global politics, relationally

Ok, So You Want to Talk War


This is a guest post by Shine Choi, who teaches politics and IR at Massey University 

When I read media headlines strewn with North Korea, my stomach contracts, the shoulder muscles tense up and I squint in fear of what I am about to read. The narrative arch is a variation of ‘Crash! Boom! Splat!’ and my skin for such things seem to only grow thinner. I am not only bracing myself with the questions of, ‘Oh god, what has North Korea/Trump gone off and done now?’ (and for me it is not the U.S. but Trump for some reason), but am also trying to protect myself from the assault of what experts say as we get engulfed in the excitement that mass media invariably produce. In short, I am as afraid of what the head-butting political machineries produce as how the cottage industry of expert commentaries fuel the mediatised politics of head butting.  My strategy has mostly been to listen to my body and refuse to follow media texts that make me ill. So no, I do not have hyperlinks that curate the twists and turns of the latest North Korean crisis.

Also feeding my lazy attitude towards Observing My Topic Via Media has been the false sense of comfort from knowing that every cycle of the Korean crisis has blown over in the post, post-Korean War era, and that there are good reasons for why.  As the story often goes, the status quo that is the Korean division works for the Big Powers.  The Koreans themselves, by the time of first nuclear crisis in 1992-1993, have figured out how to make the division work and be part of the international community where both Koreas are recognised as sovereign state (though each still refuses to recognise the other Korea as sovereign and claim each other’s citizens for itself).

Conflict also sells. On the southern side, the cyclical scares on the peninsula have fed not only the academic cottage industry of North Korea/the Korean conflict experts but also film directors that became auteurs on the back on their conflict films; film stars, artists and museums whose works have international legs because the Korean conflict is a thing; and so on. On the northern side, the global iconic status that keeps North Korea in the headlines owes its infamy to its isolation that comes from and keeps the Korean conflict going. And perhaps the ultimate line of argument that tranquilises our nerves is that the North Korean political elites are not suicidal. With the changing international order that China’s Reform and Opening Up has brought about, gradual tactical moves surely are surely more appealing than war.

But as a student of International Relations, I also know how politics of security work – through paradoxes, illusions, unknownables. It only takes human error to bring crumbling down the matrix of how wars are fought these days (virtually, through illusions and exercises), and those who bear the brunt of the not-so-virtual falling bricks would be those who wanted absolutely nothing to do with the game of security in the first place, i.e. the ordinary people in Korea who the media and experts lament as being naïve, apathetic, passive.  My sense is that apathy and naivete are active and complex forms of dealing with volatile realities. The strategy of wishing war away, which would not only be horrific but truly inconvenient, might be a strategy of making volatile realities liveable.  The human mind is a wonderful, wonderful thing; we live our truths until we can no longer even when these truths are not what we really want.

I do not have any realistic solutions to the North Korean crisis but in the wake of another round of UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on North Korea, let me rehearse a few points that do not get as much play on mainstream media.

Firstly, North Korea’s security concerns are political.  In response to earlier round of UNSC sanctions this year, North Korea has cried wolf and expresses exactly this point in its letters to the UN (e.g. March and April 2017) – that until there is a UNSC that can also discuss the illegality of annual joint military exercises that breach the 1953 armistice, the UNSC sanctions can only be imperial style power politics. It is important to remember that this kind of call for  reforming the international is not uniquely a North Korean position. Postcolonial states have long been calling for reforms to change the UN institutional architecture  that creates a vast majority of secondary ‘artificial members’ without access to the VIP club member lounges (UNSC permanent membership with veto power). This view that imperialism colours contemporary international relations extends to the failed state narrative that grates on the political elites of postcolonial states.  Postcolonial states are, yes, Westphalian – it is on this Eurocentric terms that they were ‘granted’ independence – but also operating are other traditions and modern innovations in politics to meet the particular needs of newly independent small states developed in postcolonial solidarity. North Korea is a case in point, and to read this sentence as a siding with a despotic state is to miss the point.

Put differently, North Korean nuclear and human rights issues are related issues but not because they are both grounds for international intervention but because they are both products of our failure to understand North Korea’s politics in the international as exactly this, politics. The international is a site of politics where various kinds of actors and actions make claims and demands as political actors. It is a site for pursuing freedom, equality and respect where the idea that there is no singular source of authority and value shape these pursuits. I, like many, think this is pure fiction but regardless, the widespread belief in this fiction means incommensurable and contradictory claims and actions are the stuff of international politics. Thus, we need to recognise that human rights as well as nuclear politics need to work from this starting point of plurality of traditions and interpretations of how life, liberty and prosperity are possible. Speaking truth to power, calling out state violence and international intervention should be deliberated in a language of plural international relations (for a recent iteration of this idea see Stephen Chan’s book by the same title).

In short, imposing sanctions that operate on the premise that we must centralise how different members and levels of the international community engage with a myriad of North Korean people and agencies through the flawed UN Security Council is exactly the wrong approach to the security problem. If anything, a security crisis in its language of emergency should open up opportunities and fragment how various groups negotiate with, understand, listen to and face North Korean security-political concerns. Sanctions do not work not because it does not bring change in North Korea’s policy but because they are based on the impulse to homogenise and centralise a dimension of our world that is plurality and what escapes governance, which for me is what the international has always been. I don’t get it. In the face of authoritarian North Korea, liberal democracies are turning authoritarian about how their citizens  relate and interact with North Korea. It is not only a stupid and stale form of politics but it also toxic. Tit-for-tat strategy rots the fight. I have no politician, activist or collective action bone in my body but we are better than this.

But I have digressed and mislead. The point I am trying to make is that these things we say with such certainty are crappy efforts to calm our upset stomachs. My sense is that nausea, physical discomfort and other annoying matters of subjectivity have as much to do with the current crisis as the important stuff that important people say. Here I am not just talking about the lowly commentators but also those who are supposedly calling the shots.  Perhaps the caricaturists are right, sovereign politics is ugly subjective buffoonery through and through.