Korean Chicken

Alan Zendell, August 11, 2017

If you’re like me, you’re sick of pundits interpreting events or pushing their own agendas on television. It’s useful to keep in mind that they’re all being handsomely paid to argue with each other and that regardless of their credentials, none of them have anything at stake except lining up their next gig.

During the current confrontation with North Korea we’ve been repeatedly told that Kim Jong Un is a madman who rules with an iron hand who thinks he’s still fighting the Korean War. When we see tens of thousands of people cheering Kim in lock step in the central square of Pyongyang, it’s tempting to succumb to the idea that the people of North Korea are helpless innocents caught in some pied-piper-like trance.  It looks more like a horrific sci-fi movie than reality, unless…

What if they’re not merely drugged, brainwashed drones being paraded before the world? What if they really are true believers who hate and fear the United States? What if from their point of view they have valid reasons to believe we would annihilate them without a thought if they didn’t possess a powerful deterrent?

A couple of pundits even favor that view, reminding us that the entire country was in ruins with three million dead and their capital reduced to rubble when the Korean conflict ended in 1953. It’s true that the war started with North Korea invading the South, but in the devastation of war no one talks about who fired the first shot. The grandparents of today’s North Koreans might have been even worse off if China hadn’t stepped in to force a stalemate. Those same people had experienced the cruel domination by the Japanese Empire for decades, only to see their former oppressors incinerated by American atomic bombs in 1945.

The Korean War was fought while the United States and the Soviet Union were embarking on nearly half a century of nuclear brinksmanship. At the war’s end both South Korea and Japan were allied with and under the protection of the United States, the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons against another. Two generations of North Koreans were raised with those images and told by their leaders that they were surrounded by enemies.

What must they have thought when another fledgling nation surrounded by enemies who had sworn to destroy them was taken under the umbrella of American protection and allowed to develop a deterrent nuclear arsenal of it own? Given the increasingly paranoid nature of North Korea’s post-war regimes, why wouldn’t they believe that the ability to rain nuclear fire on their enemies was their only salvation? Israel had done it against even greater odds and survived and prospered.

I believe that when politics and rhetoric are stripped away, saner smarter minds in our government understand the North Korean mentality. They also understand that years of being told that America is their enemy cannot be easily reversed. And now they’re led by someone who is as ruthless as any national leader in recent memory, a man driven by the single-minded goal of standing up to what he perceives as the ultimate international bully, none of which excuses Kim’s outrageous behavior and public statements.

Donald Trump is right that no American administration has successfully dealt with North Korea, but he’s dead wrong if he thinks his shoot-from-the-hip style will do any better. The specter of two narcissistic bullies facing off in a game of nuclear chicken is truly horrifying. Someone needs to be the adult in the room.

Thomas Friedman addressed this with Chris Cuomo on CNN today, and while he didn’t have a magic solution, he made a lot of sense. He first reiterated what many other observers have said, that Kim Jong Un may be homicidal but he’s not suicidal. He knows that if he strikes first there will be nothing left of him and his country no matter how many millions he manages to kill. Kim may be a brutal killer, but he’s not a madman. So why not try to figure out what would reassure the North Korean people that we mean them no harm?

If we’re lucky, someone’s already doing that through some secret back channel. I don’t claim to know what the solution is, but I know the course we’re on seems less likely every day to end well for anyone.

I accept the fact that Kim is a really tough guy. Does that mean that Donald Trump has to be the star of a new reality show called, “Which Tough Guy Has the Biggest Balls?” That may appeal to most of his base, but it’s unseemly for the president of the strongest nation in the world. And like some of the campaign commercials said, our children are watching. Even if Trump doesn’t manage to trigger a chain reaction that kills all of us, is this the image we want them to grow up with?

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