USA-East Asia looking in the abyss

By Johan Galtung

From Kyoto, Japan

It has never been this bad since the 1950-53 Korea war.

October 1962, the Cuba-USSR-USA crisis, comes to mind. There were horror visions of mushroom clouds. A proud Cuba, with a strong leader-dictatorship, a social revolution in the near past, was denied a normal place in the state system, bullied by the USA and some allies with sanctions and boycotts into isolation for now more than 50 years.

Soviet Union shipped nuclear-tipped missiles for deployment as close to USA as the US missiles deployed in Turkey to Soviet Union. And in that was the solution, tit for tat, one nuclear threat for the other, in negotiations kept secret, ultimately revealed by McNamara.

Three countries were involved in 1962; in the current crisis five countries, a pentagon and not two but three nuclear powers:

North Korea < - > China

South Korea < - > Japan < U.S. >

– with the USA-Japan and USA-South Korea alliances pitted against the tacit China-North Korea alliance.

With the unreconciled traumas, of Japan having colonized Korea 1910-45, attacking China and USA during the Pacific War 1931-45; USA using nuclear bombs against Japan 1945; occupying Japan and South Korea; North Korea attacking South Korea; UN-USA counter-attacking, including China (MacArthur), ending in 1953 with an armistice; then 60 years of immensely frustrating quest for unification with the annual USA-South Korea+ Team Spirit exercises close to North Korea.

And, more recently, the USA-China competition for the No. 1 economic world position, the US effort to build economic alliances with the EU and with the Pacific in Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then the Japan-China conflict over the Daiyou-Senkaku islands. To top it: North Korea’s threatening with nuclear weapons, fascist like anybody threatening to turn others into ashes, but so far only verbal violence.

Nonetheless, even against a background like that, there are some ways of defusing this Three against Two pentagon.

Professor Dae-Hwa Chung at Pusan National University in South Korea ( sent an Oped to the New York Times about the 60-year conflict, with USA bullying North Korea by withholding peace treaty and normalization. His basic points: Soviet Union pulled out of North Korea, but USA not from South Korea to encircle China; Soviet Union and China recognized South Korea, the United Nations recognized both, USA and Japan failed to live up to the agreement of cross-recognition, never recognized North Korea but made peace, and a de facto alliance, with South Korea.

One may speculate why. Both Koreas were dictatorships; South Korea acquired democratic features only in the 1990s. USA had a visceral hatred of North Korea for breaking the chain of US war victories since the War of Independence in 1812 by not capitulating, together with Japan and South Korea hoping for its collapse, even more so after the 1989-90 collapse and absorption of DDR-Deutsche Demokratische Republik into Germany.

There are somber speculations. Both Japan and USA have a history of losing wars on the Korean peninsula; Japan in the 1590s under shogun Hideyoshi, and then in 1945 to the USA and USSR; USA in 1953 by not winning. Hawks in both countries might keep the polarization and nurse their own traumas to fuel a war o revenge, winning, not losing this time; not like the Bay of Pigs in Cuba 1961.

For Japanese hawks, some in power under Abe, the current crisis is a golden opportunity to “normalize” their own country, getting rid of Constitution Article 9 depriving Japan of the right to war, brushing away any reconciliation with the Koreas and China admitting Japanese wrongs 1910-1931-1945; to the contrary, making young Japanese proud of their country.

With strong, even existential motives such as these fueling the North Korean, US and Japanese intransigence, the prospects are dim.

And yet let us look for some glimmer of hope, however distant.

A bilateral deal like Cuba 1962 is difficult because the US use of Turkey and the USSR use of Cuba were symmetric, inviting a tit for tat. What could North Korea give in return for the indispensable peace treaty-normalization? Credible IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) control used to be the answer, but North Korea has crossed the red line and become a nuclear power.

North Korea could dismantle its verbal and physical threats, hoping for peace treaty-normalization in return. Like in 1962 that would not be one good for another, but one wrong for another. Would USA, used to dictate outcomes giving nothing in return, agree? Like in 1962 keeping it secret, with a “profile in courage” narrative? Hopefully, but not very likely, some secret deals are in the making.

A multilateral deal involving the whole pentagon, giving goods for goods for international conviviality, the Japanese kokusai kyosei, would be the real Team Spirit. Concretely this would be a (North) East Asian Community with China, Taiwan, Hong Kong-Macao, Japan, the Korean peninsula; and Mongolia, the Russian Far East, maybe more.

The Community would relate equitably to the USA and the Pacific by extending TPP to include China and a fully recognized North Korea. Okinawa could host the (North)East Asian Commission and Hawai’i TPP. The Daiyou/Senkaku islands with their exclusive economic zones would belong to the (North)East Asian Community. China-Japan would own it together; share the revenue, with a portion to sustain the community. There would be mutual and equal benefits; everybody would gain.

And that is a problem for minds hostage to zero-sum games and addicted to winning; at present found in all five, using patriotism to fuel such games. A change of mentality is needed, like in Europe in 1950. That may take centuries, but could also happen very quickly under enlightened statesmanship. None of the five qualifies for that, today. But together, in a summit meeting, buoyed by NGOs and media?

First published here

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