an outsized but weakly equipped military, responding to a fearsome world’s provocations with threats of violence far beyond his ability to deliver.

But far more frightening is the realization that the Washington political class and their compliant commentators have learned nothing from the disastrous history of American interventionism.

Truman’s so-called “police action” in Korea beginning in 1950 was, in reality, a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, with China as an active surrogate. Sixty-seven years later the Soviet Union is gone, China is a major power, but in Korea there is no resolution and no peace, only an uneasy truce.

Exaggerated Threat

North Korea, a country about the size of Mississippi in area, has a GDP smaller than any of the 50 American states. South Korea, though slightly smaller than the North, has more than twice its population and a GDP at least 60 times larger.

The threat level posed by North Korea, as posited by the politicians and pundits, is reminiscent of the hyperbolic frenzy regarding the military threat posed by Iraq prior to the pre-emptive US attack: Americans were warned that Saddam Hussein had the third-largest army on earth and was a threat akin to Hitler.

As the world quickly discovered, the reality was far different, just as it is now with North Korea. “Mission Accomplished” came swiftly in Iraq, but the unforeseen consequences continue to this day.

What is the real threat posed by North Korea? Most, though not all, observers claim North Korea has nuclear arms. Its largest test produced only ten kilotons, approximately 75% of the size of the bomb the United States used to flatten Hiroshima. But North Korea has no certain means of delivering its bomb to another country, not even the South. None of its missiles can carry such a sizable device, and it has no bomber capable of successfully delivering a nuclear payload.

Provocations from Both Sides

Isolated, impoverished North Korea provokes with its nuclear program and its missile testing, however unsuccessful. Wealthy South Korea and its powerful American ally provoke with their large annual military and naval exercises and the contentious new THAAD missile defense system.

If it was possible for East and West Germany to reunify, why not North and South Korea?This dance of provocations is what terrified Americans when the Soviet Union placed its missiles in Cuba just as it alarms both the North Koreans and the Chinese today. Its continuation sustains Kim Jong-un’s regime while it traps all of the parties in a twilight zone of war-fear.

Clearly it is the Koreans, North and South, who have the most to lose from a new outbreak of their suspended war. It should, therefore, be in the best interest of all parties to let the Koreans work out their differences. If it was possible for East and West Germany to reunify, why is it not possible for a renewed sunshine policy to germinate in North and South Korea? In fact, the prospects for renewed dialogue have been enhanced by the recent election of President Moon Jae-in in South Korea, who promised to “embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day.”

If the United States and China would have the wisdom to withdraw from the arena, the Koreans would be faced with three choices: 1) they could engage in a devastating war, 2) they could continue the status quo of belligerent co-existence, or 3) they could move toward détente with a return to the “Sunshine Policy” of 1998-2006 and the possibility of eventual reconciliation.

I carried the container with the opossum down to the bayou and let him run off into a small stand of trees. Similarly, the safest and best policy the United States could adopt for America and the world would be to disengage and set the Koreans free to resolve their own problems.

  • Allan Vogel lives near a bayou in Houston and is a member of the Foreign Policy Alliance, a new multi-partisan coalition formed to educate and advocate for a more effective and less costly United States foreign policy.