What to do about North Korea

by Nick Mele
Pax Christi International Washington, DC Working Group

In his speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump stirred controversy and concern with pronouncements on a number of issues. His remarks on North Korea were most provocative: “…if (the United States) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Leave aside the insult to the leader of North Korea; that is just a distraction. What got my attention was what Mr. Trump said just before threatening to destroy North Korea. He pointedly criticized other nations, clearly meaning China and Russia, saying, “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict. No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.”

His criticism is counterproductive, especially since both China and Russia are as averse to a nuclear-armed North Korea—on their borders—as the U.S. Note that Mr. Trump speaks as though it were possible to somehow talk North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons and, presumably, its nuclear research programs. This is simply unrealistic in the current situation. As the North Korean government has repeatedly made clear over decades, it is interested in nuclear technology for two reasons. The first is to deter U.S. aggression against the country and the second is to provide energy to generate electricity. The peaceful use of nuclear technology is often overlooked but it was a part of the 1994 Agreed Framework and deserves attention if only because  the Framework agreement aimed at treating North Korean and international concerns as comprehensively as possibly. Whatever one thinks about peaceful uses of nuclear technology, it is clear the North Koreans need non-fossil fuel energy sources.

More relevant to Mr. Trump’s remarks, North Korea said over and over in the negotiations before the 1994 agreement and in discussions since that its primary concern was to gain U.S. recognition of its right to exist as an independent nation and credible assurances that the U.S. and its allies would not attack North Korea. To date, the U.S. has not adequately addressed these North Korean concerns, although the Clinton Administration was moving in that direction when the election of George W. Bush resulted in a change in direction for U.S. policy.

Now might be a good time for the world to accept the reality that North Korea has joined the short list of nuclear-armed states and adjust policies to this new reality. What might that mean? Diplomacy and negotiation rather than threats, for one thing; U.S. actions to match new verbal assurances that we will not attack the North unprovoked; confidence-building steps, perhaps starting with establishing liaison offices in both Pyongyang and Washington; consultations and cooperation with China and Russia, as well as with Japan and South Korea; and to help forestall other nations that might follow the North Korean path, a renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament by the nuclear-armed nations, particularly China, Russia and the U.S.

For those of us working for a world without war, the time has come to act. For a start, we should inform ourselves about the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed and/or stockpiled by all the nuclear powers and then ensure full media coverage of those numbers and of the security, environmental and human costs of nuclear stockpiles. We should also take every opportunity, like Mr. Trump’s remarks on September 19, to talk with politicians, friends, family and neighbors and acquaint them with the facts, including the failure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to prevent nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Also, to make them aware that the majority of UN states have now adopted a UN Treaty banning nuclear weapons, that way giving a signal that they want the elimination of these weapons, while NATO states and its allies have opposed such progress. An information campaign is the necessary prelude to a popular campaign for nuclear disarmament. The Nobel Prize Committee’s choice of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize is another good sign that the time is ripe to raise the issue of nuclear disarmament. Let’s get to work!

After twenty five years as a U.S. diplomat, Nick Mele retired to pursue peace outside of government. A faith-based activist, he has worked as a nonviolence trainer for Pax Christi USA; as a founding staff member for the Nonviolent Peaceforce; and as the Pax Christi representative to the Inter-Religious Conference on Article 9, an international group working to reduce militarism and armaments in the Asia-Pacific region.

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