Time to get past the impasse: North Korea, the U.S. and nuclear abolition


by Nick Mele

This morning, a friend sent me a political cartoon showing North Korea's Kim Chong Un and US President Donald Trump climbing into a wrestling ring, each wearing costumes that read “The Madman”. That caricature of the conflict between the two nations aptly captures a major flaw in how most Westerners view North Korea, as a rogue nation led by a family whose sanity is doubtful.

In fact, from a North Korean perspective, there is nothing abnormal about the drive to acquire nuclear weapons or the apocalyptic rhetoric voiced at the United Nations and in propaganda broadcasts from Pyongyang. Although North Korea clearly watched closely as Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program in response to U.S. overtures, the North Koreans have been unwavering. The government has  sought a credible nuclear arsenal for decades and seem to be on the verge of developing the ability to send missiles tipped with nuclear warheads across the Pacific Ocean as well as to potential targets in Japan and South Korea. A 2016 book by former military intelligence analyst Robert Daniel Wallace, North Korea and the Science of Provocation, examines hostile words and acts by Pyongyang from the 1960s onward and tries to correlate them with various factors, including domestic tensions within the North. The only strong correlations are with political transitions in South Korea and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Currently, South Korea is experiencing a long and momentous transition following the impeachment and now indictment for corruption of former President Pak Keun Hye; every spring, the U.S. and South Korea hold large scale military exercises that include simulated defense against North Korean invasion and live fire exercises. The U.S. draws on military reserves and units stationed far from Northeast Asia for these exercises.

So, despite the rhetoric and the media focus on an increased risk of nuclear war, there is nothing new in the current situation in Northeast Asia except for the unknown and apparently unknowable intentions of the U.S. Administration, which does not rely on experience or expertise in foreign affairs but does seem to trust retired military hardliners. Even during the Obama Administration, the U.S. “pivot” to Asia heightened tensions throughout the region, especially in Southeast Asian waters where China’s territorial claims conflicted with most of the nations of the Association of South East Asian Nations. In view of the Trumpp Administration’s abrupt changes in its posture, those tensions seem likely to increase, causing further security issues.

From a different perspective, throughout the reigns of the late Kim Il Sung, the late Kim Chong Il and now Kim Chong Un, the North Korean government has indicated that it believes it requires a nuclear arsenal to counter the ever-present threat, as they see it, of a U.S. attack on their country. This sort of logic is exactly what we who work for abolition of nuclear weapons fear, and it was the intention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970, to forestall the spread  of nuclear weapons using that argument as justification. Unfortunately, the then-nuclear powers delayed, and still delay, dismantling all their nuclear weapons. In 1970, five nations possessed nuclear arsenals, today there are nine nuclear powers. The election of a totally inexperienced and apparently unpredictable man—who has questioned why no previous president has resorted to nuclear weapons--to the U.S. presidency increases the risk of what experts euphemistically call a “nuclear exchange” and surely adds to uneasiness about the future in Pyongyang just when North Korea's decades-long effort to develop a credible nuclear capability is on the verge of success.

From its first steps toward developing nuclear weapons, North Korea has consistently demanded two things of the U.S.: assurances there will be no U.S.-led or condoned attack on them and recognition of The People's Republic of Chosun, North Korea's official name, as an independent nation. Although there have been times when the U.S. has seemed inclined to move toward recognition of North Korea, nothing has ever come of such moments. Instead, the two countries have lurched forward locked in an impasse which has grown more tense and potentially more dangerous as the threat of nuclear war has increased. Surely, now is the time for the United States to give North Korea the recognition and acknowledgment it craves in return for mutual nuclear disarmament as part of a global drive to abolish nuclear weapons. Such a move could lead to renewed dialogue in Northeast Asia and give needed impetus to the current global effort to abolish nuclear arms once and for all. 

After twenty five years as a U.S. diplomat, Nick Mele retired to pursue peace outside of government. A faith-based activist, he has worked as a nonviolence trainer for Pax Christi USA; as a founding staff member for the Nonviolent Peaceforce; and as the Pax Christi representative to the Inter-Religious Conference on Article 9, an international group working to reduce militarism and armaments in the Asia-Pacific region.


Nick Mele, North Korea, USA, Nuclear disarmament, nuclear abolition