The problem of a nuclear North Korea is not a new one, but it has certainly attracted a large share of American public interest in the last few months, not least because of the rhetoric coming from the American side apparently intended to mirror, or at least counter, now traditional North Korean hyperbole describing or prophesying seas of fire and the like.
Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. The tragic case of Otto Warmbier, a young American student arrested on trumped up charges before entering a coma in North Korean medical care and dying shortly after his return to the United States, adds a distinctly threatening human element to an otherwise sometimes obtuse arcane political problem. Yes, missile launches, possibly followed later by nuclear attacks on the United States, are scary; but there is often not much room in one’s ordinary life to make time to actually contemplate Kim Jong Un’s at this point still improbable summoning of a nuclear fire to lay the United States to waste. In fact, there is not necessarily anything new about much of this (see this excellent roundtable from the Washington Post in early August).
Nor is the Warmbier case actually all that odd in a wider North Korean context, as awful as this might sound. Just ask the families of people abducted from the Japanese coastline by North Korean special forces in the 1970s and 1980s. The change in tone from the current leadership of the United States is regrettable, not least because it seems at this moment in time, with North Korean missiles flying over Japanese territory, to be unmatched by anything resembling cogent policy.
That, too, has some precedent however. For people reading about these events in the news, I think there are a couple of important points historians can make to offer some context.
The Korean War technically did not end. The Korean Armistice Agreement, signed on July 27, 1953, brought an end to hostilities. It did not conclusively end the Korean War, either from an internationally legal perspective or, more importantly, in the minds of many Koreans north and south of the border. This is an extremely important point that a lot of people outside Korea understandably miss. We often talk about North and South Korea as two distinct countries, as perhaps we might talk about the Belgians and the French. Decades of relative isolation and incessant propaganda on one side of the Demilitarized Zone and democratization and capitalist development on the other have unquestionably created different cultural spheres. However, South Koreans and North Koreans do not see each other as “foreign.” They are all Koreans. They have and continue to have a shared history, and the divide in South Korean politics between conservatives and liberals on how to handle the North Korean problem share, to a certain extent, the assumption that a reunited Korea is desirable thing that should be worked towards, not merely an abstract concept. The fact the war is nominally ongoing also affects language used in the north and south, and has as a practical outcome the unfortunate fact that any American military action against Kim Jong Un’s regime would almost certainly have tragic consequences for people living in South Korea.
The 38th Parallel, dividing the two countries, is not a product of the Korean War but was a prerequisite for it, and was not part of any cohesive long-term strategy. The dividing line was actually drawn by the wonderfully named Charles H. Bonesteel III and his fellow colonel (and later Secretary of State) Dean Rusk at the behest of their superiors. They did this in about half an hour on the night of August 10, 1945, taking the 38th Parallel largely because it placed the capital city Seoul in American territory. They felt the line was probably too far north and were surprised and relieved when the Soviet Union concurred with the line of demarcation. The context here, of course, was the rapidly changing relationship between World War II allies the Soviet Union and the United States, at this point evolving into the Cold War. Korea’s division was somewhat haphazard, much like similar events in Vietnam at the same time. Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, came marching across the parallel in 1950, was soon pushed back, and then returned to, more or less, the same places everyone had started. The last two years of the Korean War proved to be a mostly demoralizing stalemate extremely costly in human life before the armistice was finally signed.
There is recent historical precedent for solving these issues through discussion. South Korean president Kim Dae Jung spoke during his inauguration in 1998 of pursuing a policy of reconciliation with North Korea. This led directly to his shaking hands with Kim Jong Il in 2000, an enormously consequential symbolic moment. South Korean aid flowing northward and other signs of thawing across the border came to be known as Kim’s “Sunshine Policy.” This came to a more or less definitive end in 2008, largely due to the problem we face today, North Korean development of nuclear weapons. Based on this precedent and with a decidedly liberal president currently installed in Seoul, discussion with Kim Jong Un is far from impossible, though it may not be the most sensible pathway either, debates over his rationality notwithstanding. Nor can we place all our hopes on China exerting dominance over their neighbors I’m afraid, despite there being some compelling arguments that exactly such a thing should happen. Still, the assumption that war is the only possible outcome is thankfully somewhat premature. Sometimes looking to the past can give us hope, too.