Theory Teacher's Blog

How Not To Start a War with North Korea

As you may have heard, earlier today North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire for about an hour, and two South Koreans were killed. We don’t know if any North Koreans were killed. It started when the South Korean military was practicing war maneuvers in a region of disputed territory. North Korea fired upon them, and fire was returned. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government condemned North Korea for firing shots but didn’t condemn South Korea for practicing war maneuvers in disputed territory. Already some have expressed fear about the possibility of war, which is a horrifying prospect, to be sure. I’m personally concerned about this since a couple of my former students are in Seoul right now, and also I was living in Japan in 1999 when North Korea tested a missile in Japanese airspace. So, how do we not start a war with North Korea?

What I think we can expect to see from the mainstream media are stories about how crazy and irrational the North Korean government is. The stories will discuss South Korean and American losses but never North Korean losses. They will also include remarks about the mysterious and unknown qualities of life and policy-making within that state. In fact, most of the articles probably could have been written last year or ten years ago; it will be the same story we’ve heard before, just repeated in a new context, and my guess is that President Obama will also repeat the exact same story. And the story will of course serve to underscore the impossibility of negotiating with North Korea, though Obama will claim the moral high ground and repeatedly say that reasoned negotiation is precisely what he desires. At the same time, these stories will produce a shared fear and anxiety among all Americans, Japanese, and others.

What will be missing from Obama and the mainstream media’s narrative about North Korea’s craziness? What will be missing, I predict, is precisely how not to start a war that nobody wants. Let’s consider how it all started again. South Korea was doing military maneuvers in disputed territory…. Why would they do that? Considering the longstanding tension in the region, was that a wise thing to do?

Let me put it another way by making an analogy. If you see an angry dog in a yard acting a little crazily, do you (a) walk over and tease it, call it names, poke it with a stick, spill its food dish, and back it into a corner, or do you (b) trust that the fence around the yard doesn’t have a hole in it and leave the dog alone. Now, to be clear, I don’t want to defend Kim Jong-il’s policies and political rhetoric; to me, they seem crazy. But what also is a little crazy is for American and South Korean policy to be constantly poking at him, calling him names, upsetting North Korea’s economy, and backing the country into a corner. In other words, who is crazier — the crazy person or the person who messes with the crazy person?

Let’s back up for a bit — a brief history. In the 1990s, North Korea started building a nuclear power plant. The American media and government immediately feared the possibility of North Korea having nuclear weapons. This is a legitimate fear. What the fear ignores, of course, is the rather more commonsense reason why they’d be building a power plant — electricity. The country has no oil or natural gas, and these commodities are very expensive on the open market, especially for a poor country. To keep its people warm during the winter and develop industry, a nation needs energy. It is important to note that the United States has repeatedly prevented other countries all over the world from developing nuclear energy, thus forcing them to rely on oil and gas (which of course benefits the profits of oil companies, mostly based in the United States and Great Britain.) America’s fear of nuclear weapons is understandable and reasonable, but when negotiating with another country one also has to be sensitive to their obvious need. In this case, North Korea just spent a lot of money building a power plant, so it’s a bit silly to think that another country can just order them to stop building one. It’s expensive, so one has to offer a concession. President Bill Clinton negotiated precisely such a deal, and though North Korean continued its belligerent rhetoric and tested a missile, no damage was actually done. They were showing off their strength. The United States was also showing off its strength, of course. This is all for show, like boys on the playground showing off their muscles. Everyone knows this. Then in 2002, George Bush ignored the deal; he said nonsensically that North Korea was part of the axis of evil. Things started getting bad, and North Korea resumed its nuclear program. More recently, last year, the United Nations and Obama instituted economic sanctions against North Korea.

So, what’s the upshot? Essentially, the United States has been poking at North Korea’s government, calling it names, interfering with its plans to supply much-needed source of energy, and backing them into a corner by instituting economic sanctions against a country whose people are very, very poor. Has our strategy been wise?

In any negotiation, all sides must acknowledge that the other sides have legitimate needs, concerns, and points of view. Otherwise, nothing will move forward. In public and in the media, the United States has tended to refuse to recognize any legitimacy in North Korea’s point of view. So, the question is, towards what ends? What is America’s real agenda here? Is it wrong of the North Korean government to suspect the United States of harboring a desire to overthrow its government? Can we be honest with ourselves here? Will honesty help us avert a tragic war? For liberal political theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, recognition of the other is essential for reasoned negotiation of interests. But is it so simple?

I don’t think so. By way of illustration, the theorist Slavoj Zizek once made a very witty and clever critique of Donald Rumsfeld’s neo-con theory of foreign policy. Here is what Zizek wrote:

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t known.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we can’t know that we know — which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

In other words, what Rumsfeld and the American public refused to acknowledge was our own historical role creating the problem and the political will-to-power that could not be publicly stated. The simple theoretical point here is that to “not start a war a another nation,” a nation must look into itself. Theoretically speaking, then, instead of  interrogating and bullying the other (the neo-con position) or even recognizing the other (the liberal position), we ought to think critically through the Other (big O), the Other that is both the whole historical Relation in its unknowable totality and the dialectical desire for fulfillment (i.e., void) within each of us — the desire/void all of us share in common, whether we are North Korean, American, or whatever. As Edouard Glissant theorizes in his book Poetics of Relation, there is no other; rather, there is Relation.


November 24, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. It’s been interesting for me to follow the media’s coverage of this from China, where I’m currently teaching for a year. Although I generally make it a point to not rely on Chinese news for nuanced analysis of world events, I’ve found that coverage here has actually presented a more unbiased, just-the-facts view of this issue than US coverage.

    Thanks for the post, Steve!

    Comment by Kelsey Gustafson | November 24, 2010 | Reply

  2. I can’t help but recognize that this sounds all too familiar compared to the documentary we watched today about Panama. History tends to repeat itself and this seems like a prime example. Everyone is just scared so eliminate the source of innocent fear. I am so embarrassed to be American sometimes. Don’t get me wrong freedom is cool, but there’s only so far that “freedom” goes, right? I wish the common peoples’ voices, our voices, could be heard as much as higher ups claim they listen. Bot for now…

    Comment by giligan420 | February 8, 2011 | Reply

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