Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang are rapidly escalating. What is concerning about the escalation of this “war of words” that both countries waging to drum up support for war is that there are significant reasons to assume that this could be the preamble to a real war.
Headlines such as “North Korea ‘begging for war’” blame North Korea for not giving the United States a choice but to go to war. After Trump expressed his willingness to “totally destroy” North Korea and ordered U.S.bombers to fly close to its borders, Pyongyang accused “Trump of declaring war” and threatened to shoot down American planes. Preparations for Trump’s destruction are well underway and a U.S. military general predicted it to be ”horrific”. Ultimately, “Trump’s war of words with Kim Jong Un” could lead the U.S. into a yet another misguided, ineffective, and disastrous war.
I have decided to share my atypical understanding of North Korean’s sole leader Kim Jong Un because such a war could result in unnecessary massive human death and suffering. My experience of living and teaching as a professor in Pyongyang, where I befriended some North Korean elites, gave me a firsthand access to their views about their leader, country, as well as the world. While I do not pretend to be an expert on North Korea, I want to address some of the blind spots that the current media is missing and dissuade it from supporting an unnecessary and disastrous war.
Considering the option of going to war with North Korea is misguided because Washington does not seem to grasp who its enemy is. Is it the North Korean people? Is it the North Korean state apparatus? Is it the North Korean military? In fact, none of these three are the actual enemy that Washington should fight. They are not more than the tools that the enemy is using to play his personal game. This situation arises because North Korea’s political and military power structure is relatively simple at the top: All the power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader, who makes all the important decisions. The decisions to build nuclear weapons and threaten half of the world are no exception to this and, therefore, the leader is the only one who should be held responsible for their consequences. Not the Korean people.
It is so that the enemy that Washington needs to fight is one single person. Not the North Korean people, state, or military. But just one person: the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The way this leader runs his country (yes, it literally belongs to him) can be compared to a more powerful and effective version of how Big Brother runs affairs in George Owell’s 1984 novel. Kim Jong Un’s objective is full control of the North Korean people and resources.
Trump’s belief that Kim Jong Un is a madman “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime…” is fundamentally misguided, because it wrongly assumes that he is unaware of the challenge he is walking into. Also misguided is to threaten him with the US bombing his country back into the Stone Age, simply because Kim Jong Un is not concerned with the suffering that his decisions could cause his people. Evidence of his disregard for his people’s suffering is the fact that he has proactively blocking North Korea’s huge potential to be converted into wellbeing of his people. Consequently, North Koreans have been living in subhuman conditions for over two decades for no other reason than to keep them subservient to their leader. Kim Jong Un’s sole interest is to preserve an absolute grip over North Korea and continue using it literally as his personal playground. And he is willing to sacrifice millions of North and South Koreans in is macabre war game.
Hence, threatening Kim Jong Un with war if he does not abide by the demands of the international community is not only ineffective, but also reinforces his position within North Korea. The threat to cause suffering of the North Korean population with draconian sanctions has been ineffective. Trump’s warning that the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy” North Korea unless it stopping its nuclear tests and missile launches, is not effective either. On the contrary, this is what Kim Un Jun wants to hear. Going to war is an attractive option to the North Korean leader, not a deterrent. It is his game.
Going to war is an option that should not even be considered because it could result in the unnecessary massacre and suffering of millions of innocent people. The war that Trump wants to wage, if the United States or any of its allies are threatened, is one that will “totally destroy North Korea”. Such a war would not only result in the death or suffering of most of the twenty-five million innocent North Koreans, but also in the probable death of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and Japanese, and widespread destruction in their respective countries. Both leaders seem to be right in one thing: accusing each other of being madmen. Unfortunately, they are not mad. They know exactly what they are getting into, Kim Jong Un in particular.
I have to agree with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who argued that the war of words between Trump and Kim Jong Un are “like when children in a kindergarten start fighting“. The difference is that, unlike in a kindergarten, this bellicose rhetoric could spin out of control and result in a massive human disaster. The U.S. leadership should understand that the human suffering that a war could bring to North Korea is not of concern to its leader. On the contrary, he relishes on the thought of confronting the United States. Hence, if the objective of the war is to remove the enemy, it should target him directly, not a not the innocent population of country that has been taken hostage by a leader that considers it as his personal playground. The potential human cost of this ineffective and unnecessary war could be of huge proportions. War is not an option.
Patrik K. Meyer holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Cambridge and currently a Visiting Professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a New America Security Fellow.