North Korea: How Did We Get Here?

Last week, I visited DePaul University to participate in a panel sponsored by the DePaul History Department, “North Korea: How Did We Get Here?” This panel is part of a series of teach-ins the History Department has organized this semester to reach out to members of the DePaul community. I used to work at DePaul, and was thrilled to be asked back. I joined former colleagues from across the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences to talk about the current relationship between the United States and North Korea.

I drew the short straw and got to kick things off once our moderator Kathryn Ibata-Arens had welcomed the audience and introduced the panel and our discussion topic. My opening remarks, at least, largely stemmed from a blog post I wrote here on Centre Trail a few weeks ago. Specifically, I think it’s important that Americans realize that there are many people in North Korea and South Korea who wish for a united Korean nation and identify with one ideologically, a reality in contrast to Western discourse that often treats North Korea and South Korea as completely different nations with some shared cultural traditions; American policy towards North Korea has a long history of being inconsistent and ad-hoc, even somewhat panicky; and there are more ways to approach the North Korean government than being aggressive, as Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” showed at the end of the twentieth century.

From there, my fellow speakers introduced their own key points. These were varied and enlightening, and challenging to effectively summarize here, but there were some key takeaway points I would like to share if I may.

Fellow historian Ryan Yokota, as part of a wider ranging talk, made a great point about Kim Jong Un’s regime’s goal in firing missiles over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and other launches: they are interested in selling technology on the global arms market. Ballistic technology, specifically. Part of Ryan’s point, I think, was to clarify that this crisis is not what it appears. The American media in particular has focused on the possibility of a North Korean nuclear strike against the US in the foreseeable future. This is understandable, of course, but at the moment the launches serve as advertisements to raise much needed revenue through selling missile systems to interested parties. Not that it hurts Kim Jong Un’s profile within North Korea of course, dominated as it is by Juche, a civic ideology based on conceptions of North Korean self-reliance and a cult of the leader..

Yuki Miyamoto shared some interesting and sometimes rather concerning information about nuclear testing in a global context. Specifically, she pointed out that although North Korea is currently causing concern globally, they have tested nuclear weapons six times since 1945. By comparison, the United Kingdom has performed 88 nuclear tests in the same time-frame. And the US? Well, the United States has tested nuclear weapons 1,032 times since 1945. Yuki’s presentation dovetailed very well with that of Dr. Byungdug Jun’s. Jun and his team measure seismic readings given off by North Korea’s nuclear tests and have ascertained that Mount Mantap, the host site for these tests, has moved. Indeed, the mountain is in danger of collapse. Yuki’s point therefore was not to equivocate but to address the reality of the environmental impact of so many nuclear tests globally in the last 70 years.

Many thanks to Kathryn for moderating. We have events like this ourselves at Centre, and it’s an important thing for historians and colleagues in related fields to do, reaching out to our communities before ultimately reaching out to the public. It was an honor to participate in the panel, and we had some great questions from the audience. We wrapped up by discussing possible paths to ameliorating the current tensions between the United States and North Korea. The panel was more or less united in arguing that an a saber-rattling approach is unlikely to pay considerable dividends. As for when we might navigate a solution away from these recurring crises, Dr. Jun had a succinct answer: “when there is no more Kim Jong Un.”

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