North Korea’s modern history extends back to the Russo-Japanese War, which ended when the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on Sept. 5, 1905, at the Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. This peace agreement was facilitated by President Theodore Roosevelt, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The treaty recognized Japan’s claims to Korea and much of Manchuria and established the Japanese military as a force to be reckoned with among Western powers. It also established the U.S. as a major force for peaceful resolution of international conflicts.
The Japanese occupation of Korea lasted until the end of World War II, during which time Japan was ruthless in punishing any signs of dissent. During the war, more than 5 million Korean men were conscripted as laborers, resulting in as many as half a million deaths, and 200,000 as soldiers for service in Japan’s war, while tens of thousands of young women were forced into becoming “comfort women” (prostitutes).
After the war the Americans assumed control of the south and the Soviets over the north of Korea, with headquarters in Pyongyang. From 1950 to 1953, the Korean War resulted in the deaths of several millions Koreans and Chinese, as well as 54,000 Americans. North Korea suffered enormously from the carpet bombing by the American Air Force, killing as much as a quarter of the population. This devastation is deeply embedded in North Korean consciousness and continues to underlie their view of America.
There is a saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see, nor none so deaf as those who will not hear,” an expression that is appropriate to the North Korean dilemma. What has brought North Korea to its present heightened state of fear and aggression is based on historical circumstances that American politicians should take into account when considering its present pugnaciousness.
North Korea, with its 25 million people, is being led by a man in his 30s, who, like his father, shows scant regard for human rights and continues to severely punish any internal criticisms of his regime. South Korea, with a population of 50 million, is occupied by American forces with 15 military bases and a $1 billion military base on Jeju Island still under construction. Compared to the American colossus, North Korea is a minuscule power suffering from U.N. sanctions.
Aid agencies estimate that 18 million North Koreans are experiencing food shortages, and U.N. Assistant Secretary General Miroslav Jenca reports food prices are have risen 160 percent since last April. Sanctions are causing enormous harm, but not to the nuclear program. Rather, it is poorer people living in marginal circumstances who are now under serious threat of famine.
The idea that increasing sanctions will force the leaders to abandon their nuclear program has not worked in the past nor will it now. Major powers have large nuclear arsenals, while smaller nuclear powers such as Israel, Pakistan and India are hardly criticized, even as they threaten their neighbors. Yet, North Korea has become part of an “axis of evil,” a view promulgated by former President George W. Bush and taken up by President Donald Trump, which indicates just how deeply entrenched political hypocrisy can be.
The North Korean leadership seems to believe it needs nuclear weapons as a deterrence to prevent invasion. But more conciliatory measures have been taken in the past to reduce tensions and work toward mutually acceptable agreements.
In the late 1990s, South Korea adopted a “sunshine policy” under former President Kim Dae-jung whose diplomatic efforts were meant to achieve reconciliation. But the Bush administration undermined those efforts when it declared North Korea a rogue state, resulting in North Korea’s decision to continue to develop their nuclear weapon capabilities. Moon Jae-in, the current South Korean president, has been attempting to revive the “sunshine policy,” knowing that only direct talks could possibly facilitate the freezing of North Korea’s missile program.
There is so much that the U.S. could do to reduce tension, but when the current administration views the world only in terms of competition and dominance, rather than partnership and cooperation, we are all going to suffer the consequences.
Surrounding North Korea with more military bases and warships only exacerbates the paranoia of Pyongyang, which views signs of military buildups as extremely provocative. Working toward reconciliation and practicing patience while taking into account the basis of North Korea’s bellicosity may help provide a way to work out a long-term solution.
It was in this way that President Roosevelt managed his diplomatic efforts that resulted in the Portsmouth agreement in 1905, a process which is still worth emulating.
Hugh Curran teaches in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine in Orono.
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