During further escalation of tensions between the United States and North Korea, pundits and other experts are trying to figure out what was behind the false information on the U.S. carrier group allegedly heading to the Korean Peninsula to send a strong signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Neither willful deception of the American people by the President and other top administration officials or utter ignorance about the course of an entire aircraft carrier group are comforting at times of heightened tensions between nuclear armed U.S. and North Korea.
The “carrier group incident,” however, distracts from a much more important issue. The current debate revolves around different war scenarios, pre-emptive strikes, and other military coercive measures – all destructive responses that would be catastrophic. It is time for the public and its servants – our elected officials – to get away from the pretense that there are no alternatives to projecting and using military force, when indeed there are many constructive responses. This matters greatly, because a study has shown that there is a proven decline in public support for war when the alternatives come to light. Philip Yun, Executive Director of the Ploughshares Fund, noted that “there are only lousy options on the Korean Peninsula.” That should be an even greater incentive to become more serious about leaving the “military solution” mindset behind. The following five principles are an attempt to raise awareness of some necessary broad shifts in approaching the situation.
1. Engagement with the adversary through multiple levels of diplomacy. If there is a lack of trust as we see between North Korea and the U.S., so-called Track II diplomacy – unofficial mediators without carrots or sticks – can encourage parties to start examining win-win solutions.
2. Looking at what works. Suzanne Di Maggio, Senior Fellow at New America, suggest that we take lessons from Iran to engage North Korea. The so-called Iran Nuclear Deal is an example of hard diplomatic efforts that led to an agreement which is widely considered successful. While the context between Iran and North Korea is quite different, the fact that hostile nations were able to generate agreements on a certain issue demonstrates that diplomacy works.
3. Respect the other. Even in geopolitics, respect for the adversary matters. This has nothing to do with personal likeability, but with workable relationships between adversaries. Any immediate de-escalation of tension and future vision of improving the situation on the Korean Peninsula cannot take place without some sort of recognition and respect. The U.S. and North Korea must start regarding each other as legitimate and responsive to each other to move from tit-for-tat to problem-solving approaches to the conflict.
4. Humanizing the other. Let’s be honest. When thinking about North Korea we see the face of Kim Jong Un and big, threatening military parades showcasing an evil “outlaw” country in the international community – “we are good, they are bad.” One of the most important things we need to do in conflicts is to humanize the other, more specifically 25 million “others” who make up the population of North Korea. While it is hard to actually meet and talk to “the other” in North Korea, we have seen successful citizen-diplomacy initiatives in the context of U.S.-Russian tensions in the past and present.
5. Focus on interests, not positions. One of the key mistakes people in conflict make is to focus on the positions – what we want, what the other wants. Those “wants” do not define what the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea is about. We need to engage in an arduous process of identifying the real needs, concerns and fears. While I am by now means supportive of a nuclear armed North Korea, and for that matter any nuclear weapons on earth, I ask the reader to consider North Korea’s perception that the nuclear program is what keeps the regime alive.
This is by no means a comprehensive analytical framework or a step-by-step guide on how to deal with the escalating tension in the Korean Peninsula. However, this is an attempt to open the space for the public to engage with each other and their elected officials to examine options that are frequently drowned out by “beltway experts.” These principles are a few of the many viable options that focus on engagement, not military coercion. If coercion is necessary, sanctions based on international solidarity and shared condemnation are non-military coercive measures that can lead countries to diplomatic negotiations.
More importantly though, state leaders, generals, experts, intellectuals, and many more state that there is no military solution, while they never question the military components and always include war as a tool to achieve peace. We should not debate what on earth is going on with Trump’s powerful armada sailing in different directions and making the North Korean regime fear that a preemptive attack or even a decapitation strike is imminent. We need to focus on real war prevention and set out on a path that is not informed by some naive pacifism, but by rigorous analysis of nonviolent alternatives without a so-called military option as part of the picture. In an era of an unrestrained, brute-force displaying, twitter-happy U.S. President, it is even more important to take on these issues outside of the beltway, so that elected officials hear from their constituents that they demand alternatives to yet another war. We can follow Institute for Policy Studies Phyllis Bennis’s advice to invigorate the peace movement by integrating the opposition to Trump’s wars and warmongering, into the very core of the many movements rising so powerfully against the destructive Trump agenda.