With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, in June 1951.

The escalating war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has received mainstream news attention in the last few months, but much of it eludes the historical complexities of the North Korean regime, and its relations with its neighbours, according to Luc Walhain, Associate Professor of History at St. Thomas University and an expert on modern Korean history. Journalist Chris Walker caught up with him to provide greater context.

CW: North Korea recently referred to the U.S. as engaging in “reckless provocations.” One can easily think of Donald’s Trump’s rhetoric, his “fire and fury like the world has never seen” comment. Is North Korea simply reacting to rhetorical flourish or are there more substantial concerns that justify the term “provocations?”

LW: North Korea’s communiqués have consistently been inflammatory and colourful, but the North’s regime has said so many times that it would turn Seoul into a sea of fire – or something along those lines – that it’s hard to imagine that there is more than one volume setting on its disagreement lexicon: high. This being said, the North Koreans would be right to describe Donald Trump’s off-the-cuff statements like “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” as reckless provocation, if they were referring to this North Koreanesque sentence. 

Indeed, Pyongyang may find what comes out of Trump’s mouth irritating, but was more alarmed by the military exercises that took place south of the 38th parallel this past August.  As in the past, the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint exercises involved tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops in land, sea and air drills.  While the U.S. characterized those exercises as a deterrent against North Korean aggression, it’s worth appreciating that North Koreans may actually see them as a dry run for an invasion against them. They have some ground to be suspicious: besides American threats, such as “to totally destroy North Korea,” the South Korean government just announced a plan to create a special “decapitation unit.” Even though this concept has been mostly talk until now, we have learned that it will be established by the end of the year.

CW: Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute, in an interview with the CBC, made several disconcerting comments. He suggested that if one wants to “bring North Korea to its knees,” tougher sanctions, such as “cutting off energy and cutting off food,” might not work because the North Korean regime is quite willing to “sacrifice its own population” in order to survive. He then adds that if these sanctions are not imposed, however, North Korea will most certainly continue to pursue nuclear weapons. Can you respond?

LW: We have here a Senior Fellow at the CATO Institute suggesting that a genocide is acceptable “for the greater good,” even though he has serious doubts that it will accomplish that purpose.  I hope he doesn’t have the ear of the U.S. government.

CW: Michael Auslin, from the Hoover Institution, in the same interview, comments that nothing short of “force” will compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. He goes on to say that “we’ve tried coercion, that doesn’t work, we’ve tried bribery, that doesn’t work, and we’ve certainly tried engagement, and that doesn’t work.” In Auslin’s view, “we’ve” tried everything in good faith and failed because of “them.” Is that true? Does the historical record support these claims?

LW: Michael Auslin is probably correct to say that North Korea will only give up its nuclear weapons if it’s “forced” to do so.  At this point, I don’t see how one could de-nuclearize North Korea without overthrowing its current regime.  And this would likely lead to war, a colossal death toll, massive destruction, and a long-lasting uncertainty in that region of the world.  But why does Auslin conclude this is the only option left?  Suggesting that “we’ve tried everything in good faith, and it hasn’t worked” is either disingenuous or misinformed.

For nine years, the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework halted Pyongyang’s plutonium processing.  In 1998, the Sunshine Policy initiated by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung led to an unprecedented détente on the Korean peninsula and to the strengthening of inter-Korean economic cooperation and relations. Unfortunately, as soon as he was sworn in as U.S. President, George W. Bush declared his opposition to those constructive developments, in effect, taking away any chance of continuing rapprochement.  The Six-Party agreements of 2005 and 2007 later showed that even a hawkish U.S. administration acknowledged that engagement was the realistic approach.

For all its faults, North Korea is not the only one to be blamed.  Over the past three decades, the changes of administration — and thereby policies re. the Korean conundrum — in the six countries involved have made it difficult to maintain the delicate balance necessary to work towards a diplomatic solution. But saying that engagement has never worked is simply false.

CW: Michael Auslin argues that U.S. security guarantees were originally given in the context of the Cold War when the U.S. was facing an “existential threat” vis-à-vis international communism. Now, with the collapse of communist Russia, the original strategic purpose of containing communism no longer exists. Further, Auslin argues, it’s difficult to rationalize the costs involved in defending South Korea, particularly in light of how wealthy and robust the South Korean economy has become since the 1950s. Can you talk about this version of events? As a historian, does this story pass muster, or is it lacking in balance and nuance?

LW: The so-called “domino theory” may no longer apply in today’s global context, but, during the Cold War, containing communism was only one amongst several reasons to keep hundreds of U.S. military bases across the world, (including at least 60,000 U.S. troops in Northeast Asia alone since WWII).  The U.S. military presence abroad continues to allow the U.S. government to achieve American policy in the world, and it protects access to resources and markets, as well as American interests.  The threat of a conquering communism may be gone, but empires don’t readily relinquish their means of hegemony.  Therefore, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will want to leave East Asia while China demonstrates growing self-confidence in the region. And a bellicose North Korea is a valuable excuse to justify a continued American military presence.  

CW: What salient events of the last 70 years really stick out for thinking about the current conflict?  

LW: Answering this question is difficult, because so many important events have contributed to the current crisis.  There have been serious battles between the two Koreas, and they often involved the United States over the past 70 years. The first one is the Korean War itself.  It still resonates strongly amongst Koreans.  Most North Koreans literally lived underground, while U.S. planes carpet-bombed their country incessantly.  After the signing of a ceasefire in 1953, most of the confrontations were not actual military engagements, but acts of verbal and strategic posturing.  

There is a long list of provocations and retaliatory responses coming from both sides of the 38th parallel, and one could conclude that there is no peaceful way out of this situation.  However, I would rather point out two events which suggest that, with goodwill on all sides, things could become untangled surprisingly fast.

In 1984, as South Korea (still ruled by a U.S.-backed military dictatorship) was struck by devastating floods, Pyongyang offered to deliver relief goods – incredibly, they were accepted by the South.  In the aftermath, Seoul and Pyongyang discussed ways to establish economic ties, and plans to allow families that had been separated since the Korean War to meet again at the DMZ.

The second set of events I wish to mention is the 1997 and 2002 elections, to the South Korean presidency, of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, respectively.  Kim, a former dissident, had fought for South Korea’s democratization for decades, and Roh Moo-hyun was a human rights lawyer.  Both made rapprochement with North Korea one of their governments’ central policies, but unfortunately, their efforts were systematically sabotaged by the administration of Georges W. Bush.  Even so, during their tenures, Koreans witnessed two historic summits between the leaders of North and South Korea, and concrete economic and family ties were re-established.

CW: The background and historical context you’ve covered really changes how we might want to think about this situation. Do you recommend any specific historians, journals or media sources that interested people could turn to for more information and analysis? 

LW: As suggested in my replies above, a better understanding of the last 70 years in East Asia is key to ensuring that the premises we base our future policies are solid.  I would therefore encourage people interested in the topic to read historians of modern Korea, such as Charles Armstrong, Andrei Lankov and Bruce Cumings.  For those interested in getting a South Korean media perspective, mainstream Korean newspapers have pages with their leading stories translated into English, e.g. the Dong-A Ilbo and the hankyoreh.

CW: Thank you for your time and sharing your insights Luc, it’s been a pleasure!

LW: Thank you, Chris, for challenging the “there is no alternative” (Ms. Thatcher’s favourite slogan “TINA”) bellicose publicity aimed at grooming the public for war.  The human disasters caused by military campaigns launched since 2000 alone demonstrate there is no alternative but to work towards political resolutions.

Chris Walker writer for NB Media Coop, where this interview first ran. It is reprinted with permission.

Image: Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF (Navy). U.S. Army Korea/National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism.