The Korean conundrum

September 22, 2017   ·   0 Comments

PERHAPS THE MOST ENLIGHTENING and timely documentary of the year aired on CNN last Friday.

Entitled Secret State, the hour-long program gave viewers a fascinating look at North Korea, the rogue Communist state that apparently now has an ability to send an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a hydrogen-bomb warhead as far as North America.

Uniquely among the world’s Communist states, North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship, its current leader being the grandson of Kim Il-sung, who was in charge during and after the Korean War back in the 1950s.

The war never officially ended, and six decades later North and South Korea are separated by a demilitarized zone, with both nations’ governments claiming ownership of the entire peninsula.

Throughout the period, North Korea and the United States have never had diplomatic relations, and since January both have had leaders who trade insults and show no signs of ever seeking any form of reconciliation.

In the circumstances, perhaps the most reassuring statement we have had was last week’s claim by the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, that his country and the U.S. had finally reached “equilibrium,” seemingly because each could wipe the other out in a nuclear war. One certainty is that nothing the United Nations or anyone else could do is persuade North Korea to dismantle or even contain its nuclear arsenal.

Sanctions have accomplished virtually nothing, save perhaps for minimizing the country’s economic development and creating more hardship in a populace where most workers earn little yet somehow manage to acquire things like TV sets and cell phones.

The CNN special featured the cable network’s international correspondent Will Ripley, who has been to North Korea 15 times in the last three years. He and his team travelled from the heavily-armed border region near South Korea and visited not just the main cities were tourism is allowed, but deep into the impoverished countryside where blackouts and food shortages are commonplace, and to the coast where frenzied missile testing is under way.

They also spent time in the showpiece capital of Pyongyang, where a growing consumer class is emerging, and along the Chinese border where the team climbed North Korea’s most sacred mountain, Mount Paektu.

One thing that became crystal-clear was the absence of any visible political dissent in a population of 25 million where virtually no one has experienced life anywhere else. With the world’s largest military force of nearly 10 million active and reserve soldiers and decades of compulsory military service, no one seems to doubt the need for massive spending on weaponry of every kind, thanks to a universal belief in an inevitable invasion by the United States.

In the coastal city of Wonsan, one of the country’s main missile launch sites, Mr. Ripley spoke to a resident who had witnessed many of the missile launches and said it gave him “great pride” seeing a missile in the sky. He also met two teenage boys playing a video game where they tried to kill their enemy, the Americans. They became visibly uncomfortable when he told them he was an American, likely the first they’d ever met.

Accordingly, there is virtually no chance that we will witness a Russia-style collapse of communism or even the moderation we seem to be witnessing in China.

Sanctions having failed, and nuclear war surely not among the Trump administration’s “military options,” is there any realistic solution? Perhaps the world’s best hope lies in simply acknowledging the “equilibrium” and trying a diplomatic solution, with an end to the sanctions in exchange for North Korea and the U.S. reaching a non-aggression agreement.

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