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by Ralph Seliger
THIS U.S.-NORTH KOREA crisis is threatening to blow up, literally, as never before.
There’s no question that North Korea is governed by a dangerous and odious regime. And regardless of whether North Korea has a hydrogen bomb (a claim now widely believed), we know it has (or will shortly have) missiles with the range to strike at Hawaii, Alaska and the mainland U.S. Yet it is universally acknowledged that a war to defang the regime in Pyongyang could cost millions of lives on the Korean peninsula and likely beyond.
What makes the situation more unnerving than ever is the presidency of Donald Trump, as the world looks on in a mix of anxiety and amusement as the “dotard” and “rocket man” face off rhetorically.
It should be obvious that Kim Jong-Un wants to preserve his rule and that of his family. There’s no evidence that sanctions have or will seriously modify this regime’s behavior; to the contrary, if sanctions hurt North Korea’s already weak economy, common people will suffer, with no real effect on the ruling elite.
Might it be a path to peace to finally offer this flamboyant Stalinist dictator a guarantee of continuity by proposing an end to the state of war with the U.S., the UN and South Korea? The Korean War of 1950-53 — which killed more than 1,000,000 each in North and South Korea, more than 60 percent of them civilians, as well as 600,000 Chinese troops and nearly 37,000 American troops — has never officially ended. There was an armistice, but no peace treaty among the combatants, and violent incidents have continued to occur, generally (probably always) initiated by North Korea. A ship is sunk here, an island is shelled there, kidnappings and assassinations are perpetrated. (Even the American-Jewish community became involved following the revelation that Otto Warmbier, a young man imprisoned and tortured by the regime to the point of death last year on a ridiculous charge having to do with the “theft” of a poster, was Jewish.)
In exchange for a signed treaty, the U.S. and other interested parties would demand an end to North Korea’s nuclear program. Agreement on this is not likely, however: Kim is assumed to take to heart the precedent of Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall in Libya. Qaddafi had yielded to U.S.-led international demands to surrender his nuclear program several years before being overthrown by a popular uprising, which arose indigenously but became critically dependent upon the air support of Western and Arab powers.
COULD THE WORLD live with a nuclear-armed North Korea? Probably yes, if negotiations do not break down and a deal is made for Pyongyang to refrain from the further development of its nuclear weapons and (perhaps more importantly) its missiles. Since North Korea is already a nuclear power and nuclear tests and missile launchings are detectable, on-site inspections would not be critical in the way that they were in the Obama agreement with Iran.
Here are some additional reasons that ending the Korean War might work:
• It would appeal to Trump's vanity and conceit as a "dealmaker." His deal-making could include a personal summit conference with Kim (possibly including the leaders of South Korea, China, Russia and Japan). This would seek to end the conflict with a peace treaty (and possibly some withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea) in exchange for restrictions on North Korea's nuclear and missile arsenal.
• It would appeal to Trump’s isolationist/nationalist base that he's trying to avert a new war.
• It would win Trump a measure of international acclaim as a peacemaker, which would flatter his ego no end.
• It would win Kim recognition and legitimacy for his rule, and an end to strangling sanctions.
• It would strengthen South Korea's new left-leaning dovish government.
Would Trump go for it? Who knows? But nobody in the mainstream media is seriously talking about this as a way out.
A final peace treaty would imply that the division of Korea is permanent, which could run afoul of Korean nationalist sentiment, but the new government in Seoul has expressed support for such an agreement. The biggest problem is the unpredictability and pugnaciousness of Kim and Trump.
My argument is not that this is a likely scenario, but that it makes sense. It's in the interest of all the major players -- both Koreas, the U.S., and Korea's important regional neighbors, China, Russia and Japan.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.