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Avoiding a Pearl Harbor in Korea

by Jonathan Dresner on Apr 12, 2003

Jonathan Dresner

Although it is a pitifully poor country, North Korea has nuclear weapons technology. As a result, the United States and China are trying to force North Korea to abandon plans to develop and export nuclear weapons by imposing economic sanctions and threatening military force, either of which North Korea has said it would view as an act of war.

But a resumption of the Korean War (1950-1953) after a half-century of armistice would threaten millions of lives. It might be avoided if the United States and other concerned countries were to take steps to relieve tensions and address North Korea’s humanitarian crisis.

Much as the Japanese believed that attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941 would force the United States to leave Japan to expand int Southeast Asia, the North Korean leadership might delude itself into thinking that an aggressive move would relieve the pressure it is now under to rid itself of nuclear weapons. By 1940, the United States had responded to Japan’s vicious imperial expansion into China by embargoing industrial equipment and raw materials that Japan needed to sustain its forces. Japanese leadership at the time believed that the United States would avoid war by relaxing its sanctions. When the sanctions stayed in force, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But rather than backing off the United States committed itself to war.

In the case of North Korea, though, it is possible to grant strategic concessions and vital relief aid that would have been unthinkable in 1941. The most consistent North Korean demand is that the United States guarantee that it will not unilaterally attack North Korea. Such a pledge on the part of the United States would merely confirm that the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War remains in effect in spite of the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive intervention against “rogue nations with weapons of mass destruction.” North Korea’s other demands are related to the abject poverty of its people — demands for food, fuel and power-generating nuclear reactor technology.   The United States has been threatening economic sanctions or even precision military strikes if North Korea refuses to dismantle its nuclear weapons program immediately and unilaterally. But without atomic weapons, the North Korean military has no hope of opposing the overwhelming conventional weaponry of the United States.

China, which supports a negotiated disarmament, has already staged temporary interruptions of fuel shipments to emphasize that it provides the bulk of North Korea’s energy and food supplies, and it is threatening to restrict critical food and fuel aid further if North Korea does not negotiate. In the face of both military and economic threats, the North Koreans, like the Japanese in 1941, may try to test the resolve of their enemies.

These uncompromising and unimaginative stances by all parties endanger Asian security and millions of lives. Our allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China and Russia, are directly vulnerable to North Korean weapons, both conventional and nuclear. Could the present American economy really withstand the shock of a consequent political and economic crisis in Japan and South Korea on top of the SARS crisis in China?

North Korea’s Taepodong II missiles might be able to reach Hawaii or the Aleutian Islands, although the North Koreans probably cannot yet use them to deliver nuclear weapons. There are roughly 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Japan, and many thousands of U.S. civilians in both countries, all of whom are in easy range of North Korea’s weapons.

North Koreans are still starving, which is why their government is considering exporting nuclear weapons. If we are going to defuse this situation, we must stop treating the humanitarian crisis like a strategic advantage. Rather than trying to hold twenty million North Koreans hostage to economic sanctions, we should eliminate the need for North Korea to export weapons of mass destruction to feed its people. Provide food, medicines and fuel. The generosity of the United States after World War II toward Germany and Japan defused their fear and earned decades of international good will. The cost of humanitarian aid to North Korea will be less than the cost of military action and economic uncertainty.

Relief aid would still be necessary after a military confrontation, and the needs would be far greater. Getting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il to accept aid on the scale necessary will be difficult. It will probably be impossible, in fact, if the 1953 armistice is not reaffirmed by the United States. Food aid from outside North Korea has in the past been portrayed to the North Korean people as “tribute,” which would certainly be offensive to the United States. But a healthy and secure North Korea would be in a good position to negotiate a nuclear stand-down. The alternative — increased pressure on a desperate society — has failed before.


Jonathan Dresner teaches Asian and world history at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and is a writer for the History News Service.