This week South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea, spoke before a joint session of the United States House of Representatives and Senate. She appropriately began by thanking all of our veterans who fought in Korea, where more than 35,000 Americans gave their lives. Echoing the words etched in granite at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, she praised these heroes "who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." President Park recognized four current Members of Congress who served in the war: Charlie Rangel of New York, Sam Johnson of Texas, Howard Coble of North Carolina, and John Conyers of Michigan.
I was sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives behind Congressman Sam Johnson. After serving in Korea, he went on to serve two tours of duty in Vietnam. During that second tour, his fighter jet was shot down. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war for seven years. Congressman Johnson's body is twisted and broken. He struggled to get out of his chair when his name was called. He cannot hide the scars from the physical toll of deprivation and torture. But his physical condition does not deter him; instead it reminds the rest of us of the noble sacrifice that so many Americans have made for our country.
As President Park acknowledged Sam, he gave her a salute. I then looked over at Charlie Rangel, who smiled at Sam and brought a fist to his chest in a gesture of respect. He has his own unique story of battle, having been caught behind enemy lines and fighting his way out. I can assure you that these men have very distinct political positions and styles -- in many ways, they consistently oppose one another. But in terms of their military service, there is no distinction: each gave what they had to our country.
A few weeks ago, the situation in North Korea was at the forefront of our minds and on the front page of newspapers around the country as the regime once again threatened South Korea and the U.S. But on April 15, the Boston bombings took place and our attention immediately -- and appropriately -- shifted to the senseless tragedy on American soil.
North Korea remains a threat to South Korea, the United States, and global security. Their young leader, Kim Jong-un, is unknown, unproven, and unpredictable. Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un demonstrates a bizarre paranoia of the outside world. His primary motive is to hold power.
The regime is highly secretive. It survives with aid from China, illicit arms trade, drug trafficking, and counterfeiting. Since 2006, North Korea has carried out three known nuclear tests. Estimates suggest that the country has capabilities for five to eight nuclear weapons. They have hundreds of short and medium-range missiles and are said to be developing longer-range missiles. The regime seems eager to flex its military might and nuclear capability, describing this week's summit between America and South Korea as a prelude to war. We can speculate that this belligerent behavior may be aimed at consolidating internal power, but it is difficult to discern the full motivation.
But there is more to North Korea than military bluster. For decades the reclusive regime has ruled its people with an iron fist. It is one of the few places in the world where the culture of the gulag remains a horrific reality. While their rulers eat lavish meals and waste precious resources, millions of North Koreans are starving and barely surviving. The North Korean regime is guilty of flagrant human rights abuses, yet it is difficult to compel them to change their ways.
There are nearly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South Korea from North Korea. This buffering force has been a deterrent to North Korean aggression since 1953. While the South thrives as the world's eighth largest economy, a model of stable democratic governance, and a responsible member of the international community, across the DMZ to the north there is misery, hostility, and twisted nationalism. It is hard to understand how a common people could take such a divergent path. Even China, which traditionally aids North Korea, has recognized the destabilizing behavior of its neighbor. China's new President, Xi Jinping, recently said, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains."
A responsible regional and international approach to North Korea must be marked with prudence, preparation, and consistency. Underscoring this point, President Park laid out a vision of hope for the Korean Peninsula:
"The leadership in Pyongyang must make no mistake. Security does not come from nuclear weapons. Security comes when the lives of its people are improved. It comes when people are free to pursue their happiness. North Korea must make the right choice. It must walk the path to becoming a responsible member in the community of nations. In order to induce North Korea to make that choice, the international community must speak with one voice. Its message must be clear and consistent. Only then will we see real progress in inter-Korean relations. Only then will lasting peace be brought to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia."
Given the high level of tension, the hair trigger of the North, and their need to prove legitimacy, the conditions exist for another Sarajevo moment. The U.S. and South Korea's attempt to de-escalate verbally while remaining firm in resolve is a nuanced but prudential strategy in a difficult moment.