The North Korean government released a statement February 18, noting of recent behavior by Pyongyang, “to view this as some kind of flexible brinkmanship tactic is a fantasy by those who are ever so unaware of reality. Reality and fantasy are not compatible.” A spokesman later clarified, “there is no need for us to threaten somebody in order to get something or to have our system guaranteed by somebody.” A tightly drawn world exhales.
In the latest in a series of provocative moves, North Korea seeks to enhance its standing in the international community by withdrawing from the 1953 Armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War. One fact frequently overlooked in the “Forgotten War” is that it never officially ended. The agreement between the government of North Korea, the Chinese volunteers (a charming legal fiction), and the U.N. was only a ceasefire; the war was supposed to be settled later, but wasn’t. The 1954 Geneva conference failed to meet the challenge, and subsequent attempts were half-hearted and ultimately ineffective.
But why did the fighting stop in the first place? Various factors can be cited: stalemate on the battlefield, the death of Stalin, the advent of the Eisenhower presidency, and, importantly, Ike’s threat to use nuclear weapons to break the diplomatic logjam. Revisionist historians have discounted the latter factor, but a mere eight years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with a former Supreme Commander in the White House and the only power able to meet force with force facing a succession crisis, it makes sense that a nuclear threat might bring the North Koreans and Chinese to see reason. A tense half-century followed, with many truce violations, threats, incursions, and casualties.
The problem with the Korean War was that it was a limited war with a limited resolution. Such wars are possible between foes that recognize the legitimacy of their respective systems. But limited war is problematic when dealing with totalitarian states with universalizing ideologies seeking (by their nature) unlimited objectives. In this case, the objective was the unification of the Korean peninsula under Communist rule. The legitimizing myth of the DPRK is that a vote was taken back in August 1948, on both sides of the 38th parallel, and they won. 99.97 percent participated in the North — not quite up to Saddam Hussein’s standards, but respectable — and 77.52 percent in the South. This established their right to pursue domination of the Korean peninsula, as an expression of the will of the Korean workers, farmers, soldiers, and working intellectuals (a term that misses the whole point of being an intellectual). When democracies go to war with regimes of this sort and accept an end-state less than regime change, the problem does not go away. To totalitarians, limited objectives are temporary conveniences, and limited war is a tactical phase in the greater struggle. The 50-year armistice was not peace for the North Koreans but rather war by other means.
Vietnam is another example of this important asymmetry. In hindsight, the U.S. approach to coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis the North was incomprehensible. For example, not taking the war to the North initially, then bombing Hanoi but establishing a “no bomb zone” in the capital for the enemy to focus their most valuable assets out of harm’s way, then canceling a very successful psychological operations campaign because it was too successful at destabilizing the regime. The problem was that the United States did not understand the enemy it faced. The North Vietnamese wanted to win. We simply wanted to avoid escalation, and Chinese intervention, and establish a slightly less disordered status quo. As such, the U.S. was at a competitive disadvantage. Johnson advisor John P. Roche once noted that LBJ dealt with Ho Chi Minh not as a Communist ideologue, or even a Vietnamese nationalist, but as though he were a Chicago ward boss. The president kept trying to figure out his price for compromise, asking exasperatedly at one point, “What the [expletive] does he want?’ The president should have simply taken Ho’s stated objectives at face value. He wanted victory, as he defined it; a united, socialist Vietnam. Ho did not live to see it, but when North Vietnamese tanks rolled onto the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, his terms of victory were met.
Similarly, North Korea has never let go of its founding objective. Some say Asian strategists think long term, others see a Communist strategic perspective, but maybe it’s just the fact that North Korea has been ruled by two people, a father and son, since its inception. (To put it in terms the peace movement can understand, this is a genuine example of Daddy’s War.) By contrast, in that time the U.S. has had eleven presidents. From the North Korean point of view, obtaining nuclear weapons has set the clock back to 1953. They now have a level playing field. They can meet threat with threat, independently. Certainly not as effectively or decisively, but with enough force to deter U.S. action. It took 50 years to get here, but their objectives have not changed. Thus it makes sense at this point to revisit the armistice. What use now is a scrap of paper?
In trying to formulate a response to this belligerent behavior, the U.S. and U.N. should revisit their own objectives. The original goal — saving South Korea from Communist aggression (UNSC Resolution 82) — was achieved by Inchon and the breakout from the Pusan perimeter. The expanded objective — unified, independent, and democratic Korea, authorized by U.N. General Assembly Resolution on October 7, 1950 — was never achieved, and has never been abandoned. Nor should it be. The North Korean people live under a dictatorship that makes the Taliban look like amateur hour. Freeing the North Koreans from their crushing tyranny would be a major victory for human rights and liberalism.
The U.N. has been at war with North Korea almost as long as each has existed. The failure to resolve the Korean crisis was an original sin from which the U.N. would not soon recover. The U.N. did what it was designed to do when it intervened against the North Korean assault on the South, but came up short. After Korea, Cold War stalemate rendered the organization useless as an instrument for controlling international aggression. Finally in 1991 the U.N. emerged from its miasma and became the organizing tool for the liberation of Kuwait and the disarmament of Iraq, a mission which itself is not yet complete. Perhaps when the Security Council convenes Wednesday to discuss the IAEA designation of North Korea nuclear developments as a threat, the body can turn its attention to the enforcement of the October 7, 1950 General Assembly resolution. North Korea has made it clear that it does not seek a multilateral solution to this problem but will deal only with the United States. Pyongyang’s actions seek to force the issue, but in so doing tend to underscore the international nature of the threat.
The North Koreans have ejected IAEA inspectors, alluded to possessing nuclear weapons (or “something worse”), engaged in active arms trade in suspect weaponry, tested nuclear capable delivery systems, pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement, and are gearing up nuclear reactors to produce fissile material potentially to use in atomic weapons. So on top of this they threaten to rekindle a state of war between themselves and the U.N.? It is the type of provocation perhaps even the French cannot ignore.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.