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Eco-Justice Notes
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Accepting North Korea
distributed 8/11/17 - ©2017

The rapidly escalating news this week forces me to state the obvious. By any standards of ethics -- including eco-justice -- nuclear war is unconscionable.

And yet, the possibility of such a conflagration rises with the verbal sparring between North Korea and the United States, and their threatened military deployments.

This morning, the US President tweeted, "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely."

The situation -- inflamed by two unpredictable leaders -- is changing at a rapid pace.

An important article in the July/August edition of The Atlantic (which has done much to inform my perspectives), was probably written three months ago. At the start of the article is a statement that North Korea will have the capability to build an ICBM with a nuclear warhead "before Donald Trump completes one four-year term." This week, strategic analysts announced that North Korea has already reached that point.

Bluffing and brinksmanship are exceptionally dangerous, and probably reckless, with these high stakes.

I'm not an expert in military strategy or international diplomacy. (That's an obvious understatement!) As one who does try to bring thoughtful ethics to bear on complicated issues, though, I do think it is important to highlight some major considerations.

My comments today will not be comprehensive, even though they are longer than usual. I do hope that they can stimulate informed conversation.

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It is hard to understand North Korea. It is self-isolated (I saw it called a "hermit" nation), governed by a hereditary string of ruthless leaders who claim to be divinely inspired. To outsiders, the Kim regime can appear crazy.

Understanding the nation's dynamics requires a historical perspective. Briefly, Korea had been part of the Japanese Empire through the first half of the 20th century. After World War II, "two young aides at the [US] State Department divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied the area north of the line and the United States occupied the area to its south." Dictatorships emerged in both countries, with ongoing border conflicts. An attack from the north led to the "exceptionally bloody" Korean War, which ended with an armistice in 1953. North Korea does not acknowledge that the war has ever legally ended.

The US maintains a strong military presence in South Korea, and joins with the South Korean military in annual "war games." The next round of those joint exercises are scheduled to begin in less than 10 days. North Korea's anxiety about being invaded, and their naming of the US as a primary threat, has a strong historical basis.

Korean expert James Person said, "there is a credible defensive rationale to this nuclear program that they have been developing since the 1960s. What the program is designed to do, in the North Koreans' mind, is to ensure their security and make sure they're not attacked."

Political scientist Reid Pauly, who researches nuclear strategy, said in the same article, "American power in the Western Pacific is not in doubt in Pyongyang. What is in doubt is the credibility of American and allied pledges not to intervene in North Korea. Until that fundamental security assurance is made credible, expect Kim to hang on to his nuclear deterrent."

North Korea has long maintained an overwhelming array of conventional weapons, including chemical and biological ones. The addition of nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US can be seen as a form of active deterrence directed toward a powerful nation that they see as an aggressor.

With an awareness of that history and perspective, Mr. Trump's unprecedented rhetoric of "fire and fury" and a military that is "locked and loaded" have to be seen as profoundly destabilizing.

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Mark Bowden's article in The Atlantic, "The Worst Problem on Earth", examines four broad strategic options that are available to the US in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program. He admits that "all of them are bad."

The first on his list, "prevention," calls for a crushing military strike to destroy North Korea's military capabilities, and take out the nation's leadership. It is almost certain that such an attack would trigger retaliatory strikes against South Korea and Japan, killing millions of civilians within days.

Option two, "turning the screws," calls for a limited strike that would degrade North Korea's power, but leave Kim in power. There is a very high probability that the North would not see this as "limited," and retaliation would escalate rapidly into full war. In the face of a first attack, North Korea might perceive a "use it or lose it" situation for their nuclear weapons, where they'd be inclined toward first use of atomic power.

Option three, "decapitation," would target Kim Jong Un for assassination, and overthrow his dynasty. Because of the absolute hold that the Kim regime has had on the nation for generations, there is no alternative leadership to step into the power vacuum. The situation would be far worse than what we saw with the US toppling of Iraq's government. Political chaos, the emergence of regional warlords, and massive suffering would follow.

For decades, US presidents and military leaders have recognized that any military intervention in North Korea is so likely to spiral out of control that it cannot be considered as a viable or responsible option.

Thus, Bowden describes the fourth option, "acceptance." The US, and the international community, must recognize that North Korea as a full-scale nuclear power is "a done deal." In light of the news this week about functional nuclear missiles being in place in North Korea, that's even more pertinent. The international community can hardly ask the North to stop development of missiles and weapons when those are now functional.

This acceptance seems like a radical step, but Bowden writes, "The world is already accustomed to dealing with a North Korea capable of sowing unthinkable mayhem."

North Korea has not used its vast military power, especially against South Korea, because they know that such an attack would bring swift annihilation. The same logic holds with nuclear weapons. For the small country of North Korea, a nuclear exchange -- especially with the US -- would completely destroy North Korea without fatally harming the other side. There is nothing to be gained by North Korea launching a nuclear attack. It can only be seen as a defensive stance.

Bowden writes, "perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal or crazy. ... And as the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations, one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?"

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The escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States must be defused, and quickly. Some form of "acceptance" will have to be involved.

I don't believe that Donald Trump is willing, or capable, of taking that step. Here is one option that might work.

The leader of some other nation that is deeply involved in this controversy needs to step in. It could, perhaps, come for South Korea or from China. A statement like the following could be made.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has become a full member of the small group of nations with nuclear weapons. They are now able to deliver a nuclear warhead far beyond their borders. The international community has long sought to prevent nuclear proliferation. We wish those efforts to keep this power out of North Korea's hands had succeeded. However, North Korea now has that capability, and we need to deal with that new reality.

Therefore, we call on Kim Jong Un and other North Korean leaders to assume the responsibility that comes with such power. You are now a significant player on the world stage, and you must act the part. You must not make irresponsible threats about the use of your weapons, especially in a "first strike" capacity. You must engage as an active member of the diplomatic community.

We have been disturbed and frightened by the rapidly escalating rhetoric and threats coming from both the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the United States of America. We call on both of these nuclear powers to step back from words and actions that endanger the entire world. Heightened tensions and outright conflict do not serve the interests of either country, and they certainly do not serve Earth's international community. We call on Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un to step back from their brinksmanship, to scale back their threats, to listen to the counsel of other nations, and to live into new reality of North Korea as a nuclear power.

The acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power is a very long way from the biblical hope of nations beating their swords into plowshares. This is more weapons in the world, not less. But such an acceptance of nuclear deterrence appears to be the only way to avoid a catastrophic confrontation that could easily turn into an exchange of atomic weapons.

I pray that Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, their advisors, the international community, and all of us, find the wisdom and grace to step back, admit new realities, and chart a new course toward global stability.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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