There is this saying that “just because you are paranoid does not mean that people are not out to get you.” This saying is very important in understanding the dynamics of the North Korean’s relationship with the United States.
Nothing in this commentary is to serve as an apology for North Korea. Rather, it is critical that we have a better understanding of dynamics in the North Korean regime in order to avoid a major military clash.
The Korean peninsula was divided in the aftermath of World War II when Soviet troops, coming from the north, moved against the Japanese occupiers and U.S. troops moved up from the South. At the 38th Parallel, the peninsula was divided. Between 1945 and 1950, rather than the peninsula being unified, two separate regimes were established in the occupation zones (in the North it came to be known as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea;” in the South, the “Republic of Korea”. A guerrilla war started in the South against a U.S.-supported dictatorship aimed at reunifying the peninsula. The U.S.A. remained committed to not only a divided Korea but also one that was led by their friendly dictator in the South.
In June 1950, the formal war in Korea began when North Korean troops moved south in what can accurately be described as a continuation of the civil war that had started shortly after the end of World War II. The U.S.A. was able to convince the United Nations to get involved in the war, which was followed by a massive U.S. intervention. U.S. troops came close to winning the war until they ignored the Chinese warnings to stay away from the border with China. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur seemed intent on provoking a war with China and reinstating the Guomindang government that had just been overthrown. At that point, 1 million Chinese troops came across the border pushing the US/UN troops back to the armistice line that currently divides Korea.
From 1953 through today tensions have flared up at various points. The USA has regularly threatened the North Koreans and for many years placed nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. In North Korea, a fiercely independent Communist regime was established under Kim Il Sung. Although there is a political party–the Korean Workers Party–that theoretically leads the country, there has been something approaching a “red monarchy” dominating the North that began with Kim Il Sung and has been followed by his son and, now, grandson.
North Korea deeply fears attacks from South Korea and from the U.S. This fear is rooted in the reality of what took place from the end of World War II through today. The U.S.A. and the South Koreans have engaged in a mini-cold war with North Korea that has included both propaganda and military actions carried out by both sides against one another.
Much of what we have been witnessing in the current moment is a continuation of an almost bizarre effort by the North Koreans to get the USA to speak directly with them towards an ending of tensions on the Korean peninsula. That may sound odd since the North Koreans are threatening war, but at base the North Koreans want to have direct, one-on-one talks with the USA where they–the North Koreans–can be assured that there will be security for them on the peninsula.
When the U.S. refuses to have one-on-one talks with the North Koreans and refuses to acknowledge the legitimate interests that North Korea has in national security—irrespective of one’s view of the nature of the North Korean regime—tensions inevitably increase. When the North Koreans start throwing around suggestions of war and missile strikes they are playing directly into the hands of those in the U.S. who would like to turn North Korea into a cinder. As such, the rhetoric is useless, if not outright destructive.
Perhaps President Obama should do a version of what Dennis Rodman conveyed as the request from North Korea’s current leader: pick up the phone and give him a call. Yes, diplomacy is more complicated than that, but you get the point…
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.