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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (January 15, 2003)

Pyongyang is the Real Victim

Gregory Clark (Head of Research Japan Office, and Former President of Tama University)

Western and Japanese reactions to North Korea's recent nuclear activities and warnings have been strange.

Pyongyang makes it clear that its main aim is to get a nonaggression treaty with the United States and to revive the dialogue for normalization of relations that was promised in 1994. In that year Pyongyang agreed to mothball its plans for a plutonium-based nuclear-power facility, in exchange for the dialogue and for U.S. cooperation in providing a light-water reactor-based nuclear-power facility.

U.S. foot-dragging on both issues, especially since the arrival of the Bush administration, would normally mean a return to the pre-1994 situation. Pyongyang's gradual escalation of its nuclear announcements would normally be seen as steps to put pressure on the U.S. to go back to the 1994 promises.

But the reaction in the West and Japan has not been normal. Each escalation is denounced as unacceptable nuclear blackmail and further proof of Pyongyang's irrationality.

In one sense Pyongyang has been irrational. It failed to realize the pugnacious, make-my-day irrationality of rightwing policymakers in Washington and Tokyo who are only too happy to find excuses for further anti-North Korean belligerency. It naively assumed there would be a sensible response to its carefully calibrated actions.

Fortunately there have been rational responses from Beijing and from the incoming South Korean regime. Neither want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea. Both realize that Pyongyang's call for dialogue and a treaty should be taken seriously and seek some compromise.

Washington's excuse for ignoring the nonaggression treaty proposal has to be the ultimate in irrationality. It said it would not negotiate under duress. So "duress" consists of being asked to be nonaggressive? One is reminded of Tokyo's famous 1938 refusal to negotiate a ceasefire with China -- a refusal that led ultimately to the Pacific War and Japan's destruction. Tokyo's reasoning was that Chinese armed resistance to Japanese aggression and brutality showed a lack of "sincerity" for a ceasefire.

Some are concerned that Pyongyang's actions indicate determination to develop nuclear weapons. That has yet to be proved. But even if that is so, once again who is responsible? North Korea has already suffered from one U.S. attack -- the 1950 U.S. intervention in the Korean civil war (that it was indeed a civil war rather than North Korean aggression as is commonly claimed is proved by the U.S. statement to the United Nations in October 1950 denying that there had ever been a legal boundary between the two Koreas).

In 1994 it was on the point of having its nuclear facilities bombed by the U.S. In 1998 it suffered a further threat as part of the U.S. effort to prevent rocket development. Last year it found itself branded as a rogue nation and part of the "axis of evil." The U.S. hands out these brandings rather casually. But given its talk about the right to indulge in preemptive warfare and regime change, they can only have one meaning -- that sooner or later the recipients will come under armed U.S. attack. Iraq is the first to suffer. Iran and North Korea may not be far behind.

People under the threat of attack have the right to defend themselves. Remove the threats, and the need for nuclear or other defensive weapons disappears.

Claims that the U.S. would never invade North Korea are plain silly. Of course it would not invade; it would be too afraid of casualties at the hands of North Korea's large and highly indoctrinated army. But it would be very happy to rely on its high-tech bombing abilities to blast a disliked regime into submission, as in Yugoslavia, or obliteration, as in Afghanistan.

U.S. President George W. Bush now says that North Korea's inability to feed its population is yet another reason why it should be opposed. True, Pyongyang's economic errors and cruelties to its people have been many. But one major reason for economic stagnation has been Pyongyang's need to maintain a massive defense capacity to ward off the threat of a U.S. or South Korean attack. Indeed, the need to reduce the burden of a million-man army so that it can feed its population better is probably the main reason for the softening in Pyongyang's attitudes to South Korea and Washington in recent years.

Tokyo has been equally hawkish and irrational over North Korea. It began with the abductee issue, with Pyongyang blamed for the five abductees being unable to reunite with their families when the real problem was Tokyo's broken promise to let the abductees return to North Korea to see their families. Now we have the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Taku Yamasaki, telling us that Japan needs early passage of harsh, emergency-control legislation to cope with the threat of a future attack from North Korea. No mention of the nonaggression treaty that would put an end to that unlikely threat.

Japan's media have done little better. By some curious twist of logic, the rightwing Yomiuri Shimbun was able to tell us that Pyongyang's call for a nonaggression treaty was a clear indication that it had no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons program. Most of the many alarmist media talk-sessions over the New Year about the North Korean "threat" managed to ignore the existence of the treaty offer altogether.

Among some of the more conservative and rightwing media there have even been calls for the U.S. to do something to stop the alarming pacifist trends developing in South Korea. Yet it is just those pacifist trends that provide the one hope for safety and sanity in this part of the world.

(This article originally appeared in the January 10, 2003 issue of The Japan Times)

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