As you likely know, Donald Trump canceled the North Korean summit scheduled for next month. There is going to be much analysis about what it means for the Trump administration, for America and for Trump’s hope for a Nobel Price. What much of the debate is going to miss is how the whole thing is perceived by North Korea, the surrounding Asian countries and the rest of the world. This is because American newscasters and their audience tends to look at the world through American eyes. What most will miss is that America has reverted to colonialism and gun boat diplomacy.
Gun boat diplomacy is diplomacy based on the carrot, or the stick. In Mexican drug cartel lexicon, it is “plata o plomo,” or “silver or bullet” decisions where the outcome can only be riches or death. Donald Trump embarked on the platform of America First, whereby political decisions would be made based on America first, followed by the needs of the rest of the world. We can debate the merits of such a policy later. For now, let’s accept that as the official policy of the United States government.
Under the theory of America First, the need to disarm North Korea, especially of its nuclear weapons, takes precedence over everything else. As far as American policy is concerned, North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons. As an adherent to the Tlatelolco treaty I am in full agreement with this sentiment. But this misses an obvious point of view, that of North Korea.
It doesn’t matter how we feel about North Korea and its leadership because any attempt to remove the North Korean leadership or subject them to U.S. authority will cost many lives. This is an escapable truth. Thus, North Korea’s point of view is material to the discussion.
North Korea feels threatened by America. America maintains a large and technologically advanced military at the ready right on the doorstep of North Korea. There is a state of war between the United States and North Korea. From the point of view of North Korea, there is a large belligerent army at its doorstep whose only goal is to destroy North Korea.
North Korea has a consistent defense policy for this threat, a credible ability to retaliate causing many deaths to curtail an American invasion. Arguing whether America is a threat to North Korea is impossible because from North Korea’s point of view, there is no question that America wants to invade.
There is nothing anyone can say to convince North Korea that an American invasion is not coming.
Former U.S. administrations have tried to diplomatically show North Korea that America wasn’t interested in invading them. They tried through diplomacy and sanctions to keep North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, North Korea developed nuclear bombs.
Prior to nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles and submarines to threaten America, North Korea’s only deterrent was the destruction of South Korea through conventional weapons. From North Korea’s point of view, that was limited deterrence especially since the real enemy was America. In their eyes, destroying Seoul may not be a sufficient deterrent in the future.
In addition, keeping a large standing army is expensive. It is not sustainable for any country, except for the U.S., and much less possible for an improvised country like North Korea. Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD is the doctrine that kept the Cold War rivalry in check. The Soviet Union and the United States both understood that neither could attack the other without risking the destruction of their respective nations.
The MAD doctrine can also be extended like Israel has, allowing the notion that they posses nuclear weapons to keep enemies at bay. Israel does not declare its nuclear capability, but allows the notion that it is nuclear capable to continue under the notion that the ambiguity allows it to have deterrence without the politics of declaring nuclear arms to the world.
The nuclear club officially consists of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. India, Pakistan and North Korea are also known to have nuclear weapons. From the point of view of North Korea, being accepted into the nuclear club ensures its survivability while reducing its need to fund a large military and weapons programs.
An acknowledged nuclear power needs only to threaten retaliation to keep invaders out.
Herein lies the problem for both Donald Trump and North Korea. North Korea sees denuclearization as the step of ending nuclear weapons development and reducing its military capability, not giving up its nuclear bombs. The U.S. sees denuclearization of giving up all nuclear weapons.
That’s not going to happen.
It doesn’t matter why North Korea closed its nuclear research facility, whether it was overture for peace, a facility that is too expensive to fix, or simply just achieving the goal of becoming a declared nuclear power for protection purposes.
The fact is that North Korea is shutting down its nuclear research facility. North Korea also released several U.S. prisoners it held and openly sought a meeting with Donald Trump. This was North Korea telling Trump it was ready to seriously negotiate. The rest of the world does not matter because the threat to North Korea, from its eyes, is America.
So, what happened? Why is the meeting off and why the standoff?
The Trump administration brought in John Bolton and gave him a bully pulpit. Bolton fully embraces the notion of America First and gun boat diplomacy – do as I demand or face military repercussions.
The problem is that gun boat diplomacy is an archaic form of diplomacy that cannot be used against a country like North Korea, with, or without nuclear weapons. Why? Because North Korea would inflict heavy damage to South Korea, and possibly Japan within the first few hours of any war.
Even technology-laden America cannot intercept all North Korean weapons, not matter how archaic, and soldiers before they can harm its allies. It is an impossible strategic option. Now, with nuclear weapons, the threat of retaliation has expended beyond South Korea, Japan on to America itself.
From a typical Bolton mindset of a strong America – superior in every way – forcing North Korea to give up nuclear weapons through gun boat diplomacy seemed like a good idea.
It wasn’t, because the same reason that past administration could not bend North Korea to come to terms since armistice of 1953 – ability to retaliate – remains true today.
Donald Trump was in the position to do something extraordinary, make peace with North Korea.
Trump squandered it because he allowed people like John Bolton to drive the agenda, rather then himself. Donald Trump just does not have the intellectual ability to understand why gun boat diplomacy will not work.
North Korea has achieved what it wanted for self-preservation – nuclear weapons. It just needs one more thing, to be acknowledged as a nuclear power, officially or unofficially like Israel. Either way, North Korea achieves what is wants, self-preservation.
North Korea desperately needs to focus away from a war footing and move on towards revitalizing its economy. It knows this, and it wants this. But it needs to know it will be safe from invasion.
An agreement can be had but only if a point of view, other than an American one is considered.
I may not like that North Korea has nuclear bombs, but I also understand why it wants to be acknowledged as a nuclear power.
America needs to come to grip with a nuclear North Korea and work for peace, through understanding what the other side fears.