Notes on the latest round of North Korea fear-mongering, April-May, 2017

When I take a break from writing I get up and do a little housework. When I take the vacuum around, I find the dust always accumulates in the same places of the house. The wind blows through and creates pressures in certain corners. The inhabitants of the home shed dust and dead skin as they move along their habitual paths, creating their own air currents as they go, and the dust into goes to its determined locations off the beaten path. Perhaps this is the metaphor for all the unfortunate borderlands of the world, the mountainous terrains, far-flung peninsulas, and swampy marshlands that stand between the great powers of the world. The main actors on the geopolitical stage bump and grind against each other and push their territorial claims as far as they can, and what is cast aside and left in contention are the remote corners off the main byways of geopolitics, left in a neutral and ambiguous state. These mutually acknowledged buffer zones that no one can fully claim or fully let go of are not totally useless. They serve a purpose in generating fear and justifying the expense of preparing for war.
When nuclear weapons and a public distaste for war made direct conflict between the great powers unthinkable, the borderlands became convenient places for perpetual proxy wars. We may be in the midst of WWIII right now, but it need not be acknowledged because it is being fought in these marginal places. Thus places like Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea) must constantly bleed, and the world must be told the absurd lie that these otherwise minor powers pose serious threats to the vital interests of the empire. If they didn’t exist, they would have to be invented.
One result of this situation is that the governments of the borderland territories become the tail that wags the dog. They develop an inflated importance in world affairs and thrive by playing off one large power against the others.
The borderland countries serve another important function. A few of them are kept in play at all times so that when the public’s attention lingers too long on Syria, for example, and people begin to ask for justifications for escalating acts of aggression, it’s good to be able to divert attention to the DPRK. When that proves to be much ado about nothing, it’s time to talk about the war in Donbass.
On the morning of Saturday April 29, 2017, the DPRK conducted a missile test, which soon failed, yet as soon as it was launched, all subways in Tokyo were put on alert and stopped until the supposed danger passed. The Japanese government, and many citizens who have been swept up by the campaign of fear, seem to really believe that the DPRK would, for absolutely no good reason, drop a nuclear bomb on Tokyo in order to initiate the war that would immediately lead to its own total destruction. More rational analysts realized that the DPRK was exercising its right to test its military technology, in spite of UN resolutions demanding that such tests stop.[i]
The day after the over-reaction of the rail companies in Japan, I came across a report telling me that the “progressive” politician Bernie Sanders believes that President Trump is handling the North Korea problem correctly by getting China to take the lead in resolving the problem.[ii] However, a big part of Trump’s handling of the situation has also been threats and suggestions that “all options are on the table.” My research leads me to a different conclusion than Bernie Sanders, and it confirms my previous assessment of Bernie Sanders’ progressive credentials, made a year before the 2016 Democratic Party Convention. On foreign policy and the need to dismantle the military-congressional-industrial complex, he is no different than the two establishment war parties. He was a false progressive sheepherding the left wing of the party into the mainstream, which he had no intention to abandon no matter how badly it abused him.
In an ideal world, a nation flaunting a UN resolution would be a serious transgression, but the record shows that powerful nations, or nations with powerful allies in the UN, can safely ignore resolutions against them. Since 1955 there have been 77 UN resolutions against Israel, and none of them have ever been backed up with threats of sanctions or military action by the United States.[iii] In addition, there is the fact that the DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, which, like all other signatories, it is fully entitled to do. One can hardly blame the DPRK for wanting out of it because the major nuclear powers have not lived up to their treaty obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons. The last NPT Review Conference in 2015 was described as disappointing for many reasons, one of which was the refusal of Israel to admit the existence of its nuclear arsenal and allow IAEA inspections of it.[iv] The push to create a nuclear-free Middle East is not backed up with threats of sanctions and military force, as is the insistence on having a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.[v] This hypocrisy is obviously an issue for the DPRK in its decision to disregard UN resolutions.
The DPRK also deduced, just like all other countries labelled by America as aggressive adversaries, that the only way they could afford to respond to a threatening adversary with a massive advantage in conventional military forces was to adopt an asymmetric strategy. Nuclear weapons, and a massive targeting of Seoul with conventional artillery are the two tools the DPRK has to defend itself. They wouldn’t provide victory, but these threats act as a deterrent. The policy is no more insane than the MAD (mutually assured destruction) policy that Russia and the United States have had since 1949.
Another consideration of the DPRK is what happened to Libya and Iraq after they were convinced to give up their nuclear programs. The US government is slow to realize that its past actions have created a severe credibility problem for all its future promises. When the US asks the DPRK to play ball now, they are playing the role of Lucy holding the football, asking Kim Jong-un to be Charlie Brown.
In addition to UN resolutions and the questions about adherence to the NPT, one could also empathize with the way the DPRK leadership looks at the United States’ adherence to the UN Charter and international law. Leaving aside the issue of how the American continent was settled, the record begins in 1898 with President McKinley’s annexation of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines, and on through the modern post-WWII era. In 1893, President Cleveland thought the idea of annexing the sovereign nation of Hawaii was absurd, but five years later foreign conquest was normalized and international law has been an afterthought for the US ever since.[vi]
Amid all the fear-mongering about a war with the DPRK, Hawaii appeared in recent news in some interesting ways. Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed Hawaii’s importance when he said, “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power,”[vii] He was correct in ways that few seem capable of recognizing.
Another news item noted how Hawaiian residents were becoming nervous about the DPRK’s ability to strike the islands with a missile.[viii] They know that the islands are the home of the US Pacific Command and thus a close and important target the DPRK would want to hit, and be able to hit, before targeting any place on the North American continent. The US congresswoman representing Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard, has been vocal in speaking out against America’s foreign interventions, yet if she is going to be consistent and follow her logic to its end, she will come to one unavoidable conclusion about what needs to be done in Hawaii. The government of the Hawaiian Kingdom never surrendered its sovereignty to the sham Republic of Hawaii, which consequently had no authority to allow the country to be annexed by the United States. If the United States had a sincere concern for international law, it would take up its responsibilities to administer the Hawaiian Kingdom as an occupied state and prepare for the re-establishment of the kingdom. In this regard, Jeff Sessions was correct. As a foreign occupied nation, that “island in the Pacific” should have no say in what goes on in Washington. Meanwhile, the United States is obliged under the laws of occupation to remove military bases that make the occupied territory vulnerable to the enemies of the occupier.[ix]
To truly understand how “trumped up” the case against the DPRK is, we need to consider the size of its nuclear arsenal. If we assume it has about ten warheads, that number represents about 0.066% of the world total, and it is not likely to get much bigger. The DPRK doesn’t have the resources to build and test a large arsenal. There are 15,000 weapons in existence on the planet, with about 47% of them held by the US, 47% by Russia, and the remaining 7% held by the other nuclear weapons states, the UK, France, China, Israel, Pakistan and India.
With these numbers in mind, one quickly understands that the DPRK would have nothing to gain from a first strike. It is curious that Bernie Sanders views the DPRK not as adequately deterred from using a nuclear weapon, as every other nuclear nation is viewed, but as dangerous and threatening nuclear war. Why is France not viewed as a dangerous threat? Everyone knows that the DPRK would be obliterated in retaliation if it attacked another country. The value of its small arsenal is purely as a deterrent. In the spring of 2016, the DPRK government announced its policy: “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our Republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.”[x]
A further interesting question comes out of a report on American capabilities to neutralize the massive nuclear threat posed by Russia. In a paper published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, written by Hans Kristensen (director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists), Matthew McKinzie (National Resources Defense Council), and physicist and ballistic missile expert Theodore Postol (MIT), the authors conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. military has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it can “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”[xi] The paper explains further that this would be achieved because of the precision targeting capabilities of the new missiles. Whatever Russian weapons remained functional after the first strike would be launched in retaliation, but these would be taken down by anti-ballistic-missile missiles, proving the allegation that these defensive weapons are for use in an offensive strike. The Russians might be so defeated that they wouldn’t even be capable of retaliation.
This new technology obviously destroys parity and the balance of mutually assured destruction. It motivates Russia to counter the threat by increasing its arsenal, and it increases the chance that Russia will launch on warning rather than wait to confirm nuclear strikes, so it is a very destabilizing change in nuclear doctrine. However, the obvious point here, in reference to the DPRK, is that if the US has this capability to defeat Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, it has nothing to fear from the DPRK. The real issue seems to be that this small nation must not be allowed to set an example of independence for others to follow.
I add further points to this discussion by quoting a recent talk by Noam Chomsky on “the North Korean threat” and other commentary, one by an American analyst living in China, and another by a writer who describes China's role in the Korean War of the early 1950s.

Noam Chomsky:

An attack on North Korea would unleash—no matter what attack it is, even a nuclear attack—would unleash massive artillery bombardment of Seoul, which is the biggest city in South Korea, right near the border, which would wipe it out, including plenty of American troops. I’m no technical expert, but as far as I can read and can see, there’s no defense against that. Furthermore, North Korea could retaliate against American bases in the region, where there are plenty of American soldiers and so on, also in Japan. They’d be devastated. North Korea would be finished. So would much of the region. But if attacked, presumably, they would respond, very likely. In fact, the responses might be automatic. McMaster, at least, and Mattis, understand this. How much influence they have we don’t know. So I think an attack is unlikely.

But the real question is: Is there a way of dealing with the problem? There are a lot of proposals: sanctions; a big new missile defense system, which is a major threat to China—it will increase tensions there—military threats of various kinds; sending an aircraft carrier, the Vinson, to North Korea, except by accident... these are the kind of proposals as to how to solve the problem.

Actually, there’s one proposal that’s ignored. You see a mention of it now and then. It’s a pretty simple proposal. Remember, the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapons systems and missile systems. So one proposal is to accept their offer to do that. This sounds simple. They’ve made a proposal. China and North Korea proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons systems. And the U.S. instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump. Obama did the same thing a couple of years ago. The same offer was presented. I think it was 2015. The Obama administration instantly rejected it.

And the reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo. It says, in return, the United States should put an end to threatening military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include, under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B-52s flying right near the border.

Now, maybe Americans don’t remember very well, but North Koreans have a memory of not too long ago, when North Korea was absolutely flattened, literally, by American bombing. There were literally no targets left. And I really urge people who haven’t done it to read the official American military histories, the Air Quarterly Review, the military histories describing this. They describe it very vividly and accurately. They say, “There just weren’t any targets left. So what could we do?” Well, we decided to attack the dams, the huge dams. That’s a major war crime. People were hanged for it at Nuremberg. But put that aside. And then comes an ecstatic, gleeful description of the bombing of the dams and the huge flow of water, which was wiping out valleys and destroying the rice crop, on which Asians depend for survival—lots of racist comment, but all with exaltation and glee. You really have to read it to appreciate it. The North Koreans don’t have to bother reading it. They lived it.

So when nuclear-capable B-52s are flying on their border, along with other threatening military maneuvers, they’re kind of upset about it... And they continue to develop what they see as a potential deterrent that might protect the regime from—and the country, in fact—from destruction.

This has nothing at all to do with what you think about the government. So maybe it’s the worst government in human history. OK, but these are still the facts that exist.

So why is the United States unwilling to accept an agreement which would end the immediate threats of destruction against North Korea and, in return, freeze the weapons and missile systems? Well, I leave that to you. And remember, that’s bipartisan in this case. Could negotiations go forward? The usual argument is “Well, you can’t trust them,” and so on and so forth. But there is a history... [that] begins in 1993, when... the North Koreans made a deal with Israel to terminate North Korean missile shipments to the Middle East, which is a great, serious threat to Israel and the world, and, in return, Israel would recognize North Korea. Now, the Clinton administration wouldn’t accept that. They pressured Israel, which has to do what they’re told, to withdraw from it. And North Korea responded by firing their first intermediate-range missiles...

There was actually an agreement in 2005 that North Korea would completely dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile systems... in return for a nonaggression pact from the United States, an end to threats, provision by the West—that means by the United States—of a light-water reactor, which can’t produce nuclear weapons but could be used for peaceful purposes—research, medical, other purposes. That was basically the agreement, in 2005. It didn’t last very long. The Bush administration instantly undermined it. It dismantled the consortium that was supposed to provide the reactor. And it immediately pressured—and when the US pressures, it means it happens—banks to block North Korean financial transactions, including perfectly legitimate trade.

So the “crazy” North Koreans started producing missiles and nuclear weapons again. And that’s been the record all the way through.

So, yeah, maybe it’s the most horrible regime in human history, but the fact of the matter is the regime does want to survive, and it even wants to carry out economic development—there’s pretty general agreement about this—which it cannot do in any significant way when it’s pouring resources, very scarce resources, into weapons and missile production. So they have considerable incentive, including survival, to perhaps continue this process of reacting in a tit-for-tat fashion to U.S. actions. When the U.S. lowers tensions, they do. When we raise tensions, they go on with these plans.

How about that [a nonaggression pact] as a possibility? If you look at the press it is occasionally mentioned. In fact, there was a not bad article in The Washington Post about it recently by a U.S. professor who teaches in South Korea. So, occasionally, there is this strange possibility of letting the North Koreans do exactly what we want them to do. Sometimes this is mentioned, but it’s pretty much dismissed. We can’t do that sort of thing.[xii]

Dan Collins, a financial and political analyst based in China, in an interview on The Keiser Report,[xiii] had several valuable insights into what is going on in China with regard to the DPRK. Notes from his interview:

There is very little popular support for North Korea in China. People refer to Kim Jong-un as “fatty Kim.” People are more concerned with making money and not so much about geopolitics. The people assassinated by Kim were close to China, so it is likely that China has been trying to foster a regime that would be under China’s influence, not unified with the pro-American South Korea.

The Shanghai Cooperation Agreement on defense between China and Russia has been followed by the one belt, one road across Asia to enhance regional trade. A huge Asian sphere of influence is developing that includes the East China Sea, and the Philippines now. Meanwhile, the DPRK is completely dependent on China, and China has stopped coal shipments in an attempt to keep Kim on a leash. They are trying to get Kim to listen to China and institute real economic reforms. Fifteen years ago North Koreans were literally being sold as slaves, for $100 a person. Nothing can improve now while Kim is antagonizing China, but Kim is worried about being displaced in a peaceful transition that sees a pro-China regime established.

As for America, the US has been in a trade war with China for the last three decades but it just wasn’t noticed as such. In any case, the US lost that war. China still has duties on manufactured goods. While China has conflict with the DPRK, it also has conflict with the ROK (Republic of Korea, South Korea). A chain of South Korean shopping malls in China was shut down over fire code violations, but this was done right after the ROK had allowed the US to install the THAAD anti-missile system, which is ostensibly aimed at the DPRK but is also aimed at China. A South Korean car manufacturer also had to shut down recently, so the ROK is bleeding billions over this geopolitical conflict, all for its allegiance to the United States. China has this raw economic power, and China will use it to bring countries into their orbit. If China and Russia manage to set up an economic sphere that doesn’t depend on the US dollar, the US will no longer be able to finance its massive military spending. No one knows what America might do to try to stop that from happening.

Finally, the most essential point to make about China’s relationship with the DPRK is that China made a huge blood sacrifice for the DPRK during the Korean War (1950-53), and it is still obliged to come to its defense in the event it is attacked. Thomas Hon Wing Polin made this point, and added that China’s assistance during the Korean War probably cost it the capture of Taiwan:

The bottom line is that if not for China’s critical contributions—including half a million PLA casualties during the Korea War—the DPRK wouldn’t even exist. Chinese throughout China, already dirt-poor after a century of war and upheaval, had to further tighten their belts for the war. The war had another fateful effect: preventing the complete unification of China. The PLA was about to cross the Taiwan Strait when the Korean War broke out... No one should be surprised if China should seek to neutralize Kim Jong Un. That does NOT mean destroying or not continuing to protect the DPRK—far from it. If the high-risk scenario of KJU-neutralization should unfold, it will have little to do with Beijing “cooperating with” or “kowtowing to” the US-centered Empire. Instead, it will have everything to do with China’s own possibly too-toxic-to-save relationship with the incumbent representative of the Kim dynasty.[xiv]

These insights on China put some much needed perspective on President Trump’s announcement that China has been tasked with resolving the North Korea problem. It’s hard to know what Trump will do if China doesn’t resolve the issue in a way satisfactory to American interests. If China succeeds in its goal to eliminate the DPRK’s nuclear program and set up a pro-China regime, this outcome may include some new features in geopolitics unforeseen by the American government.

(revised May 12, 2017)


[i] Security Council Strengthens Sanctions on Democratic Republic of Korea, Resolution 2321 (2016)2321 builds upon and refers to all previous relevant resolutions: resolution 825 (1993), resolution 1540 (2004), resolution 1695 (2006), resolution 1718 (2006), resolution 1874 (2009), resolution 1887 (2009), resolution 2087 (2013), resolution 2094 (2013), and resolution 2270 (2016), as well as the statements of its President of 6 October 2006 (S/PRST/2006/41), 13 April 2009 (S/PRST/2009/7) and 16 April 2012 (S/PRST/2012/13)

[ii] Josiah Ryan, “Sanders: Trump on right track with North Korea,” CNN, April 28, 2017. 

[iv]Disappointing NPT Conference,” The Japan Times, May 26, 2015.

[v] A nuclear-free Korean Peninsula would guarantee no security to the DPRK. The term implies mutual security inasmuch as that there would be no American nuclear weapons in the south, and no nuclear weapons in the north, but the US would still be capable of striking the DPRK from a distance.

[vi] Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017).

[vii] Charlie Savage, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismisses Hawaii as ‘an island in the Pacific,’” The Seattle Times, April 20, 2017.

[xi] Conn Hallinan, “These Nuclear Breakthroughs Are Endangering the World,” Foreign Policy in Focus, April 26, 2017.

[xiv] Thomas Hon Wing Polin, “The KoreaCrisis: Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors,” Counterpunch, May 10, 2017.

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