Hours before North Korea reportedly fired another missile over a Japanese island, speakers with connections to the Korean Peninsula at a forum hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch offered differing strategies for dealing with North Korea amid heightened tensions with its reclusive nuclear-armed regime.
The consensus in the room was that war would be devastating beyond the Korean Peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to fire nuclear weapons at the U.S. and Japan while in recent months conducting more advanced nuclear weapons tests.
“Hopefully in the end, cooler heads will prevail and we can avoid whatever terrible situation that could happen,” said John Kim, the president of the Korean-American Society of Greater Richmond, speaking at the newspaper’s 72nd Public Square.
Kim said the U.S. should withdraw its troops stationed in South Korea and let that country deal with its northern neighbor. Kim suggested the U.S. could still provide Seoul with the military assistance to help it deal with North Korea.
That view was seconded by John Shinholser, a Mechanicsville resident who attended the forum.
“We’ve got no business being there defending a country that ought to defend themselves,” Shinholser said.
But James Chase, who served in the Army during the Korean War, was skeptical about pulling out U.S. troops.
“Are we going to leave Korea after we lost all those men over there?” asked Chase, who leads the Richmond chapter for the Korean War Veterans Association. “We are going to walk away and let North Korea just take it over?”
Clay Mountcastle, the director of the Virginia War Memorial and an Army officer who served in Korea in 2008-2009, said that in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, “the Cold War still exists.”
Mountcastle also served in Germany in the mid-1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mountcastle said that while he was in Europe, he felt the U.S. was still dealing with “rational actors” in the former U.S.S.R. who didn’t want to start World War III.
But while he was in Korea, Mountcastle said he never had the feeling that “we were dealing with rational actors on the other side of the (Demilitarized Zone).”
Monti Datta, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, said he thinks the North Korean regime is indeed rational, using its nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip to solicit economic concessions from the rest of the world.
“The regime of North Korea has been very strategic over the decades in basically playing what you might call nuclear blackmail,” Datta said.
The University of Richmond professor suggested that one diplomatic approach that could be helpful in dealing with North Korea would be for the US. to have face-to-face bilateral negotiations between officials in Washington and Pyongyang.
“I think that is something that North Korea has always wanted but has never gotten,” Datta said. “That wouldn’t hurt,and is worth a try.”
Kim said Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea on Twitter has not been helpful. “You don’t have to get in a spitting match with a Third World despot,” Kim said.
Chase defended the president’s approach in confronting the North Korean leader.
“President Trump has tried very hard to bring this thing to a head and cool this guy down,” Chase said. “We’ve had eight years of (President Barack) Obama, who did nothing.”
Datta said he believes that cooler heads will indeed prevail, and that ultimately the U.S. and North Korea will communicate through back channels to find a resolution to the present standoff. “Some sort of agreement will be brokered that will be just a Band-Aid on a longer problem of how can North Korea really be treated, especially as a regime that’s always on the brink of collapse and mass starvation,” Datta said.