Not a Missile...For Now


On February 7 of 2016, North Korea launched a rocket that successfully put a satellite into orbit. The US and allies, notably South Korea, condemned the rocket launch as a veiled development of long range missiles. Paul Liem talks about the implication of the rocket launch, future US foreign policy; Christine Ahn speaks about her crossing of the DMZ and her peace campaign with an international delegation of women. 

“The rocket which launched North Korea’s satellite last month was not an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile],” explains Paul. That’s because an intercontinental ballistic missile not only requires going into orbit but also re-entering the atmosphere and landing on a target while carrying a warhead. However, “the rocket which launched the satellite went up, died, and tumbled back to earth after putting a satellite into orbit.” Paul points out that it’s not just North Korea that is developing rocket technology: “South Korea is pursuing the peaceful exploration of space.” Yet, “in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough,” Paul doesn’t rule out the possibility of rockets being developed into ICBMs. That is because one of the ways in which powerful nations are trying to strangle North Korea’s economy and society is through strategic patience: waiting for North Korea to buckle and collapse under the weight of sanctions and economic isolation.

Many North Korean experts have stated that North Korea’s ultimate goal is peace and that the various actions that it commits are in this pursuit. US policy on the other hand has been driven by a desire to denuclearize North Korea. “Wouldn’t the problem simply be solved by the US giving North Korea a peace treaty, and North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons?” I ask Paul. The answer is not as simple as a peace treaty on paper. Not only because such peace treaty would be difficult to ratify in the current US Congress and executive orders “are a shaky deal,” but also because history has shown how a peace treaty doesn’t deter regime change: Libya had given up its nuclear weapons, become a US ally, and was still targeted for regime change. Thus, “peace treaty or peace regime of any kind between the U.S. and North Korea is not likely to hold if its sole purpose is to achieve North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.”

Instead, a peace treaty would have to be based on a realignment of strategic goals. Such “re-envisioning does not seem to have emerged in Washington.” Paul sees potential in both North Korea's and US's desire to check China’s growing influence in the region. Paul notes that’s likely why North Korea has accepted the possibility of US troops remaining in South Korea after normalization of relations with the US.

The coming presidential elections offer a possible shift in US foreign policy towards North Korea. I ask Paul’s thoughts on Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders attitudes towards North Korea. While her past actions as Secretary of State point to someone driven by regime change, Paul hopes that if she were elected president, Clinton would “reflect upon the historical circumstances of Korea’s division, the U.S. role in that division, and chart a new Korea policy” based on diplomacy to end the cold war. One source of hope may be her “insights into the possibilities for bilateral talks with Pyongyang” from her time as First Lady under President Bill Clinton and as Secretary of State.

Paul’s take on Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy is simple: “To enact the kind of domestic social programs he has in mind,” would require Bernie Sanders to cut “military spending.” The only way to justify such cuts, such as in Northeast Asia, would be by pursuing diplomatic, and not military, solutions. “To help achieve his domestic goals I think Sanders would be highly motivated to explore all avenues for diplomatic engagement with North Korea, including bilateral talks.”

Ultimately, hope for changing US North Korean policy from strategic patience for regime collapse to a permanent peace treaty will have to involve a shift in global attitude towards peace with North Korea. That is why on May 2015, 30 women from 15 different countries, as part of the Women Cross DMZ delegation, crossed from North to South Korea across the Demilitarized Zone. Women Cross DMZ also included symposiums and cultural exchange in North and South Korea to cultivate peace and mutual understanding with the international delegates.

Nearly a year after the DMZ crossing, Christine and the international delegates continue to campaign for peace. Meeting North Koreans, it’s clear to Christine that a breakthrough will not be achieved by “fomenting regime collapse” through blocking “oil shipments in the dead of winter,” flying F-22s, or passing another round of economic sanctions. These simply worsen the daily lives of ordinary people and drive them to “unite around their leaders.” The solution lies in peace.

As international delegates, they not only reach a wider audience such as the US Congress, the UN, and audiences across the US, but they also facilitate a dialogue for solutions that include North and South Korean women. That is because while North and South Korean women are not able to meet with each other, they are able to meet with the international delegates.

Now, they are creating the infrastructure for peace. Pairing with the American Friends Service Committee, Women Cross DMZ have created the Korea Peace Network – which brings together Korean-Americans, peace groups, and humanitarian groups – to engage with Washington DC “to figure another way out.” Such “way out” may be through the demining of the DMZ to start dialogue between North Korea, South Korea, and the US. Instead of going from “zero to ninety” by demanding a Peace Treaty, demining the 1.2 million landmines in the DMZ may be one small step towards a peace treaty achievable under the Obama Administration. The case of Colombia offers hope. “Through the demining process the FARC and the government have come together. That has actually been an interesting process in creating mutual peace.” Such steps are part of Christine and Women Cross DMZ’s goal of achieving a peace treaty by 2020.

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Interviewee: Paul Liem (Board Chairperson, Korea Policy Institute) Christine Ahn (Executive Director, Women Cross the DMZ)                                                      Interviewer: Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)