The US took a step closer to a shooting war against North Korea with a provocative flyover of the Korean Peninsula by B-1 bombers and another test — which the Pentagon claims was successful — of its antimissile system.
The Trump administration claimed to be responding to North Korea carrying out a successful test — the second in a month — of an intercontinental ballistic missile, meaning the North may now have a weapon capable of reaching the mainland US.
But as always, the political and media establishment are telling the US government’s side of the story: that the North Korean regime and dictator Kim Jong-un are fanatics and provocateurs, and the US — despite the obvious fanaticism of its current commander-in-chief — is only worried about defending ally South Korea and maintaining peace and stability.
After the North Korean missile test on Friday, the press was filled with the usual caricatures of a regime bent on starting a war. There was barely any mention of a highly relevant threat that went in the other direction.
One week before the North’s test, CIA Director Mike Pompeo hinted in a speech to the Aspen Security Forum that the US is looking for a way to remove Kim Jong-un from power.
It would be a great thing to denuclearize the [Korean] peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today. So…the most important thing we can do is separate those two…separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.
Kim’s personality is not the issue
Pompeo’s threat against Kim, rather than a blanket statement against nuclear weapons, is notable. It specifically contradicts Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s direct statement at the United Nations in April that the US is not pursuing regime change as a goal, but merely wants to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
There is a reason for Tillerson’s caution. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea calls itself, has developed in the way it has as a garrison state to save the ruling regime from being overthrown by the US. There are multiple layers of defense to ensure that any attempt to bring the regime down would involve a heavy cost in lives — most of them Korean, North and South.
But while US officials may recognize that there is currently no acceptable military intervention that can stop the North’s drive for nuclear weapons, Pompeo’s statement shows that the Pentagon and US spy agencies are actively searching for one anyway.
Maybe it’s no surprise that Pompeo, who frequently declares the superiority of the “civilization” of the “Christian West,” would take it for granted that the US has an imperial prerogative to decide who rules an Asian country.
But to wish for a way to “separate” Kim from control over the North’s weapons is to misunderstand the nature of Kim’s role in the North Korean state. It’s true that Kim possesses arbitrary power of life and death over people in North Korea, but he is still a creature of an entrenched security establishment that he inherited from his father.
The authors of North Korea Confidential, Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, describe the regime as “a formally unstructured coalition composed of Kim Jong Un and his close relatives, senior OGD members [the ruling party’s Organization and Guidance Department]…and any high-ranking military or party officials who have their trust.”
Control over the country probably favors the party-state apparatus more so today because Kim took power less than six years ago as an inexperienced 20-something with no personal power base of his own.
This is why it’s not very fruitful to focus on Kim Jong-un’s personal intent. We need rather to ask about the institutional objectives of the Northern state. Those objectives are strongly shaped, of course, by the assessment of the US as a perennially hostile superpower — and the consequent need stay vigilant in self-defense.
The regime’s stance is not just a relic of the Cold War
Many analysts point out that North Korean views of the US are strongly influenced by the death and destruction that America inflicted during the Korean War of 1950-53. Fighting under a United Nations flag, the US firebombed every city and town in the North “until every man, woman and child was living in a tunnel or a cave,” in the words of Bruce Cumings.
Cumings, the leading historian of Korea writing in English, has produced some of the best accounts of US attacks and threats against Korean Communists and the DPRK. Maybe the most important part of Cumings’ documentation is how US threats and pressure have continued since the war — including an economic quarantine dating back to 1950, annual war games that simulate invasions of the North, and the targeting of the North with nuclear weapons since 1958.
The horrors of past US treatment of North Korea have even filtered into the mainstream media — down to CNN no less, which last week ran an article titled “Why North Korea still hates the United States.”
Unfortunately, mainstream accounts like CNN’s risk leaving the impression that the Korean War is the primary or sole reason for North Korean suspicion of US intent. The CNN piece, in particular, zeroes in on DPRK’s use of this (admittedly accurate) history as internal propaganda to indoctrinate its citizens. This became “a political tool to justify the permanent emergency state,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University,” told CNN.
There’s no doubt that the Northern regime does whip up anger against the US and Japan — Korea’s colonial exploiter for 35 years — to solidify its own rule. But it’s hardly plausible that the regime would pursue such expensive weapons programs just for domestic propaganda purposes.
More to the point, as much as we may welcome the overdue recognition of US wartime atrocities, an exclusive focus on things that happened more than 65 years ago effectively whitewashes the US record since then.
North Korea didn’t make a serious effort to acquire nuclear weapons or long-range missiles until after the Cold War with the former USSR ended with the collapse of the Stalinist regime.
Far from living in the past, the DPRK’s security establishment is responding to threats from the US that have escalated in the past 25 years.
When nuclear weapons were hypothetical — and a bargaining chip
In the mid-1980s, both North and South Korea were militarized dictatorships with comparable economic fortunes. Both regimes had taken steps toward building nuclear weapons, but neither had gotten very far. Things began to change drastically for the DPRK at the end of the decade.
South Korea was industrializing, and China’s new economic ambitions led the two countries to establish diplomatic relations in 1990. They had fought on opposite sides of the Korean War, but as the Northern economy began to stagnate in the late 1980s, the Chinese started seeing the South as the more important Korean connection to cultivate.
China accordingly began to demand cash payments at world-market prices in trade with the North, according to journalist Don Oberdorfer’s book, The Two Koreas.
The DPRK’s only other patron, the USSR, collapsed the next year. The successor Russian state of Boris Yeltsin called in the USSR’s loans to the DPRK and, like China, stopped extending credit to finance the North’s imports.
The bad news from Russian and China arrived just as the North began to experience years of bad harvests, followed by heavy rains and a typhoon that both caused devastating floods. The result was a decade of famine in which some 10 percent of the country’s 22 million people died.
Amid the upheaval at the end of the Cold War, there were also opportunities for new alignments. Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, was in charge at the time. He considered whether the North might cultivate the US as a new patron — or at least get the US to relax its military pressure, while opening up channels of aid and trade with South Korea and Japan.
The DPRK had a bargaining chip — an experimental nuclear facility at Yongbyon that produced some electricity and a small amount of plutonium that, if stockpiled, could become a bomb. As Bruce Cumings put it in Parallax Visions, one possible scenario for the North to make peace would be “to trade its nuclear program for a new relationship with the United States.”
In order to increase the value of its bargaining chip, the regime would need to give the impression that the weapons program was more advanced than it was. The CIA helped out by speculating that the North already had enough plutonium for two bombs.
President George H.W. Bush made signs of interest in some kind of a deal. He canceled US participation in the annual war games of 1992 in exchange for the North’s allowing UN inspectors into the Yongbyon facility. He even withdrew US nuclear weapons from the South, although the US stayed well supplied with devastating conventional weapons, not to mention nuclear weapons offshore.
Then Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, and as new presidents often do, he came in waving a saber.
Clinton quickly reinstated annual war games in the South, and his Pentagon announced that some of the intercontinental nuclear weapons aimed at Russia would be retargeted on North Korea.
Clinton pressed hard on nuclear inspections, and the North responded by threatening to withdraw from the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Nevertheless, Kim’s regime still saw weapons development as an option that could be sacrificed in return for concessions from the US. He died during the crisis, but his son, Kim Jong-il, wrested the concessions from Clinton in 1994.
At the time, the North Korean regime was clearly concerned with nuclear power as a means to produce electricity. Kim agreed to shut down the North’s gas-graphite reactors in return for US and South Korean assistance with construction of two light-water reactors, which don’t produce byproducts that can easily be used for nuclear weapons.
While the North waited for the new reactors, the US would provide fuel oil to power Northern electric plants. Clinton also promised to take steps toward normalization of political and economic relations — and to stop targeting the North with nuclear weapons.
Delivering the fuel oil was the only promise Clinton kept. He was waiting to see whether the regime would collapse on its own because of its economic distress and uncertain transition to a new leader.
Clinton’s broken promises were not the only sign of his hostile intent. In 1994, the South Korean defense minister exposed the plan for the annual war games. The revision of the war plan,” wrote Don Oberdorfer, “authorized a massive US and ROK counterattack to take Pyongyang [the Northern capital] and topple the North Korean regime, with an option to proceed farther north toward the Chinese border and essentially reunify the country.”
North Koreans also took note of the expanding destructive powers of US conventional weapons, as demonstrated first in the Gulf War of 1991, then in the Kosovo War of 1999 — where the US won by conducting its combat exclusively from the air.
Weapons-grade uranium, just like Iraq’s WMDs
When George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he condemned the Sunshine Policy of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. “Sunshine” was supposed to start integrating the Northern and Southern economies on a long path toward peaceful reunification.
Bush’s policy, like Clinton’s, was to strangle the North’s economy, not build it up. Unlike Clinton, however, Bush did not want to wait for the regime to collapse. He plotted a course toward a fresh confrontation in early 2002 — just months after the September 11 attacks — by naming North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” which also included Iraq and Iran.
In the fall of 2002, as Bush built up forces to invade Iraq — and peddled lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs — his Undersecretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang to accuse the North Koreans of secretly producing highly enriched uranium to make bombs.
Within weeks, the CIA sent a report to Congress alleging that North Korea was “constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational — which could be as soon as mid-decade.”
[P]hysicist David Albright, who recently visited Pyongyang for high-level talks, told Reuters he believes the US “analysis was flawed and no information has emerged supporting the claim of a large-scale North Korean centrifuge plant…There may never have been a plant under construction or even planned.”
Jonathan Pollack of the Naval War College said in an authoritative study: “Despite the administration’s dire warnings about the North’s enrichment activities, most officials recognized that the path to a meaningful enrichment capability remained a distant and very uncertain possibility.”
A top North Korean official told the Washington Post at the time that the regime’s delegation was “stunned” when Kelly accused the North of enriching uranium. They returned the next day to say that their country was “entitled to have nuclear weapons.” The Bush administration thereafter portrayed that statement as an “admission that Kelly’s charge was true.”
In the initial weeks of the confrontation, energy was still clearly a major pressure point, considering that Bush escalated the confrontation by withholding the deliveries of fuel oil. Construction had not even begun on the promised light-water reactors until two months before Kelly’s visit.
Northern officials responded by starting up the Yongbyon reactor again, saying that fuel cutoff forced them to turn to nuclear power to general electricity. The startup of Yongbyon triggered new rounds of UN sanctions and US saber-rattling.
The race for real bombs
A few months later, in 2003, Bush’s military plowed through Iraq and discovered no “weapons of mass destruction” or any sign of programs to produce them. The North Korean regime reached the obvious conclusion: The destruction in Iraq took place precisely because Iraq had lacked an adequate deterrent.
At that point, the North’s ability to produce major weapons stopped being a bargaining chip and began to look more like an imperative for the survival of the regime.
By 2006, North Korea exploded its first nuclear device. Even so, the North agreed the next year to shut down the Yongbyon site in return for shipments of fuel oil, and the US removed the DPRK from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 2008.
In the next year, the Obama administration declared a failed satellite launch to be test of a ballistic missile and got the UN Security Council to denounce the launch. Kim Jong-il responded by expelling UN inspectors and restarting the nuclear weapons program in earnest.
His son, Kim Jong-un, came to power after the Arab Spring, which gave him a second lesson about the need to arm up: Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear program in 2003 in return for improved relations with the US. By 2011, he lay dead at the hands of rebels supported by US air power.
The North’s official news outlet KCNA had this to say in 2016:
History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression. The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.
Kim Jong-un has accelerated the programs that his father started, including two nuclear blasts last year and 18 missile tests so far this year.
Trump’s personality isn’t the issue, either
For 67 years, the US has posed an existential threat to North Korea, and the regime has armed itself — and taken such measures as digging extensive facilities underground — to adapt to the threat of the moment. The serious turn to nuclear weapons development did not begin until escalations of US pressure in the 21st century.
The escalations by Washington are themselves part of an effort to maintain US dominance in a region that contains a rising rival — China, of course, not North Korea. The source of the current crisis thus lies not in the force of presidential personality, but the logic of imperial power.
Donald Trump is clearly more belligerent by nature than Barack Obama. But Obama also bent his actions to the logic of empire. In early 2015, KCNA announced that the regime had made an offer to de-escalate hostilities:
The message [to Obama] requests that the US suspend joint military exercise temporarily in the areas adjacent to South Korea, and declares that, in that case, we are also willing to take a reciprocal measure by temporarily suspending nuclear tests that concern the US…Our willingness to sit face-to-face with the US on this issue whenever necessary is also declared.
Obama ignored the offer, because he had already stipulated that nothing less than North Korea’s agreement to give up its nuclear deterrent was acceptable as a starting point for talks. Obama had nevertheless affirmed, back in 2010, that the North was still a US nuclear target.
A few months after North Korea’s offer to freeze its weapons program, Obama revised the plans for future war games in order to escalate the threat to the North.
The following year, war games would begin to include practice making pre-emptive strikes against North Korean military and command-and-control sites. The plan contemplates a joint US and South Korean escalation of hostilities even in cases of local outbreaks of conflict.
The danger of war is real, and electing a Democrat to replace Trump is clearly not the answer. We need to build an antiwar movement from the bottom up. Fortunately, we have allies in South Korea, who have taken the lead in opposing weapons deployments.
A solidarity visit to South Korea last week by a US delegation of activists — including former US presidential candidate Jill Stein and representatives from Code Pink, Veterans for Peace and US Labor Against War — is an important step. Activists in the US could follow up by sponsoring them on speaking tours to spread the word, including, where possible, collaborations between Korean American activists and the rest of the left.
This article also appears at Socialist Worker.