Sam Noumoff


The recent visit of Denis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea raises the spectre of Ping-Pong diplomacy in the normalization of relations between China and the U.S. Tragically, this is an unlikely parallel. Ping-Pong was known internationally as the premier Chinese sport, while basketball has never been associated with North Korea. More importantly the China-US rapprochement was always driven by the US wanting to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet dispute as part of its cold war strategy.


Following upon the Rodman visit the US is in the process of re-launching its annual massive joint military exercise with South Korea, which the North has always seen as a preparatory run for the invasion of the North. In response the North has organized its own military exercises with all of the associated risks. On the US initiative the UN Security Council condemned the North’s recent nuclear bomb test, imposing further sanctions, which in its turn resulted in the North threatening a missile attack on the US mainland and an abandonment of the 1953 Korean War ceasefire and cut the Red Cross hot line between North and South, while lines remain open, for the moment, between the military and aviation authorities. The U.N. has complicated the issue by asserting under Article V of the Armistice, that any amendment must be agreed to by both sides, and therefore cannot be unilaterally abrogated.   A silly argument, in my view, as the North can simply not participate in any activity associated with the Armistice, such as the Military Armistice Commission which is charged with meeting daily, with no more than a seven day recess. The US could then charge the North with violating the agreement, but with what penalty?  The North will counterclaim that Article IV has been violated which called for negotiation within three months of signing the Armistice for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The lawyers will have a field day shouting invective at each other.


Portrayal of the issue in the mainstream media runs something like this: The North provokes, the US imposes sanctions. The North responds with further provocation followed by a subsequent round of sanctions, ad infinitum. As it is generally agreed this cycle has been without any effect, or likely to result in any change. The policy has failed abysmally. In order to project a change, we must go back some years.


Let us briefly survey the background. Korea was occupied by Japan after the 1895 war between Japan and China, integrated into Japan in 1910 and remained so until Japan’s defeat in 1945. Korea was then divided into two zones, one occupied by the US and the other by the USSR. The Red Army retreated as per previous agreement, while the US remains with more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to this day. The northern zone became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. Initially the US installed a Korean resident of Hawaii, Syngman Rhee, as President of the Republic of Korea, who violently repressed the popularly supported people’s committees that had emerged in the south in the face of the Japanese retreat. While the North saw a guerilla General who had been based on the Sino-Korean border, Kim Il Sung, rise to power. Two years later, in June of 1950, the war between the two Koreas formally began. I say formally, as southern forces were engaged in coastal raids for some time prior to June.  In discussions I had with a senior naval officer, Admiral Lee, from the southern Navy some years ago, this was revealed with pride. The Korean war devastated the entire country, with only one building standing in the northern capital when an armistice was signed in 1953. In the absence of a subsequent peace treaty, the DPRK and the US remain technically at war to this day.


From 1953 to 2013 the fundamental and primary objectives of the northern government has been (1) the signing of a peace treaty with the US; and, (2) normalization and a reparations agreement with Japan. Both of these normalization agreements are aimed at stabilization of the Korean peninsula and are viewed as precluding any strategy of regime change. North Korea for 60 years has remained under the nuclear threat by the US, and all of its attempts to address this threat are based on this threat perception. No country can tolerate six decades of threat to its survival without consequences, US verbiage to the contrary notwithstanding.


When Kim Jong un recently asked Denis Rodman to ask President Obama to phone him this was not meant lightly. The North has and will continue to try any means to begin negotiations for a peace treaty. The US has consistently refused, arguing that this would reward the north for its bellicose behavior, and consequently the cycle continues. Let me add a personal note. In the late 1970’s during an academic visit to the North, the Foreign Minister asked me to deliver a very courteous letter to Cyrus Vance, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, requesting peace treaty discussions. Six months passed before the State Department agreed to meet me. At that meeting, Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary for East Asia, said we do not accept such messages… as he held out his hand to take the letter. The sole result of this initiative was its publication the next month by the South Korean Unification Ministry.


As a personal aside, during a break in my programme,  my colleagues took  me to a gym, handed me a basketball, and expected me to spin and dunk. Not having touched a basketball for decades I was a sad disappointment. A somewhat silly assumption that all North Americans were somehow a Charles Barkley or a Michael Jordan in skill.


US hostility is grounded in the assertion that North Koreans are duplicitous and will break their word. It is also grounded in the fact that the US military won every war since 1812 until the Koreans and their Chinese friends fought them to a draw.


(Professor Sam Noumoff,  served in the 1970’s as Director, Centre for East Asian Studies & in the 1980’s as Director of the Centre for Developing Area Studies before retiring from McGill University, Montreal)

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