Republished with permission from the author
Not even a year has passed since Donald Trump’s election victory. Yet already, his over-the-top, pugnacious rhetoric and actions have exacerbated Washington’s conflict with North Korea to the point where some observers are comparing it to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.1 But how are people being educated and informed about this crisis in the mass media? We are shown bountiful coverage of North Korean problems, such as Kim Jong-un’s own over-the top rhetoric, his government’s human rights violations, rapid development of nuclear missiles, and soldiers goose stepping, but hardly any coverage of American problems, such as our history of aggression on the Korean Peninsula, the “Military-Industrial Complex” that President Eisenhower warned about in 1961, and the ways in which Washington has been intimidating Pyongyang. Below is an outline of some myths that must be dispelled if Americans are to gain some basic understanding U.S.-North Korea relations today and if they are to feel motivated to pressure their government to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Myth Number 1: North Korea is the aggressor, not us; they are the problem
No. Most serious international relations experts would say that Washington’s past actions have been a major cause of the present crisis, if not the main cause. Yet the impression that many people are naturally left with after watching the news on TV is that North Korea is the problem; their belligerent behavior, especially their constantly conducting missile and nuclear bomb tests, has brought this crisis about. While Washington might not always be portrayed as completely innocent, North Korea is viewed as the main one doing the provoking and escalating the tensions. Let us dispel this myth first.
Undeniably the corporate mass media tend to portray the United States as a cautious and responsible member of the “international community,” and the government of North Korea as the one doing the provoking. But before and during the Korean War that ended in 1953, during the 64 years that have passed since the fighting was temporarily halted, and even during the rising tension during the last year between the United States and North Korea, the U.S. has always been the aggressor. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, the U.S. is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” That was true in his time and it is now. In the case of North Korea, the importance of its governments’ focus on violence is given recognition with the term “garrison state.” This is how Bruce Cumings, the most prominent historian of modern Korea, categorizes it. This term recognizes the fact that the people of North Korea spend a lot of their time preparing for war. That is true. And none of us wish we could live there. But no one calls North Korea the “greatest purveyor of violence.”
Guess which country has engaged in the most overseas wars and invaded the most countries since the Korean War ended: the United States. Guess how many overseas military bases North Korea has: Zero. Guess how many the United States has: Hundreds. Guess how many aircraft carriers North Korea has: Zero. Guess how many nuclear weapons the United States has: Thousands. With just a little thought and study, anyone with Internet or library access can figure out for themselves that there is no question that the U.S. is more powerful, both economically and militarily.
As we seek to understand this reclusive state, let us keep in mind that violence is a weapon of the strong against the weak. It is not a first-choice option for weak states against strong states, just as it is not for women and children trying to solve conflicts with big, strong men. This is not to say that the weaker party never resorts to violence, just that he/she/it will first attempt to solve conflicts non-violently with the stronger party before taking a huge gamble on a probably unsuccessful attempt to physically overpower them.
Let us compare the acts of aggression on the part of Pyongyang with those of Washington. First, I list 10 examples of Washington’s aggression below. Many American readers will be surprised to learn of this violence, both real and symbolic, that has been committed in our name:
1. Contrary to his image as a peace-loving politician, former president Barack Obama promoted nuclear weapons development in a way that has threatened and will continue to threaten all rivals of the U.S., including North Korea, by building America’s “first precision-guided atom bomb,” i.e., a smaller type of nuclear missile that can hit its target extra accurately. Gen. James E. Cartwright, one of Obama’s “most influential nuclear strategists,” favored this investment in American nuclear weapons technology, but even he admitted that “going smaller” makes use of the weapon “more thinkable.” (My italics).
Another investment in a new, dangerous, and geopolitically de-stabilizing nuclear weapons technology, one that few journalists have paid attention to, is a new “super-fuze” device that is being used to upgrade old W76-1/Mk4A thermonuclear warheads and is now probably deployed on all US ballistic missile submarines. It apparently greatly increases the destructive power of nuclear missiles by allowing warheads to detonate above targets at just the right moment. This is outlined in an article that came out earlier this year by the nuclear weapons policy researcher Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council Matthew McKinzie, and the physicist and nuclear weapons systems expert at M.I.T. Theodore Postol: “The US submarine force today is much more capable than it was previously against hardened targets such as Russian ICBM silos. A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do.” The “nuclear forces modernization program” sponsored by Obama “implemented revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal. This increase in capability is astonishing—boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.” (My italics). This threatens Russia since all their ICBMs could be destroyed, and indirectly it threatens North Korea, since Russia is one country that could conceivably come to its aid in the event of a U.S. invasion.
This is the result of Obama’s spending American tax dollars on a “plan to ‘modernize’ our nuclear arsenal at the unfathomable cost of about $1 trillion over the next 30 years.” During a time when many Americans were tightening their belts, Obama dedicated $1 trillion to technologies that increase the likelihood of nuclear war in general and threaten North Korea and other countries instead of spending that money on relief, education, health care, and other benefits to such Americans. (This will be Obama’s legacy—committing Washington and our economy to nuclear weapons in the years to come. No wonder President Trump is jealous—that his predecessor could do that and come off as a liberal humanitarian). Of course, Russian generals will be aware of these U.S. weapons capabilities, and they will be more likely to keep their “finger on the trigger,” knowing that a U.S. first strike could be so deadly.
2. Last year during the election, even before Donald Trump became president, he made the shocking suggestion that maybe Japan and South Korea should build their own nuclear weapons. Once Donald Trump had won the election, it became more likely that a nuclear arms race would ensue, or be accelerated (unless Obama had already accelerated it). It was not the first time that North Korea would have been concerned about South Korean nuclear weapons development. Under the American-backed dictator Park Chung Hee (1917-1979), Seoul began developing them in the mid- 1970s. The project was supposedly stopped, but South Korea already has conventional long-range missiles today that can hit anywhere in North Korea’s territory, and the conventional warheads on those missiles could easily be refitted with nuclear warheads.
3. In April of this year Washington deployed the THAAD (terminal high area altitude defense) system in spite of intense opposition from South Korean citizens. It is only supposed to intercept North Korean incoming ballistic missiles on their downward descent, but Chinese officials in Beijing worry that the real purpose of THAAD is to “track missiles launched from China” since THAAD has surveillance capabilities. One can say, therefore, that THAAD threatens North Korea directly and indirectly, by threatening an ally of North Korea.
4. Also in April, Washington sent a submarine equipped with nuclear missiles close to the Korean Peninsula on the very day of the celebration of the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.
5. North Korea is constantly under threat from the militaries of the U.S., South Korea, and increasingly Japan, through frequent military exercises such as the annual “massive sea, land and air exercises” in South Korea called “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” involving tens of thousands of troops. Not wasting an opportunity to intimidate Pyongyang, these were carried out in 21-31 August 2017 in spite of the rising tension. “Continual economic, propaganda, and psychological warfare” is also conducted against them.
6. In early September 2017 “a provocative idea at a dangerous time,” a new way to threaten North Korea was discussed with the government of South Korea: putting nukes back in South Korea, where Washington had once stockpiled them during the Cold War. Although Washington was not supposed to introduce any qualitatively new weaponry to the Korean Peninsula according to the armistice that Washington signed on 27 July 1953, in 1958 it went ahead and introduced nuclear missiles to the Peninsula. A year later it “permanently stationed a squadron of nuclear- tipped Matador cruise missiles” there. These were aimed not only at North Korea but also at China and the USSR, who were North Korean allies. These and other later-installed nuclear weapons were removed in 1991 because they were obsolete, not because they violated the agreement that Washington had signed. 70 nuclear artillery shells, large numbers of “ADMs” (atomic demolition mines, which were designed to contaminate areas of South Korea in order to stop an armored attack from North Korean forces) and 60 nuclear gravity bombs were among the obsolete weapons that were replaced with more effective, high-yield, conventional weapons.
7. On 11 September 2017 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2375. This increase in the severity of the ongoing economic sanctions will cause many innocent civilians to freeze to death this winter, without contributing to changes in Pyongyang’s policies and without doing anything to prevent the restart of the Korean War. Washington and Tokyo have tried similar tactics before, such as tying their food aid to politics. Tokyo ended their food aid to “famine-stricken North Korea” in the late 1990s. Between 1995 and 1997 there was a famine in which 2 to 3 million people, out of a population of 23 million, died as a result of food shortages. North Korea is mainly mountainous; there is little quality farmland, so during famines it is difficult to increase food production. The U.S. basically did the same thing. As Bruce Cumings wrote in 1997, “Kim Jong Il’s failed Utopia contains 23 million innocent people who need to be fed” but even American food aid to North Korea was “much too little.” That is the kind of strategy pursued by Washington and Tokyo for helping North Koreans struggle against the dictatorship and build a democratic government. But widespread starvation is not really a common feature of effective democratic movements.
As South Korea’s chief negotiator to the Six Party Talks Chun Youngwoo wrote, “Pressure and sanctions tend to reinforce the regime rather than weaken it.” This is because under pressure and sanctions, North Korea is “besieged, squeezed, strangled and cornered by hostile powers,” and it is precisely under such conditions that militarism thrives and democracy wanes. Try normalizing Pyongyang, and what you will get is the present government being put under the spotlight, where they will be forced to respond to the “demands of their people for improved living conditions and greater freedoms.”
But if improved living conditions and freedom led to democracy in North Korea, such a change would endanger the nineteenth-century-style, imperialist, “Open Door” fantasy that guides Washington’s international relations policies in East Asia. That fantasy, according to Paul Atwood, has been to gain “untrammeled right of entry into the marketplaces of all nations and territories and access to their resources and cheaper labor power on American terms, sometimes diplomatically, often by armed violence.” He provides a very brief and useful summary of the history of American geopolitical maneuvering in East Asia as it relates to Korea. This should have been on page 1 of the “Modern Korea” section in our high school history textbooks. U.S. policy towards Korea has always been about China and, as he explains, for the last two centuries there has been an “obsession” among the American elite business class with “opening” China. Faced with two possible paths in East Asia, either continuing to pursue the Open Door fantasy, or building through diplomacy a non-nuclear future in which homo sapiens might survive, Washington is once more taking the former path. A nuclear-free Korean Peninsula would give Americans more safety and security, too, but that is also a lower priority for Washington than profits for stockholders, CEOs, and the like.
8. Washington frequently sends its bombers to fly by North Korean airspace and scare North Koreans, such as on 24 September.
The above eight types of acts of provocation are very recent developments. The final two in this list below were done long ago, but they are surely remembered in North Korea, and thus continue to have an effect today.
9. Invading the DMZ. In 1976 a group of American and South Korean soldiers entered the “DMZ” (Demilitarized Zone), the forbidden buffer zone dividing the two countries, in order to cut down one poplar tree that was blocking their view of the North. This almost got the war going again.
10. Last but not least, there was the Korean War. This civil war did not end with a peace treaty and a process of reconciliation but only an armistice in 1953. The armistice left open the possibility of the War being restarted at any time. This fact, that the war did not result in a peaceful resolution of the civil conflict, is only one of its tragedies. It must be considered one of the most brutal wars in modern times. With the armistice, Koreans both north and south have been able to enjoy some peace, but their peace has been temporary and uncertain.
America killed millions of civilians on the Korean Peninsula, north and south, largely through aerial bombing. These attacks “hardly left a modern building standing.” Many villages were “washed downstream” by dams that were bombed in Kusong and Toksan (a recognized war crime), and even the capital city of Pyongyang, 27 miles away, was badly flooded. The “barbaric air war” destroyed “huge irrigation dams that provided water for 75 percent of the North’s food production.”
This near obliteration of infrastructure in Korea and the resultant suffering must remain deeply entrenched in the memories of North Koreans. As a result of the War, Koreans in the north have had to live continuously under the military hierarchy and oppression of a “garrison state.” Cumings employs the following definition: one in which the “specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society.”
Now as to the list of Pyongyang’s provocative actions, I lied. I am not going to bother writing about those because, well, most readers will already be familiar with them. Just do a search on the term “North Korea” on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. We are well- informed about the wrongs done to us by other states, but have been kept in the dark about our own government’s wrongs. Such wrongs are “ours” in the sense that they have been committed in our name by Washington, even if we did not know about them.
What does Pyongyang want? Here are some of the key changes in the international relations of that government that it has demanded in the past:
1. A peace treaty with the U.S., the natural next step after the armistice that ended the Korean War
2. An end to threats from Washington
3. Recognition of its government
Myth Number 2: Beijing holds the key to resolving the present crisis
No. Washington does. Washington is the powerful aggressor on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is a problem of Washington’s making. In fact, it should be referred to as the “American problem” rather than the “Korean problem,” as Gavan McCormack has pointed out. The term “the North Korean problem,” he writes, “commonly assumes North Korean aggression, irrationality, nuclear obsession and repression, and contrasts it with the United States’ rational, human rights based, globally responsible character. To thus shrink the framework of the problem, however, is to ignore the matrix of a century’s history—colonialism, division, ideological conflict, half a century of Korean War, Cold War as well as nuclear proliferation and intimidation, and to ignore what I have referred to as the U.S.’s aggressive, militarist hegemonism and contempt for international law.” McCormack rightly questions the way that the whole country has been “denounced in fundamentalist terms as ‘evil.’” Former president George W. Bush created the cartoonish category “the Axis of Evil,” and portrayed North Korea this way, along with Iraq and Iran. Without a critical investigation into this claim, many people who lack a basic understanding of modern Korean history readily buy into this easy simplification of the problem, as McCormack’s article demonstrates.
Anyone can see that the government based in Pyongyang violates the rights of its citizens in terrible ways, but people who sincerely seek peace on the Korean Peninsula and who wish to avoid a nuclear conflict and a possible World War III, must study a little history and acquire an adult view of the country, especially one that distinguishes between the actions of the military dictatorship that rules the country and the actions of ordinary citizens.
China certainly has a role to play but this is the “America problem” of the Korean Peninsula, and it is fair to point the finger at Washington. The American election system produced a winner and installed Donald Trump as president. He ramped up the tension with Pyongyang instead of talking to them as he said he would. And so here we are. The people of other nations have some role to play, but no matter how much we would like to ignore this crisis, it is we Americans who have to rise to the occasion, and stop this saber rattling in East Asia before it gets out of hand. As we know from Asia- Pacific War history, once the mad genie Mr. War is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put him back in.
Myth Number 3: Washington keeps its promises
No. Pyongyang has been better about keeping its promises than Washington. Making deals with Washington is frustrating for other states because it so often does not keep its promises. Just ask Native Americans. Ask their opinion of Washington’s trustworthiness when it comes to treaties. Washington violated virtually every treaty signed with Native Americans.
For a recent example of not honoring international agreements, consider the Trump’s about face on the Paris Climate Accord that was signed under the Obama administration.
Specifically, with respect to North Korea in recent decades, Washington repeatedly violated one important agreement. In line with a deal made under the Clinton administration, Pyongyang suspended its plutonium production from 1994 to 2002. Under this deal Pyongyang and Washington had also promised to not bear “hostile intent” toward each other. Pyongyang kept up its side of the bargain, but when George Bush lumped North Korea in with the “Axis of Evil” and announced a new policy of using preemptive strikes as a defense against an immediate threat to the security of the United States, the deal was off. Bush not only verbally threatened North Korea in this way, he demonstrated his resolve by invading Iraq, in violation of international law. Iraq was not an immediate threat to the U.S. Up until that point, i.e., that violation of the agreement with North Korea, a non-nuclear North Korea had been possible, if not a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. And this stands up to common sense—that the weaker state would have an interest in upholding promises than the stronger state. Why wouldn’t Pyongyang hold on to the possibility of peace with Washington for as long as possible? Again, violence is a weapon of the powerful.
Myth Number 4: War on the Korean Peninsula is thinkable
No. It is unthinkable. National security adviser H.R. McMaster said on 15 September, “For those who have said…commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option.” (His emphasis). McMaster may say so, and the Trump administration may be laying plans in the hopes of implementing a military solution, which is usually the U.S.’s ace card, but war on the Korean Peninsula is simply unthinkable. Many experts have emphasized that even with just the conventional weapons, an unacceptable number of South Koreans and Americans would die, and an unacceptable level of destruction would occur. If such a war spread to Japan or China or other countries, their citizens also would die in large numbers. There would be a high chance of nuclear weapons being employed. That could cause irreparable harm to our planet’s environment, causing suffering for many generations in the future, not only our generation.
Myth Number 5: The UN Security Council represents the will of the “international community”
No. They do not even represent the governments of the world, let alone the governed of the world—you and me. In other words, even if all the governments of the world were perfectly democratic, the Council would not represent the “international community.” Only states with nukes have veto power on the Council. It is obviously biased in favor of governments with nukes. The “Nuke Haves” want to hold onto theirs, and keep others from getting them. It is the “Nuke Have-nots” who want to purge the world of them, as we saw in the recent treaty banning nukes, known as the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Even Tokyo, representing the only country to be attacked with nukes, did not support the Treaty. The fact that Japan enjoys the protection of Nuke Have Number One and has a military that is increasingly integrated with their military, and that Japan’s government is currently headed by an ultranationalist prime minister, are a few reasons one might imagine as to why Tokyo did not support it. The UN Security Council is the exclusive Club of imperial Nuke Haves. What it is doing is clamping crippling sanctions on North Korea, a newcomer knocking on the Club’s door. The Club does not wish to share its privileges with any other states. It is not a coincidence that none of the Nuke Haves signed on to the treaty to ban nukes, and almost all the Nuke Have-nots who also have no state sheltering them with a nuclear umbrella, did approve of it.
Myth Number 6: Americans understand how terrible a nuclear war would be
No. Americans as well as people in many other countries know little to nothing about what happens when a nuclear bomb is dropped on a city. Naturally, Japanese are much better informed about the effects of the atomic bombing of the major cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than Americans. Many Americans who visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum speak of feeling great shock and emotional stress when they first go to the Museum and learn about the victims of the nuclear bombs that their government mercilessly dropped on civilians in August 1945. We were taught in school that these two bombings were humanitarian acts that ended the War quickly, saving the lives of both Japanese and Americans. But there is no question that the Nagasaki bombing was morally indefensible and unnecessary since it was committed only three days after the first bombing. Even the bombing of Hiroshima was arguably a war crime. One of the primary requests of the survivors is encapsulated in the anti-nuke chant, “No more Hiroshimas! No more Nagasakis!” The A-bomb victims (hibakusha in Japanese) themselves and people close to them generally express the hope that there will never be a full-blown nuclear war.
Imagine if the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians killed in the initial bombing and aftermath were able to speak to the living today. What would they say now, at a point in history when we homo sapiens are at the “brink of global catastrophe,” i.e., a tragedy of unprecedented scale in which Washington’s greed and bullying on one side and Pyongyang’s resorting to the “nuclear deterrent” on the other lead to a nuclear war? One can only imagine their shock and anger that in 2017 such a catastrophe was still in the cards. They would certainly agree wholeheartedly with the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” and would urge us to work hard to ban nukes. They would be overjoyed to see that 122 countries, the majority of the world’s countries, just banned nukes, even if the countries with nukes did not participate and still do not show any inclination to relinquish them. They would see the Treaty as a first step towards complete abolition. They would urge us to keep pushing until all the world’s countries had signed it and it was implemented. They also would support the bold initiative of World Beyond War to ban not only nuclear weapons but war in general.
Reference notes available on the World Beyond War website
It is good to have this perspective, some of it is new.
I’d add that Kim Jong Un is a rational actor. Any dictator who looks at the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi would realize that if you don’t have nukes, at some point the U.S. is going to invade and you’ll be dead. For example Kim Jong Un sends off a rocket that can hit Guam, but sends it on a trajectory that shows the power but doesn’t hit anyone.
Ending the embargo is not only the most humane, it is the best way to ultimately topple the regime. This would also admit that Kim Jong Un’s strategy worked, and it might be bad for nuclear proliferation.
A frightening possibility is a brute like Trump, with no skin in the game, might attack North Korea.