In the 60 years since the end of the Korean War, U.S. policy toward North Korea has fluctuated between the options of “containment” and “rollback.”
Sometimes the policy has shifted in the course of one presidency. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both started out as advocates of rollback — regime change, either by military force or by provoking an internal collapse — but ended as caretakers of containment.
Written originally for Socialist Worker, published 11 April 2013. This version incorporates minor corrections and extra references.
Barack Obama — who campaigned for the White House in 2008 on a promise to conduct direct talks with North Korea, in contrast to the belligerent rhetoric of the Bush years — seems to have followed an opposite trajectory since his first months in office. Though you wouldn’t know it to judge from the U.S. media, this aggressive posture in Washington is a driving factor in the escalating tensions that have landed the Korean conflict on the front pages in recent weeks.
Obama’s aggressive posture may have been a little hard to detect amid the media’s saturation coverage of the escalating threats by the Northern regime of Kim Jong-un against the U.S. and its Asian allies.
But the signs are obvious enough. For one, the U.S. and South Korea have entered the second of two months of their annual joint military exercises. The war games have featured offensive maneuvers, including, for the first time in 20 years, a simulated takeover of Northern territory.
In the past couple weeks, the administration has quietly acknowledged that the North’s hostile rhetoric is a response to U.S. shows of force — and officials professed a fear that the situation might get out of hand. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, administration sources identified the U.S. itself as the provocateur:
After a high-visibility display of military power aimed at deterring North Korean provocations, the White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis, according to U.S. officials.
The U.S. is putting a pause to what several officials described as a step-by-step plan the Obama administration approved earlier this year, dubbed “the playbook,” that laid out the sequence and publicity plans for U.S. shows of force during annual war games with South Korea. The playbook included well-publicized flights in recent weeks near North Korea by nuclear-capable B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers, as well as advanced F-22 warplanes.
The U.S. stepped back from the plans this week, as U.S. officials began to worry that the North, which has a small nuclear arsenal and an unpredictable new leader, may be more provoked than the U.S. had intended, the officials said.
Administration fears may stem, in part, from a combative new South Korean military posture that the U.S. initially approved. Southern officials announced that in case of a skirmish with Northern forces, Southern units should “inflict a retaliation that is more than 10 times as harsh as the level of provocation,” while “punish[ing] not only the origin of the provocation, but also its commanding forces.”
What’s more, the new Southern president, Park Geun-hye, authorized units on the ground to carry out the retaliation without consulting the higher command and “without political consideration.” These orders are a recipe for escalating a small conflict, even an accidental one, into a much bigger fight.
Kim Jong-un, the supposedly aggressive one of Korea’s two leaders, has put his military on highest alert, but he has reportedly told his frontline troops to be cautious and avoid giving South Korea an excuse to attack.
It has been easy for the U.S. political and media establishment to paint Kim’s militaristic tyranny — which still claims to be socialist, despite the iron-fisted rule of a tiny elite — in a bad light. But there is a lot of evidence that the regime is posturing, rather than planning to start a war.
For example, troops have not been moved toward the border with the South — a fact noted recently by South Korean officials. Plus, while residents of Northern cities regularly participate in civil air-raid drills, the Associated Press office in the Northern capital of Pyongyang reported this week that no drills have been called in the past few months.
North Korea has moved a missile to its east coast and may launch it this week, according to Southern sources. But the launch of a single medium-range missile seems like it would serve more as a symbol of Northern resolve, not as an opening salvo in a war.
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AN ESCALATING flare-up of conventional combat could conceivably start a war that would bring down Kim’s regime, but it would involve thousands, if not millions, of casualties. That’s not Barack Obama’s favored means of “rollback.” Obama has a policy of “strategic patience,” crafted when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, under which the U.S. heightens North Korea’s political and economic isolation while waiting “patiently” for the regime to collapse from within.
When Obama came into office, the health of North Korea’s then-ruler Kim Jong-il was failing. The country’s leadership looked like it would pass to his untested 20-something son, Kim Jong-un. U.S. analysts predicted a period of instability as the younger Kim tried to consolidate his power, especially over the army, which plays an outsized political role in North Korea.
Meanwhile, the U.S. would tighten the screws on the poverty-stricken country in the hopes that a sharpening power struggle at the top would lead to the state’s disintegration. In this spring’s war games, the simulated invasion of the North “supposed that civil war breaks out due to conflict between hawks and doves in the North Korean military,” according to the South’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
Just to be clear: Obama’s preferred means for bringing about regime change is to push North Korea toward social collapse. North Korea’s estimated per capita gross domestic product is less than $5 a day. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, when Russia withdrew aid and the North entered a decade of natural disasters, the country has experienced chronic shortages of food, electricity, capital and industrial inputs.
Barack Obama, the pious advocate of humanitarian intervention, is deliberately inflicting the opposite of humanitarianism on the people of North Korea.
How has Obama tightened the screws? As Gregory Elich explained in a recent article on the CounterPunch website, the U.S. and South Korea are preparing militarily:
- To extend the range of Southern missiles to reach all parts of the North;
- To developed the ability to destroy Northern missiles before they can launch;
- To accelerate the setup of antimissile hardware that will further undermine the North’s missile deterrent against U.S. or South Korean aggression;
- To apply the new Southern doctrine of massive retaliation “in both peacetime and wartime.”
Meanwhile, to attack North Korea’s economy, Elich explains, the U.S. has:
- Forced through economic sanctions in the UN Security Council in response to the North’s peaceful launch of a satellite last December — an unprecedented response to any nation’s space program;
- Led the drive in the Security Council to tighten sanctions following the North’s nuclear bomb test in February. In the past, the U.S. has applied its own sanctions to other countries, such as Pakistan, for their nuclear tests, but the UN has never followed suit until this year. The sanctions include tight restrictions on foreign business relations with North Korean banks. The intent is to force the North to conduct trade and government operations on a cash basis, effectively bringing much of both to a halt.
- Unilaterally banned transactions between U.S. businesses and North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. “Typically,” writes Elich, “international trade is based on the dollar, requiring transactions to process through the U.S. financial system,” so the new restrictions would impede North Korean trade with all countries, not just with the United States.
South Korea has also done its share to punish North Korea since the sinking of the South’s destroyer Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Then-President Lee Myung-bak cut off most aid and trade, with the exception of operations at the Kaesong industrial complex, where Southern capital has exploited cheap Northern labor since 2002.
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THESE MEASURES are certainly harsh, but it’s not widely understood how harshly the United States has treated North Korea, even when “containment,” not regime change, has been the policy.
For one thing, recent restrictions on North Korea’s access to credit are only an extension of a permanent policy of blocking loans from major multilateral institutions. Japan and the U.S. have repeatedly vetoed the North’s applications to join the Asian Development Bank, and U.S. policy has denied the North membership in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
What’s more, the U.S. is technically still at war with North Korea, 60 years after the end of the Korean War. The 1953 armistice was supposed to extend for only three months, at which time the new U.S. would work out a final peace treaty with North Korea and China. North Korea has been asking for this final peace treaty since the mid-1960s. Today, the regime’s central demand is still that the U.S. sign a mutual nonaggression pact — a seemingly simple step that every U.S. president has nevertheless dismissed.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have all refused to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. Normalization with Japan could be particularly important for the North. When Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, it paid reparations for crimes committed during its colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1905 to 1945. If Japan recognized the North today and offered similar compensation, it could amount to more than $10 billion in current dollars — around one quarter of the North’s estimated annual GDP.
That amount of money could wipe out North Korean debts that date back as far as the 1970s — to Russia, France, Sweden, China and Japan — which have discouraged international banks from granting new loans to the North. After paying off the debts, there would be lots of money left over to upgrade North Korea’s infrastructure.
In 2008, George W. Bush removed North Korea from the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” If the North was any other country, its removal from the list would have opened up trade with the U.S., but the U.S. had imposed trade sanctions on North Korea long before there was a terrorism list.
At the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, President Harry Truman declared a U.S. state of emergency and invoked the Trading With the Enemy Act. The action banned imports of goods from China and North Korea. The government long ago lifted the ban on imports of Chinese goods, but the U.S. is still in a state of emergency in relation to North Korea. Every year, the emergency comes up for renewal, and every president since Truman has reinstated it.
Nonmilitary exports to North Korea have been permitted since 2000, but imports of Northern goods to the U.S. are still banned. This may not seem like a big problem for North Korea, but the ban on exports to the U.S. discourages foreign investment in North Korea since the U.S. was, until recently, the world’s biggest importer, and now runs a close second to the European Union.
All of these hostile policies, pursued even by presidents who weren’t openly belligerent toward North Korea, show that the difference between “containment” and “rollback” is the difference between strangling North Korea slowly or quickly.
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MOST OF Kim Jong-un’s recent threats have been bluffs, of course, and most of his actions have been reversible.
In the first category is his threat to launch nuclear-armed missiles against the U.S., South Korea and Japan. The North’s missiles have proven unreliable, and specialists agree that its nuclear devices aren’t ready to be missile payloads. Besides, even if North Korea has a first shot to fire, it doesn’t have a second. The ensuing “war” would entail a ferocious U.S. attack on the North and the all-but-certain overthrow of the regime.
This week’s shutdown of the Kaesong industrial zone is an example of the reversible measures. Kim has looked for dramatic things to disrupt, like the hotline connecting Northern and Southern militaries, which he can restore when tensions subside.
Kim has made it clear, however, that North Korea will not return to a non-nuclear status quo. As the U.S. steps up its threats of military action and refuses to sign a nonaggression guarantee, North Korea’s bombs serve as a deterrent, not a bargaining chip. Spokespeople for the regime have stated explicitly that the North will keep its weapons because the U.S. has felt free to overthrow governments, such as Iraq’s, that gave up their weapons programs.
Obama refuses to enter direct talks until the North commits to giving up nuclear weapons. It’s a formula for not talking at all — which is, in fact, Washington’s policy. The Wall Street Journal recently summarized the real meaning of “strategic patience”:
Obama administration officials have said they have no current intention of reengaging with the North. Instead, the White House has pursued a policy of heightened economic sanctions against the communist country, both unilaterally and through the United Nations; new efforts to develop missile defense in Asia; and new measures to develop joint-military capabilities with South Korea and Japan.
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Published by the International Socialist Organization.
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 Calculated from an estimated GDP of $40 billion (PPP) and an estimated population of 24.5 million.
 Selig S. Harrison, Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement (Princeton University Press, 2003), 35.
 Don Oberdorfer. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Rev. & upd. Basic Books, 2002), 364.
 John Feffer, North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories Press, 2003), 83.
 Harrison, 46-47.
 Harrison, 33.