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Opinion
Frames of Mind
Outdated ways of thinking are the biggest obstacle to progress on the Korean Peninsula
By Shi Yongming | NO.12 MARCH 22, 2018
North Korea celebrates the 70th anniversary of its military on Feburary 9 in the capital Pyongyang (XINHUA)

Two months ago, the prospect of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula was the realistic concern of many, yet now the world has been blindsided by the surprising hope of peace. The opportunity presented by the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang brought the North and South to the table for dialogue where North Korea unexpectedly declared that it is willing to give up its nuclear ambitions before U.S. President Donald Trump shocked the world by expressing his intention to hold talks with the North's leader. However, far from feeling relaxed, many people are unsure how to react to these changes.

This bewilderment stems from three principal factors. Firstly, there is a lack of trust in North Korea. Is this an attempt by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un to outmaneuver his adversaries, or is the secluded state indeed bending under the pressure of international sanctions? Secondly, and similar to the first, the intentions of the United States are unclear in agreeing to a parley. Would the United States really be willing to let its archrival off so easily? Lastly there is concern about what might result from the talks. What if they fail? Would such an outcome trigger an immediate war? What if the talks are successful? Will the trade-offs agreed behind closed doors pose further challenges to stability in East Asia? These reservations are justifiable, but they also reflect a rigid way of thinking that is responsible for the existence and deterioration of the issue on the Korean Peninsula, and could continue to hamper its resolutions.

Old mindsets die hard

Western nations with a major say in the international arena are particularly interested in whether North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. has demanded again that North Korean disarmament is a precondition for further discussion. Japan too has been making noise about the lack of credibility on North Korea's part, calling for even greater pressure on the country. So far, little attention has been paid to the stipulations put forward by North Korea itself.

North Korea demands the security of its national system and territory, which could involve a peace treaty with the U.S. and even the establishment of a normal diplomatic relationship between the two. North Korea's nuclear issue may look on the surface to be a regional security issue, but the core of the problem lies in the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. The source of animosity between the two sides is the United States' mentality and its stubborn refusal to bring an end to the Cold War standoff on the Korean Peninsula. This approach is grounded on a model of binary opposition and with this mindset, the United States can never tolerate North Korea.

The goal of the former Clinton administration's democracy expansion strategy was to eradicate "non-democratic" states. Although the United States promises not to overthrow the North Korean Government, it is difficult for it to guarantee this policy politically and legally. The first major stumbling block to improving the situation on the Korean Peninsula is Cold War thinking.

The second obstacle comes in the form of imperialist thinking. Mainstream Western theories on international affairs hold that relationships among nations center on a struggle for power, and so the United States must first obtain a guarantee of its own security by securing absolute control over international relations. The so-called absolute security of one country inevitably leads to the insecurity of others. This reality has played out every day since the end of the Cold War and is the cause of North Korea's sense of insecurity. With imperialist thinking comes the idea that those who are squeezed by imperial power can simply choose to surrender to it, and some guess that in this instance, North Korea might choose to betray its allies in the interests of its own security. This, however, is only a figment of the imperialist imagination.

The third theoretical approach that has the potential to sway the direction of the talks between the U.S. and North Korea is that of a game of interests. This attitude dictates that an exchange of interests is the precondition for settling problems, and naturally both sides will seek to maximize their respective interests through negotiation. However, based on this approach, it is ultimately the stronger side that benefits more. In the case of North Korea and the United States, the extremely uneven balance of power between the two means that excessive demands from the United States will be enough to jeopardize North Korea's survival. Proceeding from this vast imbalance and the United States' position of strength, rather than benefit the powerful the game will likely crash altogether. This situation has unfolded many times before in dealings that concern the Korean nuclear issue.

It would be better for the United States to review its past policies toward North Korea and learn from those mistakes rather than to guess whether its claims are genuine in regard to relinquishing its nuclear program. If the United States sticks to its conventional way of thinking, it will miss a historic opportunity for reconciliation.

Steering toward peace

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have triggered some unease about the role of China. Apprehension focuses on the prospect that direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang will diminish China's "dominant" power over the region's affairs. Such concern stems from typical Western thinking, which dominates education in international politics.

China's "dominant power" has two aspects. Objectively, it refers to one country's reasonable suggestions on international affairs which are widely valued and recognized by the international community, and so lead to this country playing a dominant role in regional affairs. This interpretation of dominance does not necessarily equate to the exertion of disproportionate power. However, once this dominant role is misconstrued as power, the second aspect comes into play. Fulfilling a dominant role is entirely different from the struggle for dominance itself. The former emphasizes the operation of widely acknowledged truth, while the latter is a scramble for private interests. The latter is in essence a kind of imperialist thinking. Under the current framework of international law, imperialism is transformed into hegemony, which is sometimes presented in the form of a struggle for dominant power. A typical example is the Obama administration's public claim that the United States should play the dominant role in Asia.

Traditional Chinese culture stresses moral principles in dealing with international affairs. The People's Republic of China, emerging from anti-imperialist wars, has always maintained that every country, big or small, should be treated as an equal. In World War II, China fought against the forces of imperialism and colonialism, in the Cold War opposed hegemony, and has reiterated again and again that it will never seek such dominion of its own. Since the Cold War, China's national strength has grown rapidly and it is now the second largest economy in the world, but its core diplomatic values remain the same. On the issue of the Korean Peninsula, China has always acted as a contributor and source of inspiring ideas, advocating resolution by the people living on the peninsula themselves. China also hopes that in the future the Korean Peninsula will help to promote regional security. Why should China fret over losing this so-called dominant power, since it has never sought it in the first place?

In the new era, China's diplomatic policy centers on the core concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind, which stresses that all countries are equal partners in international affairs. China will only help to guide international affairs by contributing positive ideas and concepts, but never will it seek so-called dominance, which is also true of its stance on the issue of the Korean Peninsula.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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