This past week has seen South Korea and North Korea engage in friendly overtures not seen in recent history, amid discussions over North Korea’s possible participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
While that may seem a small or routine issue, it is nonetheless the first official dialogue the two countries have engaged in for over two years and comes amid what has been an extremely tense past few months with North Korea’s ballistic missile testing.
It even raises for a brief moment the long-pondered yet seemingly impossible prospect of a new status quo on the Korean peninsula, which has seen little movement or progress of any meaningful sort since the close of the Korean War’s open hostilities in 1953.
If history is any guide, it is unlikely anything will change. Every so often over the decades North Korea will engage in dialogue with South Korea or even America, but it is almost always with a material motive fundamentally in mind. These objectives range from gaining legitimacy internationally, seeking a reduction of sanctions, or food aid for its people as during the 1990’s horrific famine that came about as a result of state mismanagement.
The situation on the Korean peninsula has floated in and out of the news cycle these past few months amid the ballistic tests but also Tweets and “rocket man” UN speeches. Nonetheless, it remains a serious dilemma because there are no easy solutions or even meaningfully divergent options.
It’s almost like our Cold War with the Soviet Union, albeit of course on a much smaller scale. With the Soviet Union there was little we could do directly against them, as the principle of mutually assured destruction prevented overt action. Instead, proxy conflicts were waged in third party nations across the world.
Of course North Korea doesn’t have remotely the international tentacles or might the Soviet Union did, but nonetheless it is similar in that there is little direct action that can be done on the peninsula and which is why the situation has remained deadlocked for almost 70 years.
North Korea remains a highly militarized society with its artillery batteries all aimed at Seoul. Military analysts say that has been their biggest deterrent, as the civilian casualties from such an attack would be quick and horrifying.
Now that North Korea has increasingly developed its nuclear capabilities the worry is even greater, especially as their missiles slowly extend in range to even begin to touch the United States.
As President Trump has said, America can “totally destroy” North Korea, Of course, that is without question. North Korea remains an impoverished and small state where all activity is directed to supporting its overly large military. Nonetheless given their focus on military deterrence, the costs could be heavy, either for South Korea, Japan, or even America.
The only hoped-for solutions might be similar to how many other totalitarian regimes in the past half-century have fallen, which is through internal regime change. The nations of the Eastern bloc seemed like impenetrable Orwellian fortresses for decades until they seemingly collapsed from the wind overnight.
North Korea is however different than Warsaw Pact Communist states or the Soviet Union, as it has taken its totalitarian control to even greater extremes that prevent even the slightest air of dissent from gaining a critical mass to threaten to the regime.
Even those in the regime’s power structure are constantly kept on watch, recycled, or terminated by a tyranny that has seemingly stamped out every ounce of humanity in the name of keeping control.
President Trump has indicated he is continuing to try to seek solutions for the situation on the Korean peninsula and the South Korea-North Korea talks continue for the moment.
As always we can hope that some progress may be made in freeing the North Korean people. The past has shown that will be a tough task indeed, yet it is worth praying that the tide of history towards human freedom can even find cracks in the iron shell of North Korea.