Here's What Koreans Are Seeing When They Look Toward the West


No doubt that it was an emotional moment last Friday, when North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in stepped over the boundary line that separates the two Koreas. That Kim invited Moon into North Korea for an unscripted moment was particularly poignant. It was equally important to listen carefully to their speeches, with both sides eager to affirm the unity of the Korean people. It is this fundamental feeling of unity that drove the two sides to finally begin serious steps to end the war in Korea that began in 1950. It is also important to register that the people of both sides of the boundary marker have long felt frustrated, used as they have been as hostages in a great power struggle that has little to do with their own lives and desires.

Caution is necessary. Can there be a real peace with a massive military deployment by the United States inside Korea and around it? There are at least 35,000 U.S. troops in several bases across South Korea and an additional 40,000 U.S. troops at its bases in Japan. U.S. warships routinely skirt the Korean waters and U.S. bombers fly from Guam and Alaska to threaten North Korea. When Kim told Moon that he would consider a complete end to North Korea’s nuclear program, was this prudent?

What are previous examples before the Korean people of such unilateral disarmament or even of reunification?

The Two Germanys

It has long been a worry of North Korea that the terms for unification with South Korea will be set by the United States. This is also something that worries Chinese diplomats, as one reminded me a week ago. What they fear is what happened to East Germany.

Talks to unify the two sides of Germany took place not only between the governments of East and West Germany, but also of the United States and the USSR. These talks had an urgency to them. The USSR had already begun to unravel by the late 1980s through the incoherent processes of glasnost and perestroika. By early 1990, few of the governments of Eastern Europe had any resolve to chart out a new path toward a truly democratic socialism. Surrender was in the air. The fall of the Berlin Wall hastened calls for reunification of Germany. A weakened USSR could not define the terms of the process. It was the much more powerful United States and its close ally West Germany that set the terms of unification.

The surrender was so complete that Germany, as a whole, became a NATO power. Little of the residue of East Germany was carried forward. It remains—partly—an internal colony of the West.

But the example of Germany should not detain the Koreans. In 1990, the USSR had collapsed, and the United States emerged as the sole superpower. The U.S. war on Iraq in 1990-91 confirmed its supremacy. But that uni-polar situation is no longer present. Between 1990 and 2018, a more confident set of states have appeared on the horizon to challenge U.S. uni-polarity. The most important states to do so have been China and Russia, with the latter providing the first military challenge to the United States since the 1980s in the guise of its military intervention in Syria during 2015.

Before he met South Korea’s Moon, North Korea’s Kim went to Beijing and clarified the timetable for the discussions. Beijing is helping the North Koreans set the terms for the political process. They will not allow the North Koreans to surrender. China knows that it does not want U.S. military power right at its border with Korea. It knows that promises made by the Americans to the Russians in 1990 not to extend NATO eastwards have been betrayed. They will not tolerate further U.S. power around their country.

The Libyan Model

U.S. President Donald Trump’s acerbic adviser John Bolton said that North Korea should follow the "Libyan Model." What impresses Bolton is that Libya "allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites" and Libya wiped out its nuclear weapons program without any concessions. What Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi got in exchange was sanctions relief, but no long-term security guarantees.

The North Koreans have suggested on many occasions that they are wary of the approach taken by Libya. A decade after Qaddafi scuttled Libya’s nuclear weapons program, NATO—with the Americans and French in the saddle—attacked Libya, destroyed the Libyan state and murdered Qaddafi. The chaos that remains in Libya, seven years after that war began, is rooted in the nature of the vertical war preferred by NATO. Thanks to the Libyan example, and what happened in Iraq a decade before, North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons deterrent. U.S. policy in Iraq and Libya essentially make it irrational for a country to give up a security shield.

The only way that the North Koreans might settle for an end to their nuclear weapons program is if the Chinese offer a long-term guarantee for the security of the North Korean government. It is not clear what the Chinese leadership told Kim during his March trip to Beijing, but they must certainly be talking about a security guarantee for North Korea if the negotiations with the South proceed toward a rollback of North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The Iran Dilemma

Iran, unlike Libya and North Korea, does not have nuclear weapons. No one suggests that it has them, not even the Israelis or John Bolton. Iran has made it clear that it wants to develop a nuclear energy sector. Whether this is a good idea or not is not relevant to this discussion. What is relevant is that even though Iran has no nuclear weapons it faces threats from the United States and Israel as well as from Saudi Arabia.

It is clear that the issue of nuclear inspections regarding Iran has little to do with the issue. It has to do with pushing Iran back to its borders, to isolating Iran politically. Recently, the Saudis and the Americans put pressure on Morocco to cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The Moroccan monarchy accused Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, of being in favor of the Western Sahara independence movement (Hezbollah denies this). This was the spur to end ties between Morocco and Iran. The Saudis and the Americans are keen on weakening Iran’s political and military reach. That is what the threats around Iran’s nuclear program are about.

Iran has no nuclear weapons shield. It has on several occasions been threatened by invasions. But here, once more, it is clear that neither the West nor the Israelis have the political capacity to launch a full-scale invasion of Iran. It is likely that the Iranians have a secret security guarantee from the Russians. The Russians need Iran’s assistance in Syria, which hosts one of only two Russian warm water ports (the other is in Crimea, another hot spot). If the warmongering against Iran heats up, it is more than likely that Russian aircraft will fly into Tehran as it did into Damascus in September 2015. Russia’s entry into Damascus and its potential entry into Tehran should send a signal to the North Koreans that if there is a threat to them of regime change, Chinese aircraft might fly into Pyongyang.

A multi-polar political landscape is now emerging on the world stage. China and Russia are unwilling to step aside and allow the United States to drive policy. This is clear on both flanks of Asia and in trade negotiations. No question that the United States has the most powerful military and no question that the United States still controls the major institutions of the world economy. Even more, no question that there is no real well-developed alternative to the ‘liberalization’ agenda of the IMF and the World Bank. Nonetheless, the regional interest of countries like China and Russia have now begun to make themselves felt on the international arena.

If one is seeking an author apart from the Koreans for this new thaw, it is more than likely to be found in Beijing than in Washington.

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