Is North Korea the real threat?

May 29, 2009

Alan Maass looks at the role of the U.S. government in setting the stage for escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.

THE U.S. government has nuclear weapons pointed at North Korea, a fleet of Navy vessels permanently positioned off its coast, and close to 100,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea and Japan. Successive U.S. administrations have reneged on promises made over two decades to provide humanitarian aid to the North's impoverished population.

But you wouldn't know any of that from the international response when the North Korean regime carried out a nuclear bomb test May 25.

Instead, U.S. and international political leaders, cheered on by the media, all heaped blame on North Korea alone for the escalating threat of war.

The nuclear test was North Korea's second. This bomb, set off underground, was far more powerful, estimated at between 10 and 20 kilotons--approximately the same destructive power of each of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.

The North Korean military announced the same day that it had test-fired three short-range missiles, and the government reportedly restarted a nuclear reactor it had promised to dismantle as part of an aid-for-disarmament agreement reached two years ago at so-called "six-party talks" involving China, Russia, Japan, the U.S. and the two Koreas.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton (Marc Nozell)

The U.S. and ally South Korea, in turn, put their military forces on a state of high alert--and American officials were pressing the United Nations Security Council for sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised North Korea would face "consequences" for what she called "provocative and belligerent actions."

The idea that North Korea represents a military threat to the U.S. is absurd. The country is desperately poor, with a per capita income of less than $2 a day. Its military is years away from developing a long-range missile that could reliably reach the continental U.S., much less a nuclear device that could be carried on such a missile.

But on the Korean peninsula, the threat of horrific carnage is far more immediate. North Korea has an estimated 750 missiles and 13,000 artillery tubes pointed toward South Korea. Some 21 million people live in metropolitan Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the border with the North. And, of course, U.S. and South Korean forces have a far more destructive arsenal at their command. A war could leave 1 million civilians dead in a matter of days.

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The North Korean regime's militaristic rhetoric--and, even more so, its police-state methods for repressing dissent--makes it easy for the media to dismiss its leaders as crazed fanatics. But when North Korean officials say their attempts to develop nuclear weapons have been a deterrent against U.S. attack, they're right.

When the Bush administration launched its "war on terror," North Korea was included among the "axis of evil" list of possible targets after Afghanistan was conquered. But it never faced even preparations for a U.S. war. "The Iraqi war taught the lesson that...the security of the nation can be protected only when a country has a physical deterrent force," a North Korean official said a few weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.

BEHIND THE conflict between the U.S. and North Korea lies more than a century of colonial occupation and imperialist domination.

Before the 20th century, rulers of China and Japan had fought over who would control the Korean peninsula. After defeating Russia in a 1905 war, Japan made Korea into its colony, which it ruthlessly exploited, with help from U.S. investors.

After Japan's defeat in the Second World War, the U.S. and the former USSR--previously wartime allies--began their Cold War rivalry, with Korea serving as an early battleground. The peninsula was "temporarily" partitioned.

Communist forces in the North backed by the USSR launched an offensive with the aim of reuniting Korea in 1950. The U.S. responded with a wholesale slaughter. With the authority of the United Nations as a cover, the U.S. used napalm to firebomb every Northern city, reducing them to ruins.

Four years of war ended in a stalemate, at a cost of some 3 million dead; the previous partition line was reconfirmed in a 1953 armistice agreement.

Following the war, South Korea was run by its military, backed up by the U.S. Only after more than three decades of dictatorship did this regime finally crack, in the face of a mass democracy movement fueled by workers' struggles.

North Korea adopted the repressive Stalinist system of its patrons in Russia and China. Though its leaders still claim to be presiding over "communism," North Korea is the polar opposite of a socialist society of workers' power and democracy. The state apparatus directs the economy and society with an iron hand, and the regime promotes a cult of personality, first around Kim Il-sung, and now his son Kim Jong-il.

But if North Korea has always been highly militarized, it has also faced half a century of military threats from the U.S. and its clients in the South. The U.S. introduced nuclear weapons to the peninsula in the late 1950s, in violation of the armistice that ended the war. It also maintains, to this day, a huge military force stationed in both South Korea and nearby Japan as a constant threat against the North.

North Korea was economically ahead of the South until the mid-1970s. But its increasing impoverishment intensified after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration stoked tensions by restarting war games on the peninsula and retargeting nuclear weapons once aimed at the USSR toward North Korea. According to a South Korean government official, the U.S. had drawn up plans for the overthrow of the North and its takeover by the South.

In 1994, the Clinton White House agreed to a deal in which the North Korean government promised to halt its nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. would lift its embargo on trade and credit, and also help with the building of a civilian nuclear power program, with shipments of fuel oil as a stopgap measure for producing electricity.

Clinton broke all these promises, except for the delivery of fuel oil and some food aid. The economic crisis grew worse. Severe flooding in the 1990s led to a famine that killed as many as one in 10 people in the country. In other words, in spite of the agreement, the Clinton administration was continuing to up the pressure on the regime, in the hopes that it would break.

When George W. Bush came to power, he made matters worse by rejecting further direct negotiations. The state of relations between the two countries was symbolized by Bush's racist rants about Kim Jong-il being a "pygmy."

Now the Obama administration is in charge, and its top foreign policy officials show no sign of wanting to pursue a different path. Thus, Obama's UN Ambassador Susan Rice said she wanted to be sure North Korea would "pay a price" for its nuclear test.

No sane person wants to see the spread of nuclear weapons. But when it comes to the arms race and war threats in East Asia, the driving force is the U.S. government. Real disarmament would start with the American soldiers and weapons that have been pointed at North Korea for more than half a century.

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