August 25, 2017 9:00 am JST
David S. Lee

Trump should think about what North Korea is hearing

Incendiary rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang must be cooled

Visitors walk by a map of two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea. © AP

U.S. President Donald Trump's recent comment that he would unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea in response to its growing nuclear capability adds to a history of provocative rhetoric between the two countries. From former President George W. Bush's inclusion of North Korea in "an axis of evil" to North Korean threats to transform Seoul into a "sea of fire," oratorical hyperbole has not been lacking in this war of words.

Filtering propaganda to ascribe meaning to specific phrases is difficult, in part because of differences in interpretative context. For example, while Trump's recent choice of words might have been motivated simply by a desire to portray toughness while preserving some level of cadence, he likely was not aware that such language might evoke a collective memory of the Korean War that still has salience in North Korea.

The country was heavily bombed during the 1950-1953 conflict. After establishing air superiority at an early stage, U.S. pilots faced minimal resistance in the skies above the Korean peninsula. As a result, it is estimated that the U.S. dropped more bombs, including significant amounts of incendiary munitions, on North Korea during the Korean War than in the Pacific theater during World War II.

The intensity of the Korean bombing campaign resulted in tremendous carnage and loss of life. North Korean villages, towns and cities were damaged to the point that Dean Rusk, a future U.S. Secretary of State, observed at the time that "every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved" in North Korea had been bombed.

After the war, General Curtis LeMay, a leading U.S. proponent of strategic air power, estimated that approximately 20% of North Korea's population had been killed by bombing. Though LeMay's estimate exaggerates the death toll, it underscores the fact that every North Korean would have been affected in some way by U.S. bombing. Indeed, a reporter traveling in North Korea in 1951 compared the destruction he saw to the surface of the moon.

Blatant manipulation of history to serve political ends is a well-honed practice of the Kim family regime in Pyongyang, now headed by Kim Jong Un. And though U.S. bombs last fell on North Korea in 1953, the aftermath of the aerial bombardment still influences how the country portrays America in domestic propaganda. The specter of future attacks drives suspicion of the U.S., helping to foster a bunker mentality. That lends legitimacy to a historical narrative that supports the Kim regime and provides cover for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The lens through which North Korea interprets the words and actions of the U.S. does not start afresh with each new administration. A cumulative history heavily influenced by the Korean War is the interpretative context through which Pyongyang translates Washington's words. Though omitting such commentary would not alone dissuade North Korea from its nuclear ambitions, it would avoid unnecessarily raising tensions and deprive the Kim regime of easy propaganda with which to justify its weapons program to a domestic audience.

Admittedly, such a task is difficult when U.S. policy toward North Korea seems so uncoordinated. This lack of cohesion has been on open display in recent weeks, with Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis all espousing seemingly different messages at various times. Additionally, Trump's "fire and fury" comment surprised Japan and South Korea, America's regional allies. The lack of coordination is exacerbated by an acute shortage of Asian regional expertise in the administration, which still has not appointed an ambassador to South Korea.

Normalized threat

Having lived through various forms of North Korean aggression since the end of the Korean War, including commando incursions, attacks on airliners, assassinations, the sinking of a warship and artillery shelling, the level of apathy many South Koreans have towards North Korean belligerence is surprising to many outsiders. For example, on days that North Korea test fires a missile, it is common for many South Koreans to be unaware or only vaguely interested, even though the event grabs headlines in Western news reports.

In many respects, the threat from North Korea is a normalized condition in the lives of most South Koreans. This is even more evident when it comes to a nuclear North Korea. There is a pervasive belief, perhaps misguided, that though Pyongyang might use nuclear weapons against the U.S. or Japan, it would not use such weapons on the Korean peninsula, against its own people's kin.

Accordingly, rightly or wrongly, recent North Korean provocations do not elicit the same fear or rhetoric in Seoul as they do in Washington, and South Korea's response to recent heightened tensions has been much less dramatic than America's. Trump's "fire and fury" comment prompted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to seek to assuage national opinion by stating that Trump had promised to obtain Seoul's consent before pursuing any military action against the north. Moon further pledged that there would be no war.

For South Koreans, concerns about hostilities have been raised not by North Korean saber-rattling, to which they have long become accustomed, but by Trump's unpredictable rhetoric and disjointed foreign policy. Many South Koreans characterize the American leader as reckless and erratic, and feel his words and actions serve to marginalize South Korea, jeopardizing the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Trump has erroneously stated that the Korean peninsula was once part of China, and claimed that the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was sailing to the peninsula when it was steaming peacefully thousands of miles away -- examples of his looseness with facts and words that are troubling to South Koreans. With stakes so high, it is worrying that Trump's words seem to have had a destabilizing effect on South Korea.

After a period of volatile back and forth, the current lull in tensions is an appropriate time to consider the future as well as the past. On Aug. 21, U.S. and South Korean military forces started an annual joint exercise known as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. Historically, Pyongyang strongly opposes such joint military exercises, claiming they are intended to prepare for the launch of an invasion.

Consequently, some sort of North Korean provocation may be forthcoming; previous exercises have been marked by a land mine attack, an exchange of artillery fire and missile launches. Following the joint exercise, North Korea will commemorate its founding on Sept. 9, which it celebrated last year with a nuclear test, making this another event to monitor for possible escalation.

At the beginning of 2018, South Korea will host the Winter Olympics. Moon has an earnest desire to engage Pyongyang and has invited North Korea to participate in the games. However, his overtures have been rebuffed so far. As the world descends on South Korea, the Olympics may lead to a rapprochement or to greater tension.

The North Korean nuclear dilemma is now in its third decade, and has spanned the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is clear that there are no quick fixes, and it will take time to assess the effectiveness of newly passed sanctions.

With the cost of military action unacceptably high, recent events demonstrate the paramount importance of words, particularly when there is no clear path forward. Given that, it would be a good idea for all parties to exercise a little more forbearance in their rhetoric.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.

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