Only the Koreans can end their conflict

November 23, 2010


For a generation, the arc of international events has been mainly positive — the Cold War concluded, the Germanys reunited, apartheid is over. But a few conflicts refuse to end, and one became worse today as North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire, killing two South Korean soldiers. It’s not yet clear how the incident began. Presumably the United States, which has substantial forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam, is at the moment watching closely.

South Korea is prosperous, reasonably free, a budding democracy, and supported by the most powerful government on earth. North Korea is impoverished, repressed and alone. Nearly all North Koreans would benefit immensely if the wall separating their country and South Korea was the world’s next wall to tumble. So why does the conflict between these two states refuse to end?

North Korea is the last truly closed society. The old Soviet Union, and then Mao’s China, were able to keep their populations cowed by blocking nearly all outside information, then depicting the larger world as a nightmarish place. Once Russians of the 1970s and 1980s, and Chinese of the 1970s and 1980s, knew what the larger world was like, the clock began to tick on their nations’  dictatorships. Today’s global information flow is far from ideal, but North Korea is the last nation in which the average person takes a big risk by trying to find out what’s happening in the world. This allows North Korea to be the last secret-police state, and means little internal pressure against its corrupt, paranoid autocracy.

North Korea needs endless conflict for its ruling family to stay in power. Both Germanys wanted their conflict to end. South Korea wants the Koreas conflict to end. The United States, Russian Federation, China and Japan want the Koreas conflict to end. Kim Jong-Il does not want the conflict to end — without it, he and his son would be tossed from power. Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think Hamas) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.

There was no Korean War treaty. A 1954 armistice stopped the shooting, but no peace treaty ever was signed. This is deceptively important. Even former dictatorships, such as imperial Japan, respected the peace treaties they signed: while international agreements including the 1975 Helsinki Accords, on human rights, helped begin to dissolve the old Soviet system. No peace treaty to tie the knot on the Korean War exists, and the belligerents have long since stopped trying for one. This means no liberalizing treaty requirements bind Pyongyang, while the fact that the state of war technically never closed helps Kim Il-sung, and now Kim Jong-Il, maintain an internal condition of xenophobia.

The United States didn’t keep its word. The 1994 “Agreed Framework,” basically a very fancy memo, said North Korea would stop trying to make weapons-grade fissile materials in return for large amounts of oil (basically, foreign aid) from the United States and U.S. financing of a light-water power reactor (the civilian kind that generates electricity but doesn’t have much military value). Washington did not follow through, and after George W. Bush in 2002 proclaimed North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” the agreement essentially expired. Subsequent hot air from Washington, from Republicans and Democrats alike, has lacked credibility in Pyongyang.

(North Korea continues to try to build a light-water nuclear reactor on its own; probably this isn’t threatening, but since North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty after Bush began shaking his fist at Pyongyang, it’s hard to be sure. The centrifuges North Korea recently showed to a Stanford University professor might be for civilian power — but on-site inspectors are the only way to verify that.)

North Korea is not involved in international trade. Say what you will about globalization, in almost every case, it has made nations more open. At least since the Leipzig Trade Fair, which began nearly a thousand years ago, trade has caused different cultures to learn about each other, fear each other less, and generally, been a liberalizing force. Because hardly any nations do business with North Korea, nothing dilutes its xenophobia.

Family rule. Dictatorship based on lineage was the norm across the world during the Dark Ages, and in Europe as recently as the 19th century. Now it has vanished in most of the world — but still thrives in North Korea. Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, had the title Eternal Leader and remains, on paper, the head of state. Kim Jong-Il possessed just one qualification for office — he was  Kim Il-sung’s son. Kim Jong-un possesses only one known qualification — he is the son of Kim Jong-Il.

Not only does the crooked ruling family live in extreme luxury while North Koreans starve: here is a satellite view of Kim Jong-Il’s mansion, plus water slide.

Family political rule based on oppression is essentially organized crime (think Cuba). But the awful reality of family rule in North Korea will not be changed by international action. North Korean patriots must be the ones to end it.

Nor can the United States, or the United Nations, or the six-party apparatus resolve the Koreas conflict. Only the Koreans themselves — North and South — can accomplish that. But a useful first step would be meaningful engagement with Pyongyang. Decades of bluster haven’t accomplished anything, as today’s events show.

Photo caption: Soldiers from the South Korean Army and Marine Corps take part in an annual river-crossing exercise against a possible attack from North Korea on the Han river in Yeoju, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Seoul, November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak


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Yes of course, its all the fault of the U.S. |p
Give me a friggin break… The reason the U.S. “didn’t keep its word” was because North Korea kept building missles and trying to get weapons grade nuclear material.
They also keep continued to test the world with missle launches (tests) at the South and Japan.

North Korea is alone Except for China.
China allows Kim Jong-II to rule however he sees fit and supplies enough aid to keep him in power, as long as he acts as its puppet.

Posted by Homeboy65 | Report as abusive

Only God can pass the judgement but I can’t help but believe there is a special place in hell reserved for Kim Jong II unless he reverses course.

It’s unfathomable to believe any leader can be so drunk with power they would consciously choose to live in posh luxury while allowing it’s citizens to be repressed and starved.

Posted by DVM | Report as abusive

It certainly is hard to understand the world’s position on the unacceptability of Iranian nukes, but somehow North Korea’s nukes go unchallenged. The North will continue to provide plenty of justification for a war that would take them down, but we keep declining the offers. Why should Iran take us seriously? What is Japan thinking, in it’s position as a sitting duck, much more immediately threatened than Israel is by Iran.

Posted by RonWa | Report as abusive

Yes, yes, yes, let the ROK handle this. The U.S. is hamstrung militarily. Troops in Iraq, more in Afghanistan, most front line soldiers on their fourth and fifth combat tours. We can’t deal with another shooting without activating the draft. Yes, I said DRAFT. Did I just hear a shudder go through Gen-Y? Hey, maybe the draft wouldn’t be such a bad thing. It would give the boomerang kids something to do. Get them out of mom and dad’s house. It might even help them pay off their student loans. But this would only apply to those kids who weren’t too fat to fight.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

They need a community organizer over there to foment revolution, hopefully they will get one who believes in a democracy!

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Frankly, the entire country is suffering at the hands of his regime, most of which are presumably innocent. Maybe someone ought to put a bounty on his head, payable to the first NK citizen who takes care of the job, along with free citizenship.

Kim Jong-Il is a disgrace to the human race – I would spit on his grave if given the chance.

Posted by somethingtosay | Report as abusive

Here’s an interesting question: why doesn’t China do more to get Kim Jong Il out of power? If China was really interested in world peace and promoting stability, why then do they allow KJI to remain so belligerent? They could easily tell him to stop doing what he is doing or they will cut off all aid and yet they do nothing.

China is the world’s greatest future threat.

Posted by MetaVita | Report as abusive

Homeboy is right. C’mon Reuters. It’s time for China and Russia to do the right thing and help the north into the 21st century. Get rid of the failed system and the cruel and despotic dynasty.

Posted by John-B | Report as abusive

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Hickerson, Dan Johnson. Dan Johnson said: Great article about the Korean conflict via @MikeRMoore […]

Posted by Tweets that mention Only the Koreans can end their conflict | Analysis & Opinion | — | Report as abusive

Who would argue against the South for asking China to join their defense exercise? A Pyrrhic victory party always needs someone else to pay the bill. 28k Americans need paid to stand between cousins just like we did in Germany. No one will need war if the rest of the neighbors had to pay the bill. China sholdn’t fear US control of unified Korea. They should help rebuild the house and be a good (profitable) neighbor. They could take credit for saving millions of lives. Their influence would spread with their goodwill. Japan can’t complain, they don’t play Risk. Maybe Syria, Iran, Venezuela and others would have to find friends/nukes somewhere else. Russian centrifuges, Chinese minerals and US debt..I mean defense.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

“Homeboy” — might I suggest you try actually reading articles before commenting on them. At no point does Gregg Easterbrook say, or even imply, that “its all the fault of the U.S.” (Nice misplacement of the apostrophe in “it’s,” too. Dude, before you criticize professional writers, learn to punctuate.) Had you actually read what was written, you would have seen that he places the vast majority of the blame for Korea’s division on North Korea’s lunatic and nepotistic dictatorship, and cites only one wrong move by the U.S. government.

That same government that Easterbrook takes to task is the one that builds and launches those missiles you cite. So the article you’re condemning is basically taking the same side you are. And you wonder why you have no friends.

Posted by RayAnselmo | Report as abusive

Japan had little choice to comply with the treaty they signed. They were militarily defeated and signed an unconditional surrender! Our first mistake – and the harbinger of almost all of our “wars” since – was to settle for less than total victory and unconditional surrender. Our military is trained to destroy the enemy, yet the moronic politicians and media try to make policemen out of them, and conduct exercises in determining “civilian” casualties – unbelieveable in light of the fact that ALL of our enemies kill civilians as a matter of course not consequence! We’re idiots!

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Perhaps the real reason China permits North Korea to push the limits toward the use of nuclear weapons is that the effect of such a conflict would spill over into China and kill a number of it over-populated citizenry. The Chinese government would be held blameless for the loss of life and the Koreas & of course, the West would then share in the blame…Maybe it’s about population control of the continent…without the backlash of the people. Instead of blaming their government, they would rally behind them against the foreigners…xenophobia + nationaism = unity behind the Chinese leadership.

Posted by jhwrr1 | Report as abusive

It was a good article until you get to the untruths like the US didn’t keep its word. How about holding them accountable for what they didn’t do which caused the US to stop suppling them with free oil and food. I didn’t see anything about them not holding down their end of the bargain. No more shake downs from murderous dictators. It time to start holding these commies to the same standard that you expect from the United States

Posted by vonvondavont | Report as abusive

As the title says, only the koreans can end their conflicts. the US should back out. their involvement in this is the only reason why it will never end. don’t even blame the North’s regime for their starving citizen. how can their people move beyond poverty when there is an embargo led by the US? obviously the embargo is not affecting the regime but the innocent people. the North has every right to a preemptive attack on the South for aggression. would you like it if China or Russia decides to hold war game exercises in international waters just off California?

Posted by tinga | Report as abusive

Why does America have thousands of troops in South Korea and Japan? These are highly advanced countries and therefore capable of defending themselves. This is the basic question: Why should every square inch of this earth should be considered as part of “national security ” of this country? Does being policeman of the world help us working people of this country? Hell, no. It serves big business and military-industrial complex. Working people of this country have no squabbles with people of the World. The powers to be that run this country (not the facade) do.

Posted by rightofreturn | Report as abusive

2 millions of Koreans living in China compared to 20,000 of North Koreans in China. Do anyone know why China is hosting these refugees?

For the posting to be posted, first one must write something bad about China since most of the readers hate that country. Reuters should just have a special column/blog to write and promote hatred for China.

Posted by MarcusSchultz | Report as abusive

It’s China’s fault of keeping Kim Jong-II in power. Almost all North Korean people are in hunger while their Leaders having luxury breakfast in his multi million homes. Why can’t just bomb where Kim Jong-II lives and end of conflict.

Posted by PRINCECOOL | Report as abusive

Ahhhh… The Cornered Angry Dog Lashes out again…. Don’t you get it.. North Korea is the Cornered,Hungry, Angry Dog Forced into a Corner by it’s Backwards “Family Rulers” and The rest of the world represents “freedom, Food,democracy, etc… Can’t give the NK People a whiff of that.. Now Can we… Why… Because they’d Lap it up faster that a Hungry Puppy…!!!

Who’d next on Kim’s “HIT” parade..? Japan? China.

Be Careful what you wish for. If you “off the Family you’ll create a vacuum that Must be filled and Since the People of NK only know dictatorship rule (like Iraq did) forming a Government will be super tough… People who have never tasted “freedom” must be given direction otherwise the corruption,disease, poverty will win.

The Writer is Correct, This is a Grand oportunity for South Korea to Invite and Foster and even “Escort” the North in the 21 Century. I suggest they Find a way to do it. Angry Dogs are eager for Food, Warmth, Shelter, and Some Love.

The Future Awaits. Don’t Let CHINA do the worlds dirty work. unless you want CHINA to Absorb North Korea into it’s Land mass, people, and communistic ways.

Posted by Pangaea7 | Report as abusive

Why doest the US have thousands of troops in SK and Japan?
-The answer is: result of Korean War, and WW2.
Why the US defend SK?
-Because SK is US’s ally, so is Japan.
Why China doesnt stop NK?
-NK will help China do “stuffs” that the Chinese cant do, ex: attack US.

If NKorea has Nuclear Bomb, then who will be their first target?

Posted by RFRichard | Report as abusive

Quote:”The U.S. or the United Nations can’t resolve the Koreas conflict. Only the Koreans themselves can accomplish that.”

Can you hear the people of Iraq and AfPak laugh? They are not allowed to solve their conflicts themselves – they have been illegally forced to accept the US killing machine.

Quote: “Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think Hamas) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.

The reporter’s hypocrisy here is just staggering – it really should read: “Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc.) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.

In the meantime the military base at Diego Garcia is getting ready for a new war in Iran.

The US only picks easy targets to demonstrate its worldwide hegemony while the real trouble makers, armed with nuclear weapons are abandoned to resolve their own conflicts.

And the obliging media does all the loud barking.

Posted by 1968Ford | Report as abusive

As someone has already pointed out Mr Easterbrook does not blame the US for the problems in Korea.
However I believe that the US is to blame. The US has 20,000 troops and nuclear weapons aimed at North Korea and has done this for 50 years. No wonder the North Koreans are crazy someone holding a gun to your head will send you crazy. Eventually the crazies will say what the hell better to die on your feet than live on your knees. How many Americans will they kill before the US wipes them out? they might just be waiting for the carrier to get within range.

Why does the US think it has the right to threaten and invade basically the whole world.
Go home to America and threaten your own people leave the world alone.
The US has turned to the darkside and just loves starting wars with little countries, but is to scared to take on the bigger nations who can fight back.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

I’m a South Korean who live in Seoul,now
We had given many things to North Korea,but they attacted us.
I worried about my younger brother who is in the army,now
I hope that this incident(the attack) will solve as soon as possible,It is a big problem.

Posted by CharmingEileen | Report as abusive

This author is another blame America first clown. He insists the US broke its word in 2002 and stopped shipping oil aid to North Korea in exchange for ending their development of on fissile materials.

In late 2002 and early 2003, North Korea began to take steps to eject International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors while re-routing spent fuel rods for plutonium reprocessing for weapons purposes. Of course, Bush declared North Korea a member of the axis of evil after determining that North Korea was cheating on its promise it made in 1994. The author, of course, fails to mention this fact and instead blames the US for not “keeping its word”. Come on!

Posted by ironman_az_3 | Report as abusive

It is true that only the Koreans can end the Peninsular’s conflict. To a certain extent the Korean conflict provides the US a military reach to Russia and especially China, considering that the South Koreans had to make place for US military bases plus maybe having to put up some half a billion USD to fund US operations there. China is not necessarily that keen on funding the North Korean regime that provides a zero return investment. What guarantees the Chinese have that the North Koreans will not fire at them one day? In any case China does not need North Korea for her defence/buffer (without a buffer China’s exclusive zone can be indirectly wider under a unified Korea) since she is not an enemy to the entire Koreans and that she has sufficient artillery to defend herself directly against any nation nor does China depends on North Korea for her economic progress. Hence a peaceful totally deneuclearised Korean Peninsular serves China’s interest the same way it does Japan’s. China has been pursuing co-operation with the Koreans and Japanese for a long time. But there could be an adversed impact on the US as there will be strong potential that eventually US will lose a critical externally financed forward military base. Should US lose her military base in South Korea, there can be real pressure from the Japanese for US’ withdrawal from Japan as well which means a probable total annihilation of US’ Global Strategy in the Pacific. Thus how US’ interests can be secured, remain competitive against the Russians and Chinese and avoid adverse impact requires deep thought.

Posted by Aishe | Report as abusive

It’s rather simple.

China does not want a “normal” North Korea, as it would quickly join South Korea. A powerful Korea, possibly pro-West, would be a major inconvenience to China.

As far as US goes, righttofreturn made it clear already.

(Russia/Japan are pretty irrelevant with respect to this issue, for the time being. It’s just a China/US game.)

The winner is, of course, the Kim dynasty. Losers: north-Korean people and Korean people in general.

Posted by torion | Report as abusive

The British ruled the world once and used gun boat diplomacy to further their aims. Eventually they went broke. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on schools for your children.
Why is it so important for the US to intimidate North Korea?
The South Koreans want to kiss and make up but the US will not allow this why?

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

First appropriate article title for this conflct I’ve seen. Mostly there is a lot of US warmongering and ignorant statements from the likes of Admiral Mullen who wonders why China is not doing more to control North Korea. No wonder we are getting in deeper all over the wolrd with great thinkers like him in charge. Admiral, the Chinese will never be the bully boy for the US in Asia. To think otherwise is a dangerous fantasy.

Only the Koreas can resolve their problems and the US should butt out as we are only providing cover for the South to gin up the conflict.

Posted by JoeBoston | Report as abusive

US and China should not be involved in Korean domestic matters ,South and North. It’s their civil war and let them iron out the differences.

Posted by bkhjon | Report as abusive

A promise is a promise is a promise. US should have delivered its promise of sending fuel to NK. Perhaps none of the current conflict would have happened.

Posted by bkhjon | Report as abusive

First off. NK has the most powerful big guns in the world. their artillery can rain down on SK 500,000 shells an hour and hit south of soul. including chemical weapons. Most if not all of their air force is underground with multiple exits. They have an estimated 100 nuke warheads. And if this isn’t enough they will kill off half their population and call for a cease fire and when they do china will insist on it and NK will have come out ahead of the game. Less mouths to feed, killing hundreds of thousands SK an US men and women and still have the ability to function and build it’s war machine again. It’s a win win for them. I don’t want to live like this. I would rather die then live in fear. It’s time to knock them down a few notches. They are forcing us to fight whether we want to or not. Be prepared and let’s try to wipe out the gov and maybe giving the rest of NK to find freedom.

Posted by belizecares | Report as abusive

Nice try, Gregg, but “Only the Koreans can end their conflict” is just not the way the world works today. As you very well know, the U.S. has a defense pact with South Korea which we certainly will honor. The U.S. Army’s 2nd Division is stationed just below the DMZ, and I can assure they are not going to back up one inch. So, nothing can be more clear than that somebody on the north side of that line had better take a real hard look in the mirror before it gets all broken up, an event that can be avoided by prudent foresight.

Posted by bobbydigits | Report as abusive

Some authors will bend over backwards to place blame on the US. Witness Easterbrook’s assertion that the “US didn’t keep its word.” Now I know you’re not THAT ignorant. NK vowed to Pres. Clinton to stop enriching uranium (the 1994 agreement). But then they proceeded to build a plutonium bomb. Just how does that constitute the US breaking its word? You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Easterbrook.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

@tinga: You represent the epitomy of ignorance. NK maintains a large number of prison camps where entire families are sent for saying even remotely disparaging things about the regime. NK uses hunger as a weapon against its own people, keeping them on the brink of starvation intentionally to keep them in line. This is well documented. How dare you blame the US for the plight of the North Korean people? You’ll seek any ridiculous excuse to make the US appear evil while true evil is staring you in the face

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Pretty sure North Korea = China in the different names of one country, or a military branch & a lapdog.

Posted by hsr0601 | Report as abusive

It is America’s fault for keeping North Korean dictators on their throne. Has anyone ever thought of that? I read so many comments blaming China but I find these comments shallow. None of those commentators gave a thought to what happened during the Korean War, how China became involved and how because of China’s involvment, there is a stalemate and the resulting 2 Koreas. It is because American troops came too close to Chinese border. You Americans threw out the Spaniards from the New World and stopped anymore empire builders from the Old World coming over. Now you do not understand why the Chinese is wary of you and supports a belligerent North Korean regime, however unfortunate. You have China surrounded with troops in Japan, S Korea, Taiwan. How do you think China feels with its only friend in N Asia.
Whilest China and the US should have hands off and let the Koreas solve their own problems and hopefully reunite, S Korea needs a powerful friend due to the recent spate of events. You cannot, however, leave out China if you want N korea ostracised and punished. You need to engage China and communicate to China you are not a threat. You can only hope China does not feel threatened and eventually dump N Korea.

Posted by mwsoo | Report as abusive

if you plant anger, then you will reap anger. Only those with kind heart can harvest the peace. i wish, if only i can hope..that the conflict between them will settle so the young generations of both Sk and Nk will live in peace, and of course the future leaders of both country will lead intelligently with a just heart of leadership.
we can only help by praying…

Posted by starapple77 | Report as abusive