North Korea President Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump are engaged in a game of chicken. There is no reason to believe that either actually wants a war, but they are acting like bullies with the intent of “one-upping” the other. There are, however, very different reasons for this. The danger is that both sides have nuclear capabilities and that a war of words could quickly become a war of deeds.
In order to understand this situation, you have to go back to World War II. Korea was a Japanese colony until 1945, when the USA and the USSR divided it for purposes of occupation after the war ended. The anti-Japanese Korean resistance movement had been led by one Kim Il Sung and had a national scope. In the U.S. occupation zone, former collaborators with the Japanese were put into power and there was vicious repression of the former resistance along with the repression of other groups. A de facto guerrilla war unfolded in southern Korea that, in many ways, provoked what came to be known as the Korean War when, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel Demilitarized Zone and nearly defeated the South Koreans.
The Korean War, which receives little attention today, was vicious and massively destructive. The U.S. carried out significant bombings that led to the near complete devastation of North Korea. In 1953, an armistice was signed ending the military conflict, but no peace treaty has ever been signed. This fact is very significant because the North Korean government has been consistently insisting on the need for a peace treaty.
Relations between North and South Korea (respectively known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea) have remained tense ever since 1953. Unbeknownst to most people in the U.S., at one point, the U.S. government stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea pointed at North Korea. Periodically, there have been gunfire exchanges across the Demilitarized Zone.
The North Koreans had to rebuild their country almost from scratch. In part, this resulted in the turning of Kim Il Sung into more than an icon; he became almost a demi-god. The North Koreans emphasized what they called “Juche” or self-reliance and, in the face of constant U.S. and South Korean threats, became very insular to the point of paranoia. The emphasis on security also turned North Korea into a de facto monarchy, with Kim Il Sung being succeeded first by his son and later by his grandson, this contrary to the very notion of socialism that Kim Il Sung claimed to have represented.
The North Koreans have sought a peace treaty. They worry about being attacked. As a result, and paradoxically, they engage in provocative actions in order to remind the world that they still exist and that they must be taken seriously. They have, apparently, concluded from U.S. adventures, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that the only way to ensure that they are not invaded is to possess nuclear weapons. This, then, brings us to the present.
The USA and South Korea need to negotiate with the North Koreans for peace on the Korean peninsula. Peace must include the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction. This must also include the end to mutual provocations and the restarting of normalization talks between the Koreas. Because Trump understands little about the world and less about war, I am not sure that he can undertake this. Therefore, we, the people of the USA must insist upon it.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the former president of TransAfrica Forum. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.