Avoiding a Pearl Harbor in Korea

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Mr. Dresner teaches Japanese history at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and is a writer for the History News Service.

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Although it is a pitifully poor country, North Korea has nuclear weapons technology. As a result, the United States and China are trying to force North Korea to abandon plans to develop and export nuclear weapons by imposing economic sanctions and threatening military force, either of which North Korea has said it would view as an act of war.

But a resumption of the Korean War (1950-1953) after a half-century of armistice would threaten millions of lives. It might be avoided if the United States and other concerned countries were to take steps to relieve tensions and address North Korea's humanitarian crisis.

Much as the Japanese believed that attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941 would force the United States to leave Japan to expand into Southeast Asia, the North Korean leadership might delude itself into thinking that an aggressive move would relieve the pressure it is now under to rid itself of nuclear weapons.

By 1940, the United States had responded to Japan's vicious imperial expansion into China by embargoing industrial equipment and raw materials that Japan needed to sustain its forces. Japanese leadership at the time believed that the United States would avoid war by relaxing its sanctions. When the sanctions stayed in force, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But rather than backing off the United States committed itself to war.

In the case of North Korea, though, it is possible to grant strategic concessions and vital relief aid that would have been unthinkable in 1941. The most consistent North Korean demand is that the United States guarantee that it will not unilaterally attack North Korea. Such a pledge on the part of the United States would merely confirm that the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War remains in effect in spite of the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive intervention against"rogue nations with weapons of mass destruction." North Korea's other demands are related to the abject poverty of its people -- demands for food, fuel and power-generating nuclear reactor technology.

The United States has been threatening economic sanctions or even precision military strikes if North Korea refuses to dismantle its nuclear weapons program immediately and unilaterally. But without atomic weapons, the North Korean military has no hope of opposing the overwhelming conventional weaponry of the United States.

China, which supports a negotiated disarmament, has already staged temporary interruptions of fuel shipments to emphasize that it provides the bulk of North Korea's energy and food supplies, and it is threatening to restrict critical food and fuel aid further if North Korea does not negotiate. In the face of both military and economic threats, the North Koreans, like the Japanese in 1941, may try to test the resolve of their enemies.

These uncompromising and unimaginative stances by all parties endanger Asian security and millions of lives. Our allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China and Russia, are directly vulnerable to North Korean weapons, both conventional and nuclear. Could the present American economy really withstand the shock of a consequent political and economic crisis in Japan and South Korea on top of the SARS crisis in China?

North Korea's Taepodong II missiles might be able to reach Hawaii or the Aleutian Islands, although the North Koreans probably cannot yet use them to deliver nuclear weapons. There are roughly 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Japan, and many thousands of U.S. civilians in both countries, all of whom are in easy range of North Korea's weapons.

North Koreans are still starving, which is why their government is considering exporting nuclear weapons. If we are going to defuse this situation, we must stop treating the humanitarian crisis like a strategic advantage. Rather than trying to hold twenty million North Koreans hostage to economic sanctions, we should eliminate the need for North Korea to export weapons of mass destruction to feed its people. Provide food, medicines and fuel. The generosity of the United States after World War II toward Germany and Japan defused their fear and earned decades of international good will. The cost of humanitarian aid to North Korea will be less than the cost of military action and economic uncertainty.

Relief aid would still be necessary after a military confrontation, and the needs would be far greater. Getting North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il to accept aid on the scale necessary will be difficult. It will probably be impossible, in fact, if the 1953 armistice is not reaffirmed by the United States. Food aid from outside North Korea has in the past been portrayed to the North Korean people as"tribute," which would certainly be offensive to the United States. But a healthy and secure North Korea would be in a good position to negotiate a nuclear stand-down. The alternative -- increased pressure on a desperate society -- has failed before.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Robert Henry Tyrka Sr - 2/17/2005

"The generosity of the United States after World War II toward Germany and Japan defused their fear". This is Dresner's argument for propping up a deadly but failed state--a scorpion ready to sting even if it brings about its own demise.

First, as a putative professor of Japanese history, Dresner's rendition of U.S. aid after WWII is as flawed as the "history" of that period taught in Japanese schools. There was no Marshall Plan for Japan! The Japanese economy was in ruins, as were most of their cities, until the Korean War was underway and the needs of the U.S. military were such that it made sense for us to buy as much of the supplies we needed from the Japs as we could because of their proximity to the battlefront in Korea. (They'll get their "anese" back from me when they start to acknowledge and then compensate the families of the Allied POWs, and others they enslaved to the Jap war effort.)I was there in the Army in 1953 and got a glimpse of the slow recovery.

Dresner tries to equate the fear of the North Korean dictatorship to some unspecified fear of the Japs and the Germans after WWII toward us. Even a glancing knowledge of those countries after WWII would show that fear of the U.S. was, except for war criminals, so far down the list of concerns of the people of these nations that it is inconsequential. This is the worst kind of straw man that Dresner has fashioned because it uses a condition that did not exist to back up a position that flies in the face of recent history.

During the 1990s, the U.S. along with other western nations and China, contributed enormous amounts of food, medical supplies and fuel to North Korea. However, in 1998 Doctors Without Borders (MSF) declared that "The DPRK government, however, has failed to acknowledge that a nutritional emergency still exists and requested that MSF provide structural support to rebuild the national pharmaceutical industry. Since early June of this year, a high-level policy change to restrict and limit effective humanitarian aid has made it impossible to deliver aid in a principled and accountable manner. MSF calls upon all donor governments to review their aid policies towards the DPRK and demand more accountability." The North Koreans were diverting the great bulk of the supplies we sent in order to prop up the North Korean army while some millions of the people in the countryside starved. That condition continues today with the supplies that China sends to the DPRK. Those supplies are paid for with the returns from drug, missile and WMD sales to rogue states and terrorists.

Dresner's analysis seems to be part of the pusillanimous Neville Chamberlain school of geopolitics.

James Frusetta - 5/28/2003

Actually, the issue of "deserving" isn't the point I was trying to make: the difference between a starving person in a Stalinist regime and a starving person in a democracy is naught, if one's concerned chiefly about starvation. I agree that the North Korean *people* deserve help, not that because of poor choice in grandparents, they can go hang.

My concern is about the regime: to wit, the "blackmail" issue I referred to. What are the implications of aid? As in Eithiopia/Etritria, where international aid in the midst of famine helped to continue their recent interstate war, aid is *not* inherently a neutral affair. Of course, as you point out, it's quite possible that aid won't bolster the North Korean regime. My concern is more along the lines of whether or not the government in Pyongyang will continue to demand aid "or we sell some nukes" in the future -- even if just rhetoric, it seems like *dangerous* rhetoric.

I'm not an expert on East Asia, but I can see where it's quite possible that this is just bluster on the part of North Korea to save face: aid is admittedly needed, but it would be too much of a loss to *ask* for help.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/25/2003

Actually, I think the aid we send North Korea should be massive enough that it doesn't matter whether the regime stockpiles some of it, or gives preferential treatment to the military. I'm not talking about a few tons of canned food, but billions of dollars worth of basic food and medicine. Yes, neutral distribution would be a good thing, at least for some of it, but if we are serious about dealing with the humanitarian crisis, we won't insist on it.

Likewise, making the aid contingent on anything misses the point of my argument. We have a better chance of getting disarmament if the nuclear program is NOT their best means for getting food and supplies to their people. If we make the aid contingent on disarmament, but don't help them develop alternatives, there's no reason for them to give up WMD in the long term. We have to say: this is not something we are going to negotiate with you about, but neither will we endanger your basic security over it. That seems contradictory, but it makes more sense than the brinksmanship we are practicing now.

mark safranski - 5/19/2003

An interesting an important article.

To be sure, the United States gains nothing by watching the regime in Pyongyang starve it's own people but any food aid must be predicated upon the principle that it is to go to the starving North Korean people, and not into warehouses for the North korean army. Otherwise, what would be the point of sending aid if the villagers were to be starved anyway? The only way to accomplish this would be to insist upon UN or Red Cross distribution of the food supplies in North Korea, something I'm dubious that kim Jong-Il will allow. Lenin allowed Hoover to feed starving Russians, grudgingly, but this act of humanity may be beyond Kim's ability to contemplate.

Secondly, beyond the altruistic point, any agreement between North Korea and the US must be contingent on a total dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program and the turning over of fuel, facilities and documentation to the IAEA and their removal from the territory of North Korea. Nothing less will suffice from the standpoint of regional stability as well as American national interest.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/16/2003

Mr. Frusetta,

You are trying to make a distinction between peoples who deserve aid because their crisis is unforseen, and peoples who do not deserve aid because they live under an "inefficient" regime.

I don't believe that distinction helpful in this case: North Korea's economic crisis and famine is the result of a combination of factors, including DPRK policy as well as environmental problems. It is not the fault of the North Korean people that they live under Kim Jong Il's "self-sufficient" Stalinism. Perhaps, you could argue, their grandparents bear some responsibility, but not this generation.

I don't agree that providing aid constitutes bolstering the regime: actually, it could loosen the leverage the DPRK has over its people by making resource allocation less important. And, as you point out, we've supported (and continue to support) despotic regimes in the past when it served our strategic purposes, and you've agreed that a non-violent solution to the problem is in our strategic interest.

More importantly, I think the distinction is meaningless. The concept of the "deserving poor" originated with European Protestantism, contrasted with those who are poor because of some fault of character. But that requires a subtle judgement, for which few of us are qualified. As a Jew, I prefer to follow the doctrine of "Tikkun Olam", repairing the world: it is not a matter of assigning blame, but of doing what we can to fix the situation.

So I think that we should give appeasment a chance.

James Frusetta - 5/15/2003

I agree completely on the diplomatic points Mr. Dresner raises: provoking a war with North Korea gains little.

But on the economic points, I'm troubled by the idea that North
Korea -- which as I understand it previously made agreements regarding aid and its nuclear weapons program (the US provided
aid in return for promises that the nuclear weapon proram would be shelved) -- should now be rewarded for breaking those
commitments. This smacks somewhat of blackmail.

Moreover, I admit to being personally unsure to what degree the poverty of the North Korean people is related to unforseen acts (e.g., drought), and to what degree the economic system is simply inefficient. (My own ignorance, alas).

Providing US government aid to a people suffering from disaster -- even one living in a regime hostile to the US government -- is one thing. Providing aid to a people suffering from mismanagement by a regime seems merely to be a way to bolster that regime; aid should presumably be tied to some sort of reform. And since I suspect the North Korean government would regard tying aid to reforms as a hostile act, that route is probably not a winner either.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a no-win situation. The US has bolstered enough despotic regimes in the past 50 years, I'm not
sure it needs to continue doing such. Perhaps the Bush administration should try and finesse the situation by having South Korea continue taking the lead (South Korea being more likely to be able to start "opening up" North Korea to the outside
world; possibly China as well), although the administration has proven itself inept in relations with alliance partners so far... If US aid is "rerouted" through South Korea, the benefits of humanitarian aid can be kept, and if the US does not gain much
goodwill for the act, neither does it suffer potential tarring as an "easy mark" for blackmail.