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Nuclear weapons, basketball diplomacy and war in Korea

While North Korea's nuclear threats towards the US remain in the realm of the absurd, the government's latest denunciation of the armistice agreement dangerously raises tensions between an inexperienced leader in Pyongyang and an untested president in Seoul.

War Dreams

If North Korea did not exist, the Pentagon would have to invent it. At times it seems almost as if Pyongyang’s nuclear sabre-rattlers are in cahoots with America’s military-industrial complex: no sooner had North Korea released its amateurish video of a man dreaming of New York in flames, possibly the victim of a North Korean nuclear strike, than the State Department and the new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel called for a new push to complete a ballistic missile defence system, one of the military establishment’s long-coveted goals.

This battle of words and images is part of the latest phase in the US-North Korean confrontation over the North’s nuclear program, a conflict now twenty years old. The proximate cause of North Korea’s latest verbal and video attack on the US was the announcement by the United Nations Security Council, on 7 March, of new and tougher international sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions in turn were a response to North Korea’s nuclear test of 12 February, its third since 2006. North Korea reacted to the sanctions announcement with its usual hyperbolic verbiage, calling the sanctions a “crime” and threatening “a pre-emptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and defend the supreme interests of the country”.

Dennis to the Rescue

The new UN sanctions resolution had been preceded just two weeks earlier by one of the strangest encounters in the troubled history of US-North Korean relations, when former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman appeared with members of the Harlem Globetrotters team in Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Un – the first American to meet the North Korean leader since Kim had come to power at the end of 2011.  Kim Jong Un is, it seems, a longtime fan of the Chicago Bulls, Rodman’s former team; when US Secretary of State visited North Korea in October 2000, she presented Kim’s father Kim Jong Il with a basketball signed by the Bulls’ Michael Jordan.  It may be that Kim Jong Un himself, then a teenager and already a big basketball fan, had requested the gift. Rodman was not the first to try ‘basketball diplomacy’ between the US and North Korea.

But the eccentric and flamboyant Rodman, whose trip was clearly not condoned by Washington, may not have been the best diplomat for this mission. Kim Jong Un had declared “I don’t want to do war”, Rodman told George Stephanopoulos on ABC television’s “This Week,” shortly after Rodman’s return from North Korea. This is not exactly the message Washington was hearing from North Korea. By mid-March, the two sides seemed closer to ‘doing war’ than they had in some time.

Tearing up the Armistice

On 11 March, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency declared the 1953 Korean War armistice ‘nullified’. This was not the first time North Korea had made such a declaration. Pyongyang’s heightened anti-armistice rhetoric usually coincides with US-South Korean join military exercises, as was the case this time: South Korea and the US began regular drills called ‘Foal Eagle’ on 1 March, and on the day North Korea announced the end of the armistice, Seoul and Washington had started additional exercises called ‘Key Resolve’. These drills, involving thousands of troops from both sides, were decried by North Korea as “an open declaration of war” to which Pyongyang had a right to retaliate.

North Korea’s belligerent statements may be more about posturing than serious action, and are probably mostly for the sake of domestic consumption, as Kim Jong Un tries to mobilize the North Korean people (and especially his generals) behind his leadership.  For her part, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, recently inaugurated on 25 February, vowed to stand tough against the North’s threats and respond with force if necessary. One of the leading members of Park’s conservative New Frontier Party, Chung Mong-joon, called for South Korea to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Some two-thirds of the South Korean public agreed with him, according to a poll by the Seoul-based Asan Institute.

For now, a North Korean missile attack on the continental US can only exist in youtube videos and the imaginations of Pentagon planners. North Korean rockets are wildly inaccurate, Pyongyang lacks the miniaturization technology to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile, and the North Korean leaders are not so suicidal as to invoke their country’s destruction by the US. A clash between North and South Korea is a more likely and troubling possibility. With a new and untested president in Seoul and a young and inexperienced leader in Pyongyang, a miscalculation on either side could escalate disastrously. It might be best for all parties concerned to take Dennis Rodman’s advice and “don’t do war”. Perhaps the US President, known to be an avid basketball player, can invite the young Kim to Washington for a one-on-one match instead. Everything else, it seems, has been tried, and failed.

About the author

Charles K Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history. His most recent books are Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013) and The Koreas (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2014). His earlier books include The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 2003) and Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006)


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