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Rajan Menon, What Would War Mean in Korea?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. ]

Here's a reasonable question to ask in our unreasonable world: Does Donald Trump even know where North Korea is? The answer matters and if you wonder why I ask, just remember his comment upon landing in Israel after his visit to Saudi Arabia. "We just got back from the Middle East," he said. In response, reported the Washington Post, "the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, put his forehead in his palm." Which brings us back to North Korea. As pollsters working for the New York Times recently discovered, were President Trump to have only the foggiest idea of that country's location, he would be in remarkably good company. Of the 1,746 American adults the polling group Morning Consult queried, only 36% could accurately point to North Korea on a map of Asia. Other typical answers: Thailand, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

And here's why this question matters: those Americans who located North Korea correctly on a map -- that is, those who had an accurate sense of where the ongoing crisis over the regime of Kim Jong-un was taking place -- were significantly more likely to favor "diplomatic and nonmilitary strategies" to deal with it. In the same spirit, they were less likely to favor "direct military engagement -- in particular, sending [in] ground troops." Of course, the U.S. already has plenty of ground troops on the Korean peninsula. Twenty-eight thousand five hundred of them and at least 200,000 American civilians are in South Korea today and would quickly be swept up in any war there. If that conflict were to turn nuclear and the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries became "ground zero for the end of the world," they would potentially be incinerated. How eerily strange, then, that what Jonathan Schell once called "the fate of the Earth" now rests in the hands of two unnervingly narcissistic men: President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

With that in mind, you would think that Washington would be pushing hard to get us to a negotiating table rather than continuing to rattle the nuclear sabers and imagine militarized solutions to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula. Instead, in recent weeks diplomacy has repeatedly been declared a failure and other "options" on that "table" in Washington where such options are always regularly said to be kept have been highlighted. Under the circumstances, could there be anything more important than not ruling out diplomacy and negotiations over the roiling Korean crisis and so leaving the full responsibility for what happens in the hands of those two narcissists and their generals? On this subject, consider what Tom Dispatch regular Rajan Menon, author of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, has to say about why diplomacy and actual negotiations hold out a kind of hope that few have cared, or dared, to acknowledge in the present crisis. Tom

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Avoiding Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula
Why Diplomacy Is Not Naïve Appeasement in the Korean Crisis
By Rajan Menon

Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked recently that a war with North Korea would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale." No kidding. "Tragic" doesn't even begin to describe the horrors that would flow from such a conflict.

The Korean peninsula, all 85,270 square miles of it, is about the size of Idaho. It contains more soldiers (2.8 million, not counting reserves) and armaments (nearly 6,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 1,134 combat aircraft) than any other place on the planet. The armies of North and South Korea face each other across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and Seoul, South Korea's capital, is a mere 35 miles away as the artillery shell flies. More than 25 million people inhabit that city's greater metropolitan area, home to about half of South Korea's population. Unsurprisingly, untold numbers of North Korean missiles and artillery pieces are trained on that city. Once the guns started firing, thousands of its denizens would undoubtedly die within hours. Of course, North Koreans, too, would be caught in an almost instant maelstrom of death.

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And the war wouldn't be a bilateral affair. South Korea hosts 28,500 American troops. In addition, there are some 200,000 American civilians in the country, most of them in Seoul. Many in both categories could be killed by North Korean attacks and the United States would, in turn, hit multiple targets in that country. Pyongyang might retaliate by firing missiles at Japan, where 39,000 American troops are stationed, concentrating on the network of American bases and command centers there, especially the U.S. Services Headquarters at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.

And that's without even considering the possible use of nuclear weapons. If anything, Mattis's description is an understatement. And don't assume that the danger of a Korean conflagration has passed now that President Trump has become trapped in the latest set of political scandals to plague his administration. Quite the opposite: a clash between North Korea and the United States might have become more probable precisely because the president is politically besieged.

Trump wouldn't be the first leader, confronted with trouble at home, to trigger a crisis abroad and then appeal for unity and paint critics as unpatriotic. Keep in mind, after all, that this is the man who has already warned of "a major, major war" with North Korea.

Trump vs. Kim

So far the coercive tactics Trump has used to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and cease testing ballistic missiles have included sanctions and asset freezes, military threats, and shows of force -- both serious, as in the recent Key Resolve and Operation Max Thunder joint military exercises with South Korea, and farcical, as with a supposedly northward-bound naval "armada" that actually sailed in the opposite direction.

Such moves all involve the same presidential bet: that economic and military pressure can bend Pyongyang to his will. Other American presidents have, of course, taken the same approach and failed for decades now, which seems to matter little to Trump, even though he presents himself as a break-the-mold maverick ready to negotiate unprecedented deals with foreign leaders.

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By now, this much ought to be clear, even to Trump: North Korea hasn't been cowed into compliance by Washington's warnings and military muscle flexing. In 2003, after multilateral diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea ran aground, Pyongyang ditched the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and two years later declared that it possessed nuclear weapons. In October 2006, it detonated its first nuclear device, a one-kiloton bomb. Four other tests in May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016, ranging in explosive yield from four to 10 kilotons, followed. Three of them occurred after the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power in April 2012.

A similar pattern holds for ballistic missiles, which North Korea has been testing since 1993. The numbers have risen steadily under Kim Jong-un, from four tests in 2012 to 25 in 2016.

Clearly, the North's leaders reject the proposition that American approval is required for them to build nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. Like his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or DPRK, North Korea's official name), Kim Jong-un is an ardent nationalist who regularly responds to threats by upping the ante. Trump's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, characterized Kim as "unpredictable." In reality, the Korean leader, like his father and grandfather before him, has been remarkably consistent: he has steadfastly refused to stop testing either nuclear weapons or their possible delivery systems, let alone "denuclearize" the Korean peninsula, as McMaster demanded.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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