By: Allison Pari, Contributing Writer
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and the faculty members interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Master’s University.
The Book of Proverbs’ perceptive analysis of kings and kingdoms has held true through thousands of years of human governance. In today’s current political climate, these observations are no less applicable:
“The fury of a king is like messengers of death, but a wise man will appease it… The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion; he who provokes him to anger forfeits his own life.” (Proverbs 16:14, 20:2)
On June 23, 2017, The New York Times reported that American student Otto Warmbier had been medically evacuated from North Korea after having been detained for more than a year for allegedly committing a “hostile act” against the government. Only 11 days later on July 4, the same newspaper announced that North Korea had launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile.
Since then, the frequency of missile tests has escalated. Reuters reported on Oct. 10 that “North Korea has launched two missiles over Japan and conducted its sixth nuclear test in recent weeks.” As Pyongyang and Washington, D.C. trade rhetoric across the Pacific and the United Nations Security Council scrambles to impose sanctions on the repressive Communist regime, the world is left wondering how this newest crisis will end. Should we prepare for an imminent nuclear attack or brush off Kim Jong-un’s repeated threats as more attention-seeking bluster?
It would take months of study to fully comprehend the nuances of decades of East Asian diplomatic policy, but every Christian has a responsibility to gain at least a basic understanding of the world around them. To this end, the faculty of The Master’s University have offered their expertise.
A Six-Decade Ceasefire
Any explanation of the current situation in North Korea must begin with historical context. The trajectory of escalating tensions began with the Korean War in 1950. North Korea invaded South Korea and a UN (primarily U.S.) force was sent to enforce the border between the two countries, according to Dr. Gregg Frazer, the newly appointed dean of the School of Humanities and a political studies professor at Master’s U since 1988. When the fighting ended in 1953, “There was an armistice… A 64-year cease fire…” Frazer said. “Because there’s never been a peace treaty and because South Korea is a close friend of the United States, the United States has always had a large military presence in South Korea. We have guaranteed their independence and their safety.” He explained that every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower has been faced with the “Korean situation” and that Bill Clinton was the first president to deal with a nuclear North Korea.
Biblical Counseling Professor Greg Gifford, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army in South Korea between 2009 and 2012, said that none of the current headlines are any different from what he saw firsthand on the Korean Peninsula.
“It was volatile all the time…” he said. “I was there when Kim Jong-un’s father passed away… His dad had the same posture that he had…but never…(took) a direct step or a direct strike… None of this is new. They’ve had strong rhetoric all along. What is new is the way that our president is approaching it.”
Frazer noted that in his opinion, Trump only seems more caustic in direct contrast to President Barack Obama, but not when compared to Presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. He also sees the recent threats as an escalation of tension due to three factors: the specificity of North Korea’s threats against the United States, their development of an ICBM, and their ability to detonate a hydrogen bomb.
“You put all those pieces of the puzzle together and now you’ve got a real threat,” he said. “So, that’s why Russia and China are now voting with the United States on these issues. It’s a different ballgame.”
North Korea has long had the weapons technology to effectively level Seoul, South Korea, and more recently developed an ICBM that can reach Guam, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific. Thus, despite any hardline rhetoric from the White House, diplomatic policy has historically favored economic sanctions rather than risk mass casualties in a military engagement.
But economic sanctions have limited clout in North Korea, and in the opinion of one business professor, they haven’t gone far enough.
Prof. Lawrence Pickering is an adjunct with the Department of Business Administration who teaches classes such as International Economics & Trade and International Business Marketing. He explained that China has historically supported North Korea and mitigated the economic damage caused by sanctions, continuing to trade with them when few other countries will.
“…they (China) supply 85 percent of North Korea’s imports…” he said. “They also buy 83 percent of North Korea’s exports… China has a vested interest in keeping North Korea healthy because it doesn’t want, for example, refugees pouring across the border…”
Most recently, an executive order from President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. would not do business with any bank that also works with North Korea, effectively forcing China’s banks to choose sides, according to NPR. Additionally, current trade sanctions levied by the U.N. ban exports that amount to 33 percent of North Korea’s total income.
As Frazer noted above, these measures have received unprecedented support from both China and Russia in light of North Korea’s military threats, but Pickering explained that their effectiveness hinges on China’s willingness to act responsibly.
Dr. Daniel Wong added, “Now China is under pressure to do business with the free world. They know that they have limitations. They cannot do it like they did it in the past anymore.” Wong is a Biblical Studies professor who emigrated from China in 1978. Since then, he has returned to Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong to conduct seminars and speak at Bible conferences and maintains numerous contacts in East Asia.
The impact of sanctions also hinges on the North Korean government’s concern for the welfare of its people. When the regime focuses more effort on building nuclear missiles than feeding its citizens, Pickering wonders how great that concern might really be and considers the U.S. demand for increased sanctions warranted.
“To be effective, because the attitude of the leadership in North Korea…, they (the U.N.) need to act more decisively in my view… The goal of these sanctions is to bring the leadership to the discussion table. I’m not so sure that a one-third-of-their-income sanction will do it…”
But, there is no question that sanctions hurt an already suffering people.
“Anyone who is opposing the leader is put to death,” Wong said. “People, even though they don’t like the current leader, they don’t dare to say a word. The culture is very dominant. The problem is that the majority of Korean people, they have no choice. They’re very timid; they’re so afraid that if they oppose it, they could face persecution, so they just yield to it.”
And he explained that the Christians among them are even further restricted and oppressed.
So how should Christians in the United States view sanctions that have the power to inflict further pain on victims of a regime that would rather build missiles than feed starving families? For Pickering, it is a question of the lesser versus the greater evil. Which action would cause more damage in the long run?
“The ethical situation we have to weigh up is the need to curb an evil aggressor, who would bring long-term hardship to any nation…, versus the stopping of humanitarian aid now, as part of the sanction package that would hurt them straight away,” he said. “What it might do is to trigger an uprising by the people… From a Christian standpoint you have to weigh those two things; eventually people will suffer anyway. A third of them are already suffering as they live on a subsistence basis with the use of foreign aid. That would just increase. On balance, perhaps the way to fix that is to stop the regime’s leadership earlier rather than later. Yes, there is the risk to some of the people in this scenario. But consider the greater risk to much of the rest of the world—seven billion of them—if the regime goes on unchecked.”
Sovereignty in the Face of Insanity
When all the political, military, economic and humanitarian factors are considered together, Frazer emphasized that a comprehensive solution is still elusive.
“People will actually ask me semi-frequently what we should do about North Korea, and my answer is always the same: If I knew that, I would be a multi-millionaire,” he said, “because I would have written a book that would go immediately to the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list, and I would be hobnobbing with the president…” The answer hinges on the greatest unknown in this entire equation: Kim Jong-un’s sanity. Standard diplomatic rules only apply if the North Korean dictator is a rational individual.
“If he’s rational, like the Soviets were during the Cold War, …neither side is going to act because it means their own end…” Frazer said. “If he’s not sane, then you can set him off by threatening retaliation… Nobody really knows; nobody is inside his head. That’s what makes it unique, I would say. It’s a unique situation in the world. Iran and those people, they’re sane… They’re fanatics, but they’re rational. This is the one guy we just don’t know if he is rational or not, so that throws a…wrench into the whole conflict of trying to deal with him.”
But even this great unknown is not outside God’s sovereign knowledge, and the Christian can confidently affirm that in a volatile and potentially frightening situation, God’s plan for humanity is undisturbed. For the faculty of Master’s U, this is the bottom line—that any worry or anxiety over international affairs should be subjected to a believer’s trust in God.
“All of history has already been laid out. He has a plan, so in the long run (the current conflict) doesn’t bother me…” Frazer said. “Even if North Korea were to do some type of crazy nuclear thing, that would be part of God’s plan… That’s one good thing about being a Bible-believing Christian, when you look at foreign policy in the world—Russia, Syria, the Islamic State, and all these things that are going on—to understand that God has it set up in His plan. He’s sovereign.”
Wong, recognized across campus as a prayer warrior, gave characteristic advice.
“I know that all things work together for good. Things exist as they are with God’s permission,” he said. “We just have to keep seeking the will of God, and ask God to take control that we might understand God’s heart and act according to God’s will, instead of just trying to do it from a purely humanistic, political perspective. We can say whatever we want, but ultimately God is in control, and no one can do beyond what God wants to do. So, I would say, more prayer, more thinking, and less talk. We need to be wise. Don’t say more than what we should say, and at the same time prepare more than what we should.”