The problem with North Korea is they won’t do what they’re told. The problem with the US is we think we have the right to tell them what to do. I recently heard a pundit say that North Korea (NK) knows from 20 years’ experience that they can force a confrontation, create a standoff, and then receive aid in a bargain to end the crisis. The tone suggested that this was unacceptable, that they were misbehaving again and expected to be rewarded or bribed as they had been in the past. The implication was that past diplomacy had not handled them correctly, that maybe if some past administration had been sterner and had not appeased them, that we wouldn’t have the situation we have now.
Let’s set aside the notion of appeasement (my word, not his) for a minute. My initial reaction to the NK punditry was to be incensed. Who let this get this far? But on later reflection I thought, who are we to tell another country what to do? Certainly nuclear proliferation is a serious concern. The five “Nuclear Weapon States”: Russia, UK, France, China and the US and 189 other countries that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968-69 have behaved responsibly when it comes to nuclear weapons. But the non-signers who now have nukes: Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea have been less reliable. Israel refuses to affirm or deny that they possess nukes, but experts estimate that Israel has about 150 nuclear weapons. North Korea (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) had originally signed the treaty in 1985, but withdrew in 2003. In 2006 NK announced that it had performed its first-ever nuclear weapons test.
The spread of nuclear weapons, possibly beyond the known nations into the hands of independent entities or “terrorists,” is a chilling thought. Imagine Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock with an atomic bomb. So the question that hangs in the air is what to do about North Korea. The language we hear seems to compare them to a disobedient eight-year-old. They were spoiled by permissive step parents and are now acting out. How do we force them to obey? The answer is, we can’t. They aren’t eight-year-olds. The way out of this crisis is not through force, threats of violence, or saber rattling. To make a deal, we need to know what the other side wants and needs, and I for one really don’t know. Kim Jong-un probably most wants to survive. Certainly the late Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are examples to Kim of what not to do. – If you want to survive, keep your nukes. What I suspect is that the North Koreans want an end to over a century of fear, and they want what is commonly called “face.”
The Chinese term “face” is almost untranslatable into Western language. Webster translates it as: “To save face is to avoid having other people lose respect for oneself.” But I dug a little deeper and found this article: The Cult of Face by “China-Mike,”:http://www.china-mike.com/chinese-culture/understanding-chinese-mind/cult-of-face/
This article says:
“As a sociological construct, the Chinese concept of face is difficult to define. The famous writer and translator Lin Yutang (1895 –1976) . . . characterized it as ‘abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.’ The closest translations are along the lines of “pride”, “dignity” or “prestige”. But these don’t tell the whole story.”
I can’t pretend to know what the North Koreans truly want, all I can do is relate the Asian notion of face to the Western notion of “esteem.”
Group-esteem, like self-esteem, is a powerful force in human interrelations. In hundreds of social psychological studies in over a dozen countries, including China and Japan, self-esteem has been demonstrated to be an extremely effective antidote to death anxiety.
Consider what North Korea has been through in the last 107 years. Conquered and occupied by Japan from 1910 (with US tacit approval) until the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula became a pawn in the Cold War between China, The USSR, and the US. The Korean War began in 1950 with the North’s invasion of the South. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, but no peace treaty. Hostilities have flared up on several occasions in the past decades and North and South remain confrontational. War and threat of war with the strongest nation in the world must be traumatic, not to mention their deeply held historical resentment against Japan and the US. The US has 6,100 nuclear weapons; NK has 14. How could North Korea not feel anxiety?
To threaten the nation with destruction as we have done, is to threaten its citizens with something worse than personal death. It threatens to obliterate their identity, purpose, meaning, and symbolic immortality. The survivors will suffer symbolic death, an anguished perishing of the human spirit. Historians will tell us that symbolic immortality is usually worth dying for. If preserving the esteem of the nation, thereby giving life meaning and purpose, and deflecting death anxiety are all worth dying for, then nuclear war may be worth it to the North Koreans. Seen this way, sanctions won’t work, and bullying not only won’t work, it stiffens the resolve of the bullied.
What about America’s group-esteem in this equation? What is our motive in this seemingly intractable struggle?
Consider for a moment the US Stand Your Ground Law. It was first passed in Florida in 2005 and was famously invoked to initially mitigate the shooing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012 (a confrontation initiated by Zimmerman). Stand Your Ground is the law in 24 states; it removes the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. It empowers someone to use deadly force if one feels threatened, even outside of one’s own home. 17 states have laws that are the opposite; they impose a “duty to retreat.” In those states the law forbids the use of deadly force in self-defense if one can safely avoid the risk of harm or death. In other words, instead of standing your ground you are required by law to avoid the risk of harm (e.g., run away) if threatened, and are only permitted to use force if flight is not an option. Other states have stand your ground type laws that pertain to self-defense in your home or office, or personal vehicle.
To many Americans, particularly men, standing your ground is heroic; running away is craven. It’s a question of pride. I suggest it’s a question of self-esteem. Standing your ground, either dying or taking a life in the attempt, is seen as preferable to the shame and loss of face in running away. In this butt-kicking, MMA loving, militaristic, macho man culture, not backing down is “the right stuff.”
Stand Your Ground has been at the heart of US-NK relations for 67 years on both sides. We have been eyeball to eyeball again and again. At the same time, and in an unfortunate parallel to the Trayvon Martin killing, the opponent in this case is also non-white. With our national belief in American superiority, genetically, culturally, economically, and in so many indefinable ways, how can we back down to our supposed inferiors?
A nuclear war with NK will result in the loss of millions of lives in North and South Korea and possibly Japan, the Philippines, and the US. If China and/or Russia, both on the NK border, are pulled into the fray, we may be talking about hundreds of millions of lives lost. The radioactive fallout could continue to threaten life for decades. The world economy will be crushed, particularly if an atomic bomb lands on Silicon Valley. Can any of this mass destruction be justified by Stand Your Ground? Is our group esteem worth the price?
Set aside the discussion of Donald Trump’s apparent personality disorder that makes a question of pride more vital to him than rational considerations of options and outcomes. Let’s ask ourselves: What’s wrong with negotiating a peace treaty with NK (something they initiated in 2016, but that fell apart on the nuclear weapons issue), only this time we accept NK as a nuclear power with the following conditions: that they re-sign the NPT, submit to UN inspections, agree to non-proliferation of weapons or materials to other nations or groups, and sign a non-aggression pact with all of the other nations.
Will that be a show of weakness on our part? If we appear weak, what will happen? Will every nation kick sand in our faces for ever after?
Or will we finally once and for all show the courage to recognize reality and risk a momentary loss of face to do the right thing for the world. Maybe that show of courage will provide even greater US group-esteem than swaggering machismo. Maybe it will usher in a much needed era of sanity and reality.
* * *
Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.