writing on suffering and awakening

We can have peace with North Korea

For the past year, senior national security figures have suggested that the United States could attack North Korea in order to stymie Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program. Recent reports indicate that behind the scenes, the military is quietly preparing for just that course of action. While this may be little more than posturing, the prospect of a shooting war against a fellow nuclear power should be terrifying to all. Millions of people could die, and every person on earth would have to live with the repercussions for generations. 

So really, let’s not do this. We don’t have to. 

The prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea is frightening. I certainly wish they had not pursued a nuclear program. But they did, and do not appear to be inclined to give it up. While we can and should make every effort to engage diplomatically with the North Korean government, we can’t count on their position changing.

That leaves us with a choice. We can try and use force to destroy their nuclear strike capability, or we can live with it. 

The first option inevitably leads to a bloodbath. Seoul, the South Korean capital and one of the biggest cities in the world, is less than 50 miles from the border that divides the two Koreas. North Korean artillery, permanently trained on Seoul, could rain fire on the city and her people in the opening days of any conflict. Experts suggest upwards of 60,000 deaths within the first 24 hours of a shooting war—and that’s just from artillery fire alone. A ground invasion by the North Korean army would send that figure soaring, and should the violence turn nuclear, soaring doesn’t come close to capturing the potential numbers of the dead. 

It also doesn’t account for the fact that North Korea could launch a nuclear strike not just against our South Korean allies, but at Japan, Alaska, Hawaii or the continental United States itself. As an Angeleno, this starts to feel like less a matter of empathy for the people of South Korea, and more a question of immediate self-interest. I don’t want to be blown up, and I presume, neither do you. 

So that brings us to option two: living with a nuclear-armed North Korea we neither like nor trust. This seems to go against the instincts of both our national security leaders, including the president, and many of the American people as a whole. So how can we come around to the idea?

A good place to start would be framing the situation as an opportunity for all of us to explore a fundamental truth many of us would rather avoid. Namely, that death is always with us, that even the mighty will fall, and that there is no such thing as true security, at least not in any material sense.

How many of us spend our days pretending that we’re not drawing closer to death with every breath? How many of us try to resist the passage of time, to reassure ourselves that we don’t look older today than we did yesterday, or to push away the nagging sensation that we don’t truly know if tomorrow will come? I do.

But despite our best efforts, death is always with us—our constant companion as much as our secret bane. It’s not separate from life, or opposed to life, but just a different side of the very process of birth and growth that makes up what we call our lives. Death is scary not because it’s intrinsically bad, but because we fail to see it as a part of ourselves.

On an individual level, we cause ourselves a lot of suffering by running from death. We spend vast amounts of money trying to stay young, or dedicate our lives, as Ozymandias did, to trying to create something of ourselves that will outlast our physical bodies. We might blow up a lifelong marriage for a new partner who can give us a whispering sense of youth once again. We might bury ourselves in work. We might, in one way or another, wall ourselves off from the world.

That’s painful enough. But when that same fear of death guides the decision making of nation, the pain is amplified. The United States has built the greatest war machine in the history of the world, because we wanted to feel safe. Now, our commanders are tempted to use that machine against a country which is threatening that sense of safety.

But that’s the key—North Korea is threatening our sense of safety. Their weapons are wearing away at our sense of order, dominance and control. They are reminding us that even the mighty lion can be felled by a scorpion’s bite, and that’s a scary reminder for those of us used to feeling that our country, if not our individual selves, was invulnerable.

But what if we sit with that sense of fear, and that awareness of death and vulnerability, instead of trying to drive it away through force of arms? What if instead of running from death, or the knowledge that our material security is illusory, we make room for them? What if instead of doing something, we don’t do anything? We can just let it all be.

I believe this approach could help us grow: as individuals, as a nation, and as members of the global community. Equally important, I believe it could prevent a pointless war and all that would come with it.

It’s not easy to look over at North Korea and say: we can hurt you, you can hurt us, and we both have to live with it. That takes a great deal of humility—one virtue America is not well acquainted with. But if our leaders can find the humility to admit our shared vulnerability, that death stands with us as well as with them, perhaps we can see that they are us, and we can have peace.

Ian Cooper