Last weekend, residents of Hawaii received a terrifying emergency alert on their phones: A ballistic missile was incoming. “Seek immediate shelter,” the alert warned in all-caps. “This is not a drill.” But it also wasn’t real. It was a false alarm, triggered accidentally by a state employee.
While authorities took more than half an hour to address the message, the panic it sowed was immeasurable, reviving the terror sparked by similar false alerts during the Cold War. It also reinforced the reality of the present day: Given the state of tensions with North Korea and the rogue regime’s demonstrated weapons capabilities, the prospect of ballistic missiles raining down on Hawaii can’t be shrugged away. This year, William J. Perry, a secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and a dogged campaigner on the threat of nuclear weapons, declared on Twitter that “we are at greater risk of nuclear catastrophe now than we were during the Cold War.”
Here was a misunderstanding with potentially disastrous consequences. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii who has emerged as an anti-hawkish, albeit controversial, voice in Washington, tweeted a plea for negotiations with Pyongyang.
But diplomacy without preconditions is certainly not the mantra of the White House. At an international summit held in the Canadian city of Vancouver on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pushed for greater economic pressure on the pariah regime of Kim Jong Un. “We must increase the costs of the regime’s behavior to the point that North Korea comes to the table for credible negotiations,” said Tillerson, discussing ways to tighten sanctions against North Korea. “The object of negotiations, if and when we get there, is the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.”
The meeting where he delivered those remarks could itself be seen as a somewhat confrontational act. Co-hosted by Tillerson and Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, it brought together 18 other nations:, including countries as diverse as South Korea, Belgium, Colombia, Greece, India, Italy, New Zealand and Britain. Why? The majority of these countries participated in the Korean War more than six decades ago, entering the conflict on behalf of South Korea under the auspices of the United Nations.
Intensifying the Cold War paradigm was the absence of two other key interlocutors: China and Russia. Ahead of the Vancouver summit, officials both in Beijing and Moscow voiced their disapproval of the whole thing. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov deemed it “harmful” in a news conference on Monday. “When we found out about the meeting, we asked: Why do you need all those countries together?” Lavrov said. “Greece, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg. What do they have to do with the Korean Peninsula?”
In remarks cited by Canadian media, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang also decried the summit, arguing that it “reflects Cold War thinking, which will only create divisions in the international community and undermine the joint efforts that are being made to resolve properly the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”
In North Korea, Cold War paranoia is all the more real. Kim’s regime feeds off a sense of permanent antipathy toward the United States, which presided over a hideous bombing campaign against North Korea that lives long in the state’s memory.
“The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders,” wrote former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden a few years ago. ” ‘Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,’ Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed ‘everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.’”
Current tensions have only exacerbated Pyongyang’s ever-present fears — and bellicose propaganda efforts. As the summit took place, the regime chose to launch another rhetorical blast at President Donald Trump, mocking him for his tweet about possessing a bigger “nuclear button” than Kim.
“Trump’s bluff is … just a spasm of a lunatic frightened by the might” of North Korea “and a bark of a rabid dog,” stated the commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s official newspaper.
Likewise, the Trump administration seems in no mood to back down. In Vancouver, Tillerson also said that the United States would not stop joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea halting its nuclear weapons program. Known in diplomatic parlance as “freeze for freeze,” it’s a path toward de-escalation long favored by Moscow and Beijing, but staunchly opposed by the United States and its regional allies.
But essentially nothing tangible can be achieved on North Korea without buy-in from the Russians and Chinese. So the Trump administration’s attempts at reckoning with Pyongyang will rumble fitfully on. A host of American experts on both sides of the political divide believe the Trump administration simply has to learn how to live with a nuclear North Korea.
John Delury, an expert on Chinese and regional affairs based in Seoul, argues that Washington must move beyond the Cold War paradigm for good.
“A breakthrough with the United States would allow North Korea to begin normalizing economic relationships with its neighbors, building on a transformation that is already quietly underway … Over the long run, a gradual process of dismantlement could lead to denuclearization as the sense of mutual threat is eliminated,” Delury wrote in Foreign Policy. “If Mao, who talked of nuclear war as a real possibility that China could survive, and Nixon, who built his career on fighting communism, could bury the sword in the interests of geopolitical stability, why can’t Kim and Trump? They can. And they must.”
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