International ties

Exchange between DPRK and ROK can escalate into war

By Han Dongping (
Updated: 2010-12-02 10:34
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Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the China Daily website.

The artillery exchange between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) military has made the world news for the last few days. Before anybody found out what really happened, the media has been condemning Pyongyang for provoking the incident.

ROK politicians threatened retaliation. Japanese Foreign Minister Gaimu Daijin assumed that the DPRK was responsible for the incident, and pressured China to rein in its unruly neighbor. US President Obama ordered carrier George Washington to sail toward the Yellow Sea for a four-day navy exercise with ROK forces again to put pressure on the DPRK. It seems that Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have been acting in concert to put pressure on both Pyongyang and Beijing.

This recent artillery exchange has to be seen in light of the earlier incident in which a ROK gunboat was sunk for mysterious reasons. In that incident, the ROK government accused the DPRK of sinking its boat. Even though Pyongyang denied the allegations, Western media assumed that it was guilty and the United Nation Security Council eventually passed a resolution to condemn the DPRK without mentioning its name, supposedly because China did not want that to happen.

For many years, the Western media has portrayed the DPRK as a threat to world peace. Former President Bush imposed on the DPRK the label of part of "the Axis of Evil." Personally I do not see how the DPRK could threaten the US, Japan or China in any way. In Western media, the DPRK is portrayed as a poor country with a starving population. I have never been to the DPRK and I have no way to know if the media's description is accurate. But if the country is poor and starving as the media has described, how could it threaten the wealthy, the well-fed and well-equipped US, the ROK, and Japanese military? The US has six major military bases in the Far East, and all could strike the DPRK easily. As the only superpower left in this world, the US has a bigger military budget than the next 14 biggest military spenders in the world combined. Does the DPRK have more reasons to feel threatened by the US and its hostile neighbors? Can Washington and the outside world leave Pyongyang alone for a change?

Recently, an American scientist who was invited by the DPRK government to visit one of its nuclear facilities revealed that Pyongyang has built a large and more advanced plant that can produce weapons-grade nuclear materials. Again the media used the opportunity to blow up the threat the DPRK posed to the world. When the media talks about the DPRK's nuclear threat, people often forget that the real nuclear threat to the world has been the insensibly large stockpile of nuclear weapons of the superpowers during the cold war, which is capable of blowing up the world several times over. For any sensible individual, is it not enough to blow up the world just one time? But not to the great leaders of the Great US and Great Soviet Union. They would not feel secure unless they have enough nuclear warheads to blow up the world several times over. Who is the insane one?

There is a tendency among Western leaders to describe leaders in countries they dislike as madmen. Before the Iraq war, there was a huge propaganda campaign against Saddam Hussein in the West. While sitting in a mall once, I was asked by a teenage schoolgirl if I knew Saddam. I asked her what about Saddam Hussein. She then said Saddam was a madman, and President Bush was going to kill him. In another instance, a brigade general was telling an audience, of which I was a part, that Saddam Hussein was dangerous because he had an underground tunnel that could withstand a direct nuclear blast. I asked him how big the tunnel was, and did he think that Saddam Hussein just cared about his own survival and that he was willing to risk a nuclear retaliation from the US that would wipe out the entirety of the Iraqi people. He got what I was driving at and said that he did not want to talk with people like me.

Anyone who has some semblance of common sense would know that if Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons it would be for defensive purposes, especially after seeing what happened to Saddam Hussein. It would never dare to provoke the US into a nuclear confrontation, because the outcome would be obvious. If the DPRK ever dared to use nuclear weapons against any of its neighbors, it would be wiped out by a barrage of nuclear weapons from the US, China, or Russia. Unlike other people who do not hesitate to call the DPRK's leader Kim a madman, I would grant him enough good sense to know that outcome. At the same time, the DPRK has the right to defend itself, like every other sovereign nation in the world.

The US, Japan, and the ROK have participated in frequent joint military exercises targeting the DPRK explicitly and China implicitly in the past and with growing frequency. The intention of these military exercises, it seems to me, cannot be peaceful. They are meant to threaten the DPRK and to place increased pressure on its people and leaders, and the ultimate goal is to create enough tension in the region to cause some military clash between the two sides, which the ROK, the US and Japan can use to launch large-scale military escalation on the Korean peninsula. That is the danger I see in the artillery exchange between the North and the South. It can be used by some parties to escalate the exchange into a major military confrontation, which will threaten the stability of China and the world. The civil war between the DPRK and the ROK 60 years ago provided the US with an excuse to get involved in the Korean conflicts, which eventually dragged China into it. Any military confrontation on the Korean peninsula can easily spill over to China and pose great danger to China's security and interrupt China's economic development.

This is a dangerous time for the world. The US economy has been struggling in the worst recession since the Great Depression. According to Professor Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist from Boston University, the US is bankrupt. Nobel Economics Prize winner Paul Krugman argued that nothing short of war could save the US economy. Some people even accused him of suggesting war as a fiscal solution for the US economy. The truth of the matter is that there is no easy solution to the woes of the world capitalist economy at this point. At the moment, the conventional wisdom that "war is good for business" can easily emerge to lead decision makers to opt for war as an easy fix for their economic troubles.

Like all the peace-loving people in the world, I hate war. I want to argue that war is not good for business, and war is not good for anybody, including the people who start the wars, who thought they might gain from the wars they started. Those who start wars in the world often end up burnt by the fire they started. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not helped the US economy in any positive way. It can be argued that these wars actually contributed to the economic decline of the US. War also has huge environmental consequences, and the human race cannot afford to allow any major wars to destroy our environment.

Of course, warmongers will not listen to this type of argument. I hope that the peace-loving people of the world will unite to prevent wars from starting. China can and should play a crucial role in world peace in general and in the Korean peninsula in particular. China should realize that peace in the Korean peninsula is crucial to its national security. In such a dangerous situation, China cannot afford to mince words anymore. It should tell the US and the ROK unequivocally that it will not allow them to bully and threaten its friendly neighbor anymore. More important, China should consult with Russia and other concerned nations of the world, and take concerted action to warn the US, the ROK and Japan to stop their provocative military exercises close to Chinese and the DPRK's sovereign waters. The only way to stop war is to prepare for the worst. China has not instigated any wars in the past, but it should be prepared and ready to prevent any aggression against it and its friendly neighbors.

Han Dongping is Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC.