After last week’s momentous meeting of Korean leaders – with North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un coming to the South – it suddenly seemed like Donald Trump was about ready for a Nobel Peace Prize. Peace on the Korean peninsula and, indeed, an official end to the armisticed Korean War is still far away, but both North and South pledged to work towards it and an end to nuclear wars.
The path to actually get to a substantial, stable destination between the two Koreas is rocky, and there have been countless failures before. Just because there was a shaking of hands doesn’t mean that South Korea wants to risk its prosperity by coming together with their atrophied sibling nation. And just because North Korea swears its nuclear program is halted doesn’t mean it is – they’ve used that line many times before and have reportedly been hoping for nukes since the 1960s.
Two Koreas, Two Trumps
Divided up by the US and the USSR in order to discourage the Japanese from picking it back up as a colony, the bisected Korea conflict quickly turned into the Cold War clash and then the war in 1950. Each country thought it boasted the rightful government. Those in the South lucked out. As unfree as South Korea was and even remains today – there are already crackdowns on anything that might endanger the historic meeting – North Korea is nothing less than a dystopian novel come to life.
And yet, goofy presidential boasts and a fear of nuclear doom over the past months of bloviating suddenly turned into general public incredulity at the moving sight of a North Korean leader coming to the South for the first time since 1960.
This is one of the two sides of Trump, the leader who ended the Iran deal on Tuesday. Perhaps he can have it both ways – get that war with Iran that neocons have been dreaming of and be the man who ushered peace into Korea.
Not so fast, however, says Kim. He claims that his country’s “peace offensive,” as one newspaper put it, is his own sincere desire, and the United States’ hardball tactics under Trump were not what softened his stance. South Korean President Moon Jae-In begs to differ and, unsurprisingly, so does Trump.
North Korea Is Poised for Change
Regardless of how much credit Trump or his administration deserves, there are all sorts of reasons why Kim himself might be willing to change. One of which is his relative youth – somewhere around 35 years old – and the fact that he went to Western boarding schools. The other might be the simple fact that technology has not yet busted down the door of the Hermit Kingdom, but it’s given it a good kick thanks to a slow leak of cellphones, some internet, and illicit USBs full of South Korean soaps and information about the outside world.
North Korea has been torturing its citizens for seven decades. They reportedly have concentration camps with conditions that defy language. In the 90s, they suffered from famines that killed millions. President Clinton tried to use a bit of carrot-and-stick in order to give the country aid and to discourage them from pursuing a nuclear program. He also, however, came closer to restarting the war than any American president – stopping it in 1994 with the savvy use of former President Jimmy Carter, who once briefly pledged to remove troops from South Korea.
The rhetorical scuffles between the US and North Korea are too many to mention – George W. Bush’s 2003 declaration that the nation was part of the Axis of Evil is just one – as are the myriad physical clashes between North and South during the last seven decades.
The North were the aggressors in 1950. However, the US also helped to kill a million of them and publicly considered using nukes. The conflict may be the Forgotten War to us – we can’t even remember our own soldiers who died – but it’s not to North Koreans.
War Is a Special Kind of Arrogance
In 1951, four years after the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, and a year after the United States jumped into the war, Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read wrote a lovely little theoretical dialogue called “Conscience on the Battlefield.” The essay is an imaged talk between a dying American soldier in Korea and his better self who scolds and teaches him what he missed in life, that governments – and even individual soldiers – are not let off the moral hook simply because they follow orders, or because they act under the banner of some great cause. In short, “Whatever is immoral for you as a person is immoral for a number of persons. Virtue is a quality solely of the individual. Multiplication of individuals does not change virtue’s definition.”
Unfortunately, the entirety of society follows this lie, and the biggest lie with the most direct stakes of life and death is war. Not noble, not right, Read notes, it’s a murderous fraud unless it’s based on self-defense – and no, preemptive strikes against communism or truly authoritarian states don’t count and are, indeed, sure to fail.
Read doesn’t just advocate for peace on moral grounds, but gets in plenty of “I, Pencil”-worthy critiques of central planning. War – often the kind with high-minded, “humanitarian” ideals – is the most damaging type of this arrogance. Washington, DC, can’t make sensible laws for Austin, Texas; where did we get the notion that it can bend a foreign population to its will?
Support for the Korean War fluctuated, depending on the current successes of the war or lack thereof. There was the grant confidence at the start, then regret (something familiar to those of us who have lived half our lives under the War on Terror), and eventually satisfaction after the Armistice was signed.
Above All, Seek Peace
Today, though both Koreas have always sworn they were the real government, the North has been more in favor of coming back together. Millennial South Koreans are skittish about reunification. Their elders are heavily in support of it. It’s understandable to be fearful of working with Kim. It’s also a risk worth taking. North Korea may have the support of China, but they’ve spent their entire post-Soviet life with their national back to the wall. That makes them nervous and aggressive. Nukes are a good insurance against getting the Saddam or the Gaddafi treatment from the US and in bringing back just a little of that Soviet-esque power. However, they’re also a potential threat to the continued existence of humanity.
Maybe, just maybe, Kim would trade nukes for a place on the world stage and the respect the isolated nation craves. Maybe he knows the world is going to get in one day, and he’d rather be praised as a reformer than given the Ceausescu treatment.
It’s foolishly optimistic to think so, but then, so is believing that a distant government can tear down another and rebuild it in a foreign land perfectly, with no consequences, moral, practical, or otherwise. US foreign policy for the past century has been foolish and deadly – a different track is long overdue, even if it won’t quiet the ghosts of American arrogance. Read wrote, “Forever, it seems, people proposing force as a means to eliminate force!”
It’s never too late to try a different method. The Soviet Union crumbled, the Berlin Wall fell, and utopia didn’t result, but constraints on human progress lessened.
Peace is a journey, not a destination. Friendly trade and free travel require no mandates from above, no grand plans, just a small gamble on the fact that most people, no matter their flaws, would rather live than die in war. If Trump, even accidentally, plays some part in lessening the chances of a catastrophe in Korea, all of us should celebrate and hope. Leonard Read certainly would.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag. This originally appeared at the Foundation for Economic Education.