North Korea has become a daily news story in the United States. And a daily threat. But of course the threats are flying from both sides. Greg Dobbs, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor, has been a journalist for almost 50 years, serving much of that time as a foreign correspondent. In recent years, Greg has used that overseas experience to provide perspectives as an op-ed columnist for The Denver Post. Today, exclusively for BoomerCafé, Greg writes about the tensions with North Korea, and where they might lead us.
Can we agree on one thing about the hostility between the United States and North Korea? A cold war is better than a hot one. Just like wisely-chosen words are better than red-line threats.
Yes, sometimes a hot war is inevitable and imperative. But when it comes to our own American interests, a cold war protects our military from costly casualties, our economy from catastrophic trauma, and our security from irrevocable attack.
And now, we need to consider another element in the war heating up with North Korea: South Korea. South Korea already had its own hot war, with the United States as its ally. Against North Korea, with China and the Soviet Union as its allies.
That Korean War in the early 1950s, when even the oldest baby boomers were just kids, lasted for three years. South Korea’s capital itself, Seoul, changed hands four times. Half-a-million South Koreans died. And more than 200,000 North Koreans. Along with 33,000 Americans, and up to 400,000 Chinese.
At the conclusion of all that carnage, all anyone ended up with was Koreans pointing weapons at fellow Koreans. As they do to this very day.
So South Korea’s own reactions to today’s raging rhetoric should matter.
South Korea’s president issued a statement last week after President Trump’s United Nations speech threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” saying that “denuclearization is the only way to the future through utmost sanctions and pressure.” That’s hardly an endorsement of all-out war.
And there’s South Korea’s statement earlier this month that its top interest is to ensure that it will never again experience the devastation it once endured. Stratfor geopolitical analyst George Friedman’s conclusion? “Given a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.” Or as a FoxNews defense analyst put it, “A war with North Korea would be hell— And the aftermath even worse.”
So did it really help when the president of the United States mocked the dictator from North Korea at the U.N.? Sure, the epithet “Rocket Man” can give us a good laugh, but since we don’t really know if the guy’s crazy or not, then we also don’t know whether that’s enough to push him eventually over the edge and propel him to go on the attack. He sure seems to be heading that way.
And did it really get us closer to the safety and security we seek when President Trump threatened North Korea’s destruction on the world stage (in the world body established to enforce the peace, no less)? Kim Jong-un already knows we can do it, yet the first response from his government was hardly one of contrition; Trump, it said, sounded like “a barking dog.” Then Kim himself called Trump “mentally deranged.” Then this week his foreign minister claimed that North Korea has the right to shoot down American aircraft that are anywhere near his country.
An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, recently wrote, “Saddam Hussein… or Muammar Qaddafi … ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory, or the United States itself. And granted, our options are few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, they haven’t made a difference yet. Diplomacy? As history goes, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? There are hopeful signs, but when China weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the prospect of American power on its border, the madman might win.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent mold. This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace. The United States aspires to uphold it. But if there’s a temperamental miscalculation by either man— leading to what a New York Times analysis called “a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado”— there is no turning back. Then, all of us will be the losers.