North Korea has been crying wolf so often, it’s hard to get too excited by the “declaration of war” declared in New York this week by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho.
Did not the North Koreans declare war after the release of the film “The Interview” three years ago that made Kim Jong-un look like the vainglorious, cruel dictator he is? And did we not hear war declarations while North and South Korean troops confronted each other in a near-shootout across the DMZ two years ago?
Those outbursts paled, however, beside the “declaration of nuclear war” in 2003 a year after George W. Bush had included the North in an “axis of evil.” Having pulled out of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement, North Korea took umbrage at Bush for having called the North a “target for a nuclear strike.”
Leave it to NK News in Seoul to have tabulated how often the words “declaration of war” has appeared in dispatches by the North’s Korean Central News Agency. The term, by NK News count, has come up more than 200 times over the past 20 years in contexts ranging from U.N. sanctions imposed after the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 to revelations of the North’s lucrative drug and counterfeit-money industries.
Ri added, however, one touch that makes the latest “declaration of war” a matter of some concern. By declaring North Korea was now ready to fire on U.S. aircraft beyond its territorial limits, he opened up the possibility of a strike and counter-strike.
If Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the North has any substance, would he not order an attack on the missile or anti-anti-aircraft artillery battery responsible for any attack? And would not such a strike carry the risk of the North’s striking back on targets in South Korea — the opening shots of Korean War II?
The scenario gets even more alarming if Kim Jong-un ordered an attack on U.S. planes flying not over the ocean but over South Korean territory. Those shots would land on South Korean soil, provoking not only the United States but South Korea to fire in return.
It’s hard to know whether Trump means what he says or is simply talking, as he loves to do, but we can be pretty sure that President Moon Jae-in would be uncomfortable about having to decide whether to fire back. Moon has gravely disappointed pro-Northers who assumed he would roll over and do whatever Kim Jong-un demanded, but he still holds out the hope, someday, of bringing the North Koreans to the negotiating table.
Having reached what would appear to be a snarling impasse with the North Koreans, how can we possibly hope to begin talking sense — and peace?
Interestingly, Park Jong-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, still holds out the hope of “a two-track approach for resolving the problem of a nuclear North.” The objective, he says, would be a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula, settlement of permanent peace, formation of a single inter-Korean market, an inclusive democratic society.”
It’s hard to take such talk too seriously when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are calling each other names and President Moon, so eager for reconciliation, has said now is “not the time for dialogue.”
Still, while clouds of war gather on the near-horizon, there’s no harm in considering how peace might still be possible. For one thing, Park Jong-chul advocates “multiple negotiation processes related to denuclearization” including both sanctions and dialogue.
Why not talk about “building a peace regime,” “normalizing North Korea’s relations with the U.S. and Japan,” “enhancing economic and security cooperation in North Asia,” as he advises. And how about “setting up a roadmap for denuclearization and peace-building” on the way to dialogue with North Korea”?
At the same time, Park would keep up the pressure on the North, “finding ways to thoroughly implement economic sanctions” through “strengthened monitoring.”
The trouble with all these carefully wrought ideas is that North Korea is not going to accept them. The whole world knows by now Kim Jong-un will not tolerate any deal that calls for him to abandon his nuclear/missile program.
But all is not lost. It may still be possible, after this crisis and the next one and the next after that, to get into negotiations. We can only hope. On the way, however, expect still more North Korean “declarations of war.”