Friday, March 29, 2013

How Not to Reduce Regional Tensions

North Korea is a tough place for peacebuilders. Not so much in the sense that it's tough for peacebuilders to live there though it most assuredly is that. More that the isolation and insularity of the country makes it difficult to even discuss things like civil society capacity building, or public confidence in nonviolent dispute resolution. Institutions such as courts that can provide checks on central government power have very little traction, as do all the other concepts that a basic search of scholarly or organizational literature on peacebuilding and democracy will.

There is often little that can be done to promote peace and social justice in a given country from the outside, and international practitioners are pretty much unable to enter North Korea for the purpose of empowering the populace to build these things from the inside. Even the United States Institute of Peace, one of the thought leaders covering the Korean Peninsula situation from the West, has not been able to advance peacebuilding efforts much beyond state-level negotiations. Building a communication network of state officials and "Track 1.5" personnel in the region is an admirable goal given the circumstances, but truly effective peacebuilding needs to integrate "top-down" and "bottom up" approaches. That way, central government policies can make sense at the local level and small communities are able to communicate their needs/interests to state leaders. At the moment, though, that doesn't appear to be a strong possibility in the DPR of K. 

Imagine my shock complete lack of surprise, then, when I read the headline of this Reuters article yesterday. 

Not long after the election, I used this very blog to prattle on for 80 pages or so detailing my thoughts about the outcome, and expressed some reservations about the Obama White House's foreign policy agenda. Having noticed that the Obama/Romney foreign policy debate was essentially a neo-realist race to the bottom, where the first instinct is to treat those that agitate us as security threats rather than opportunities for dialogue, I wasn't exactly optimistic about U.S. foreign policy going forward. Continuing on the same path seemed more or less a foregone conclusion. Indeed, we've decided to fly some bombers over Seoul in response to Kim Jong-Un's increasingly fiery rhetoric concerning the South and their United States puppet masters (that's us.)

Now, I fully understand the need to show support for our allies. And in a sense, I also understand the "show of force" language that our military is speaking. I recently heard a bit about life in South Korea from Laura in Laurasia. Her take was basically that Kim is a young man, which puts him at a tremendous disadvantage in the Korean culture of seniority, so it's important for him to demonstrate his willingness to lash out militarily at perceived enemies in order to appear as a strong leader.

It's conceivable, within the realist mindset, that a demonstration of U.S. military might and technological superiority would make sense to such an adversary and convince them to back down. I myself don't trust the line of thinking or the notion that "force is the only language they understand," but it has a lot of currency in the public mind, so there we are. In this case, I really think the U.S. response is playing directly into the hands of North Korea's more bellicose elements. Their rhetoric in this most recent flare-up in tensions has been focused on the idea that the U.S. and South Korea are "aggressors" in the region and the North needs/has a right to defend itself. I guess I don't see how flying a bunch of stealth bombers around within easy striking distance of Pyongyang will do anything but convince NK's military leadership that their paranoia is justified. "Too easily words of war become acts of war," as Maester Luwin from Game of Thrones cautioned Robb Stark in the first book/season, and I'm afraid that this Game of Oneupmanship on the Peninsula is headed in the same direction.

Sure enough, Kim Jong-Un has ordered a higher state of missile readiness in response to our exercises, apparently in order to "settle accounts with the U.S." . Of course, we've taken "settle accounts" to mean something sinister, but I can't help wondering whether it was actually meant more literally as "evening the score" of the tit-for-tat threat making  This sounds a lot like a situation that came up in my Culture and Conflict class a couple of years back. When interacting with certain "high-context" cultures where face and honor are important, trying to bully/shame them into changing their behavior isn't likely to work. If we'd just let Kim and his generals have the last word for the moment, they'd be able to save some face and might not have to keep ramping up the rhetoric/military preparedness out of a need to respond to our latest verbal salvo.

That's probably a little too simple a view, and either way I don't suppose the State Department and military are operating on the same schools of thought as a School of International Service professor.  But maybe, just maybe, changing course on this might show the path to a time where some real peacebuilding is finally able to happen. I know, it's a long shot. But it sure would be nice.


I'd like to tell you all my bad ideas...

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