The frontier between North and South Korea is the most militarized border in the world. There is, of course, another partitioned state in Asia, India-Pakistan, where each side possesses nuclear weapons and commands hundreds of thousands of soldiers. In Korea, though, the stakes are especially high because one of the belligerents is a superpower.
On the opposite side, the world’s most likely superpower-in-the-making, China, is North Korea’s only close ally. It’s not clear that China would intervene militarily in the North’s defense, but the possibility of such action raises the stakes of confrontation even higher. The last war on the Korean peninsula, from 1950 to 1953, pitted the same two outside powers against each other. The Korean War produced well over 2 million civilian casualties.
At various times in the past 20 years, the Pentagon has estimated that one million Korean civilians, divided evenly between North and South, would die in the first days of an all-out war. More than 25 million people live in metropolitan Seoul, South Korea’s capital. The Pentagon refers to the area as the “kill box.”
US military power is overwhelming, but North Korea does possess some deterrents. That’s why there would be casualties on both sides. Chief among the North’s deterrents may be its set of more than 10,000 artillery pieces, dug into the mountains, which could bombard Seoul with explosive, incendiary or chemical weapons. There is no evidence that the North is technically capable of delivering or detonating a nuclear weapon in the South, but the regime has worked in recent years to develop suitable delivery systems and to turn their unwieldy nuclear “devices” into bombs.
In the standard media representation, the rulers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK — North Korea’s official name) are uniquely bellicose, unpredictable and irrational. Some would say “inscrutable” if that word weren’t obviously racist. George W. Bush was an obvious racist, of course, so he was true to form when he called the regime’s then-General Secretary Kim Jong-il a “pygmy.”
Despite the media’s befuddlement over the regime’s motivations and intentions, they aren’t difficult to figure out. They come through quite clearly at the English-language site of the Korean National News Agency (KCNA) once you figure out how to read through the froth and invective. American reporters and editors are inclined to dismiss KCNA’s reports because they’re pretty sure that the US is can’t be “imperialist” or “arrogant,” as KCNA claims, and because they treat State Department and Pentagon sources as generally honest and reliable.
These credulous attitudes may arise from complacency, unthinking patriotism, or the job pressures inside the corporate media. In any case, US news outlets consistently produce egregious distortions when they cover the DPRK’s conflicts with the United States. Sometimes the accounts of North Korean actions are accurate enough. Often what makes the picture false is the misrepresentation — or simple omission — of US actions.
As a result, the picture of US-DPRK relations is topsy-turvy. Below, I discuss three points that the media usually get backwards.
1) North Korea nuclearized the peninsula with its bomb test of 2006.
Wrong. The US threatened the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean War of 1950-1953, and President Eisenhower installed an ongoing nuclear arsenal beginning in 1958. The weapons included missiles, bombs and artillery shells. F-4 fighter planes were on constant alert — armed only with nuclear bombs.
There were also portable “atomic demolition mines” (ADMs) that weighed just 60 pounds each. With an explosive yield equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT, the mines were more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Korea specialist Bruce Cumings writes:
The ADMs were moved around in Jeeps and placed by special teams who carried them in backpacks; meanwhile, US helicopters routinely flew nuclear weapons near the DMZ [the Demilitarized Zone, which divides North from South Korea].… Meanwhile, forward deployment of nuclear weapons bred a mentality of “use ‘em or lose ‘em”; even a small North Korean attack might be cause enough to use them, lest they fall into enemy hands.
President George H.W. Bush withdrew nuclear weapons from the peninsula in 1991 as a cost-free way to place the burden of disarmament on North Korea. The US, of course, was not disarming at all. The Gulf War had shown that the latest generation of “conventional” weapons could inflict suitably horrific damage, and besides, nuclear weapons would be ready-to-hand on offshore ships, submarines and planes.
2) North Korea is serial violator of the Armistice of 1953.
The DPRK regime declared on March 11 of this year that it was nullifying the armistice of 1953. Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations replied that the North could not nullify the agreement unilaterally. The UN is involved because the US fought the Korean War against North Korea and mainland China in the name of the UN. At the time, the anticommunist Taiwan government represented China on the Security Council — a fact that led USSR to boycott the council. With mainland China excluded and the USSR boycotting, the war resolution passed without a veto.
The fighting ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, so the “UN coalition” is still technically at war with North Korea. I’m not sure why nobody mentions being at war with China, too.
The South Korean defense ministry declared in 2011 that North Korea had violated the armistice 221 times since 1953. This includes 26 claims of military attacks. Some of these attacks were serious, including a 2010 torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors and an artillery bombardment later in the same year that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. In the first case, North Korea denies making the attack. In the second, the regime claims that South Korea shot first.
In fact, the regime often disputes accusations of violating the armistice, declaring that their actions were responses to violations by the US and South Korea. Unfortunately, nobody seems interested in keeping records about those violations. (If somebody finds a decent account, please let us know in the Comments section.)
The important thing to know about armistice violations is the big one: The US deployment of nuclear weapons violates an explicit ban on the introduction of “qualitatively new” weapons to Korea. The ban applies to the whole Korean “theater,” so offshore weapons are included. The US has thus committed a major violation of the Armistice continuously for 55 years.
This nuclear posture was known in the Cold War as a “first-strike” policy, since it licensed the use of nuclear weapons even without a nuclear provocation. The US renounced the first-strike option in the European theater but not in Korea. “The logic,” writes Bruce Cumings, “was that we dare not use nuclear weapons in Europe because the other side has them, but we could use them in Korea because it doesn’t.”
3) North Korea has violated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The world’s great powers came up with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 as a way to maintain their monopoly on nuclear weapons. In the treaty, the nuclear states of that time — the US, Britain, France, the USSR and China — made a vague promise to negotiate their own disarmament in the future.
In order to induce non-nuclear states to sign, the treaty stipulated that nuclear-armed states would help the NPT’s non-nuclear members to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses such as energy production. As a further inducement, the nuclear-weapons states offered a side agreement (not in the NPT) in which they promised not to threaten non-nuclear signatories of the NPT with nuclear attack — or to carry out such attacks.
North Korea did not sign the NPT until 1985. At the time, the DPRK had a small reactor that produced plutonium waste and very little electricity. The Reagan administration feared that the waste could be stockpiled to make a weapon. The US encouraged Konstantin Chernenko, then premier of the USSR, to offer North Korea light-water reactors (LWRs), which produce no waste that can easily be converted into weapons-grade material. The energy-strapped DPRK accepted the deal and agreed to sign the NPT. This was the kind of quid pro quo that the treaty’s authors anticipated when they wrote it.
The USSR was crisis-ridden in the 1980s and dithered over construction of the four promised LWRs, which would have cost about $1 billion apiece. When the Soviet state collapsed in late 1991, the DPRK lost one of its two patrons — the other was China — and entered a decade of natural disaster, economic regression and famine.
With US technical help, and upon US insistence, the UN’s atomic agency (IAEA) began mandatory, intrusive inspections of the DPRK’s nuclear sites in 1992. Following the Gulf War of 1991, the US and the chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hans Blix, improvised a new regime of mandatory inspections backed by the threat of Security Council sanctions. Iraq, Iran and North Korea were the intended target of these “special inspections.” The NPT does not authorize any of this.
IAEA inspectors did surmise in 1992-1993 that North Korea had probably stockpiled a significant amount of plutonium. US intelligence operatives looked over the IAEA data and concluded that the hypothesized amount of stockpiled plutonium would be enough to construct one or two nuclear weapons, although they believed that the DPRK was as yet technically incapable of making the plutonium into bombs. These intelligence estimates gave rise to an oft-quoted “worst-case scenario” according to which North Korea already possessed two nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
Stockpiling plutonium may constitute a violation of the NPT, but if so, then Japan is many times more guilty than North Korea. With US approval, Japan has stored up enough plutonium to construct 5,000 warheads. Nevertheless, Japan’s nuclear sites have never been subject to UN “special inspections,” although the country’s nuclear safety record suggests that it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
North Korea declared Blix to be a stooge of the United States — which, of course, he was — and threatened to pull out of the NPT. Eventually, Clinton backed away from the crisis. He offered to provide two of the four LWRs previously promised by the USSR in return for North Korea’s acceptance of further IAEA inspections. The deal was formally written up along with some other provisions, dubbed the “Agreed Framework,” and signed by both parties.
Like the USSR, the US never delivered the LWRs. Though they were promised by 2003, the reactors were only one-third completed by then — at the point when George W. Bush halted their construction. If we’re looking for violations of the NPT, that’s a clear one, since the NPT obligates nuclear-weapons states to help non-weapons states with nonmilitary nuclear projects.
The promise of LWRs may have been the part of the Agreed Framework that the Northern regime cared most about. For the entire time of its membership in the NPT, from 1985 to 2003, North Korea waited for assistance with nuclear electricity-production that never came. In Clinton’s second term, those who wanted to ridicule the DPRK began to point to nighttime satellite photos of East Asia that showed every country but North Korea lit up. They didn’t mention that the US played a role in turning out the lights.
Meanwhile, although the US had signed every updated version of its 1968 promise not to target non-nuclear-weapons states, Bill Clinton reaffirmed the first-strike policy against North Korea in 1993. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Clinton publicly approved the retargeting of ballistic missiles from Russia to North Korea.
In January 2002, George W. Bush named North Korea, Iraq and Iran as members of an “Axis of Evil.” Then in March, a leak of Bush’s “nuclear posture review” reconfirmed the US first-strike policy. By the fall, Bush was building up troops in the Middle East to overthrow the Iraqi government. Kim Jong-il had good reason to believe that his government would be next.
In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT. The treaty itself authorizes a members’ withdrawal when its sovereignty is threatened:
“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”
There’s no doubt that George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” qualified as a set of extraordinary events that jeopardized the DPRK’s supreme interests.
In 2010, Barack Obama confirmed once again that the US “nuclear posture” was to keep targeting North Korea. For North Korea and Iran, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “All options are on the table.” It’s a phrase that Obama has used many times since, and it suits his understated style: Threaten the maximum, but make it sound moderate.
 Bruce Cumings, Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American–East Asian Relations at the End of the Century (Duke University Press Books, 1999), 127-130.
 Ibid., 130.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 132.
 Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Rev. & upd. Basic Books, 2002), 245 and 289.
 For more detail on North Korea’s crisis, and on the imperial interests at play in Korea from 1985 to 2003, see my “What’s at stake in North Korea” in the International Socialist Review, March-April 2003. A PDF is available here.
 Oberdorfer, 276.
 John Feffer, North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories Press, 2003), 109.
 Cumings, 142.