Late Breaking: The North Korean Nuclear Crisis in History

AHA Session
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall North (Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level)
Mitchell Lerner, Ohio State University
Jooeun Kim, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

The North Korean crisis reaches back farther than the presidential administration of Donald Trump, or even those of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, whose failures to rein in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program the current president likes to lambaste. It preceded the reigns of Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il, or the rise to power of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping. Nuclear power and the global regime of laws, institutions, and hierarchies that structures its possession and use have linked East Asian to world history, domestic to international politics, national identity to national security, and the Cold War to the progressive dysfunction that came after. Understanding these connections promises to shed light on the most dangerous nuclear crisis since the Iraq War, or at least why it has been handled with such belligerence and so little intercultural sensitivity.

This panel approaches the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs from multiple historical perspectives, heeding the institutional, cultural, and geopolitical contexts from which it emerged. Politicians posturing for audiences at home and abroad regularly invoke myth or makes assumptions about how societies and states think about nuclear weapons as opportunity or threat, or why the entangled histories of East Asian states (China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan) and the United States matter. The presenters will view the North Korean nuclear crisis from three vantage points to deepen or even explode the prevailing (and often facile) representations of a complex phenomenon.

While the Trump administration has introduced the term “Indo-Pacific” to delineate a geostrategic region from the Indian sub-continent to Hawai’i, the controversy over Pyongyang’s nuclear miscreance obscures its significance for the immediate neighborhood. While it is commonplace to maintain that only the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can “fix” this problem, little attention has been paid to how Trump’s ‘America First’ is colliding both symbolically and discursively with Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’.

Coverage of the crisis also tends to neglect a particularly interested and anxious stakeholder—the Republic of Korea. As the election of Moon Jae-in shows, there are riptides of anti-American and pacifist sentiment in South Korea that run against the militarized response of the United States government. Grasping the divisions within South Korean society reveals that potential rifts between Seoul and Washington go deeper than appearances suggest.

How the international community has marginalized, disciplined, and punished the DPRK is also far from unprecedented. The origins of the U.S.-led nuclear order lay precisely in ostracizing the original rogue state in East Asia during the Cold War—Mao’s Tse-Tung’s People’s Republic of China. While the rhetoric of non-proliferation underscores the catastrophic (even existential) threat that the spread of nuclear weapons pose, it started as a ploy to justify mainland China’s exclusion from the United Nations at a moment when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the United States and the Khrushchev and Brezhnev-led politburos in the Soviet Union found common cause amid the Sino-Soviet split.

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