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Correcting History: Five Things No One Wants to Say About Korea

The real aggressor on the Korean Peninsula was always the US.

A boy walks by gravestones at the Seoul National Cemetery during a ceremony marking Korean Memorial Day at the Seoul National Cemetery on June 6, 2017, in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

On September 4, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the members of the Security Council:

Enough is enough. We have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked. Members of this Council will no doubt urge negotiations and a return to talks, but as I have just outlined, we have engaged in numerous direct and multilateral talks with the North Korean regime, and time after time they have not worked. The time for half measures in the Security Council is over. The time has come to exhaust all of our diplomatic means before it’s too late. We must now adopt the strongest possible measures.

Ambassador Hailey’s conclusion that “We must now adopt the strongest possible measures” is based on an “outline” that is historically counterfactual. Correcting the history corrects the conclusion and could correct the course that is quickly leading to more sanctions and war, including a US request for any UN member state to be able to use “all necessary measures” to inspect North Korean ships: a resolution that “could trigger an exchange of fire.” And that means saying at least five things about Korea that no one seems to want to say.

1. We Started It

The official American transcript of the Korean War states clearly that on June 25, 1950, the North Korean army swarmed across the 38th parallel in a surprise invasion of South Korea. This account was read into the record on June 26 in the Security Council. This official account is repeated everywhere in the West and remains uncontested. North Korea was never permitted to provide its account to the UN.

But this unambiguous version of the beginning of the Korean War does not reflect the war’s more ambiguous beginning. The two Koreas had been battling across the dividing line for years. And as The New York Times admitted on June 26, 1950, “The warlike talk strangely has almost all come from South Korean leaders.” According to William Blum, South Korean leader Syngman Rhee “had often expressed his desire and readiness to compel the unification of Korea by force.” William Polk similarly says that “Rhee had publicly spoken on the ‘need’ to invade the North to reunify the peninsula.”

Polk says the precipitous event for the outbreak of full war was Rhee’s unilateral declaration of the independence of the South. This declaration was “clearly understood” by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung as pulling the plug on reunification and was taken as an act of war. And even then, it is not clear that the North struck first in an “unprovoked aggression.”

The official Western version has North Korea invading South Korea on June 25. But the events of that evening get in the way. On the morning of June 26, South Korean leaders announced that their forces had captured the North Korean town of Haeju. What they don’t say is that the invasion and capture of Haeju occurred on the 25th in a surprise invasion by the South across the 38th parallel. That invasion precedes the Northern assault and was itself preceded by two days of bombing by the South — on June 23 and 24 — that prepared the way for the Southern assault. In Killing Hope, Blum reports that an American military status report confirms the Southern incursion on June 25 and adds that Western press reports at the time confirmed the South Korean attack on Haeju.

The truth is cloudier than the unchallenged version. But the protected Western version allows North Korea to be seen as having always been an aggressor.

2. Tense Correction: Fire and Fury Like the World Has Seen

In August, Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” But the world has seen it. North Korea has seen it. Because in the Korean War, the United States devastated North Korea.

The West presents North Korea as a paranoid state whose fear and distrust of the US emerged ex nihilo. But North Korea’s seemingly irrational need for deterrence has a history.

US bombing of North Korea was not confined to military targets during the Korean War. The US carpet bombed North Korea, dropping around 635,000 tons of explosives and chemicals, including napalm. Cities were obliterated; Pyongyang was destroyed. Every installation, factory, city and village over thousands of square miles of North Korea was bombed into oblivion. B-29s bombed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farms and drowning crops. The US even gave serious consideration to dropping atomic bombs on North Korea. General Curtis LeMay, the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, said US bombs killed 20 percent of the entire population of North Korea. With 8-9 million Koreans killed, Polk says that “practically no families alive in Korea today are without a close relative who perished” in the US atrocity. This small adjustment to history puts North Korea’s desire for a deterrent in a slightly more nuanced focus.

3. They Did It First: South Korea Was the First to Violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. South Korea had already signed on a decade earlier in 1975. But South Korea had already violated it before the North even joined in. From 1982 until 2000, South Korea was secretly violating the NPT — a not irrelevant historical detail that almost never makes it past the gatekeepers of the conversation.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in 2004 South Korea admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that South Korean scientists had secretly been enriching uranium. In the early 1970s, fearing the effect of US reductions of forces in South Korea, the Weapons Exploitation Committee of the South Korean government made the decision to begin developing nuclear weapons. The South Korean weapons program seems to have continued until October 1979. The South Korean confession included secret activities that began in 1979 and continued through 1987, and the lack of declaration to the IAEA violated the country’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. The IAEA says the non-declared activity was conducted over a 20-year period. While it is not known for certain that the scientists were working with higher-level approval, the scientists were working in the government-funded Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

4. Diplomacy Does Work

Contrary to the claims made by Nikki Haley at the UN and by Donald Trump everywhere, that “time after time” diplomacy has not worked with North Korea, time after time, diplomacy with North Korea has proven very effective.

According to the Arms Control Association, the United States has engaged in two major diplomatic efforts with North Korea over their nuclear program. The first was the Agreed Framework of 1994. This agreement led to North Korea freezing, and agreeing to eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons program. They also agreed to allow special inspections by the IAEA to verify their compliance with the agreement. In return, North Korea was to receive two light-water reactors and supplies of heavy fuel oil.

The second was the 2005 agreement, in which North Korea committed to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and to permit inspections.

Both worked, showing that diplomacy with North Korea was a possible route to nuclear disarmament. And when each stopped working, each time, the party chiefly responsible for the failure was not the North Koreans but the Americans.

The 1994 agreement included assurances that the US would stop threatening North Korea. George W. Bush broke that agreement when he threatened North Korea and grouped it with Iran and Iraq in the “Axis of Evil.” Worse, the US explicitly included North Korea in the 2002 nuclear posture review as a country the US should be prepared to use a nuclear bomb on. It was only then that North Korea restarted its weapons program. According to Noam Chomsky in Hopes and Prospects, the US also failed in the fuel supply part of the agreement, providing only 15 percent of the fuel it had promised. By the late 1990s, according to Lawrence Wilkerson, who was special assistant to Colin Powell, the United States was already not living up to its side of the Agreed Framework.

In October, 2002, nine months after the “Axis of Evil” speech, based on preliminary intelligence, the US claimed that North Korea had restarted a clandestine nuclear program. Though, if true, the program would be a violation of the NPT, it would not actually be a violation of the Agreed Framework. Despite American claims that North Korea admitted to the program, North Korea has consistently denied that it ever made such an admission. Rather than following up the preliminary intelligence with North Korea or pursuing a solution through continuing diplomacy, the Bush administration, which lacked commitment to the Agreed Framework, used the preliminary intelligence as an excuse to kill the agreement. In a stunning admission, then Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton called the preliminary intelligence “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”

Similar to the 1994 agreement, the 2005 agreement committed the US to stop threatening to attack North Korea, to move towards normalization of relations and to commence planning of a light-water reactor that could produce fuel but not weapons. In What We Say Goes, Noam Chomsky lays the blame for diplomacy’s failure once again not with North Korea, but with the US. Chomsky says that President Bush broke his light-water reactor promise and undertook economic warfare on North Korea.

Donald Trump says that diplomacy with North Korea has been “weak and ineffective.” But history says he’s wrong.

5. North Korea Is Willing to Give Up Its Nuclear Deterrent if There Is No Longer a Need for a Deterrent

The claim is constantly made that the North Koreans are unwilling to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program. What is never said, though, is that that’s not what they said. North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador Kim In-ryong recently put it this way to UN Secretary-General António Guterres: “As long as the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat continue, the DPRK, no matter who may say what, will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table.” The conditional changes everything. North Korea is not saying it will never negotiate over its nuclear program; it is saying it will not negotiate away a deterrent until there are guarantees that they no longer need the deterrent. That’s different, and that’s never said.

And it’s not like the North Koreans are fabricating the threat. It was the US that broke the armistice agreement that permitted no new weapons — including nuclear and other advanced weapons — to be brought onto the Korean Peninsula. In January 1958 the US placed nuclear-tipped missiles in South Korea. It was not until September 1991 that the US removed approximately 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea. So, it was the US and South Korea — not North Korea — that threateningly broke the weapons clause of the armistice agreement and introduced nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. That nuclear threat stared at North Korea for 33 years.

Traumatized by the napalm and carpet bombing of the Korean War, the North Koreans have felt a relentless existential threat. From US nuclear missiles in South Korea, to the clandestine South Korean nuclear weapons program, to the “Axis of Evil,” to being named a country the US should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb on, the perception of an existential threat has been almost continuous. The perception of threat has continued with US-South Korean military exercises on the North Korean border that include stealth bombers simulating nuclear bombing attacks on North Korea. Trump has threatened “fire and fury,” and lest you think that just rhetoric, has told Sen. Lindsey Graham that, “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself.” Defense Secretary Mattis warned North Korea that its actions “would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Hence, the conditional in Ambassador Kim’s negotiations formulation. And his statement is far from the only appearance of that formulation. It was repeated by the Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho a month later. And on August 22, at a UN Conference on Disarmament, a North Korean diplomat said the same thing: “As long as the US hostile policy and nuclear threat remains unchallenged, the DPRK will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table.” Note again the “as long as,” as opposed to “never.” Kim Jong-un himself said the same thing on July 4.

North Korea has also shown the initiative to take the lead on the conditional formulation of the offer. In 2014, the Obama administration rejected a North Korean offer to freeze missile testing if the US freezes the threatening joint military exercises it holds with South Korea. The same offer was made, and the same offer rejected in January 2015.

Before North Korea is dismissed as an irrational regime that is incapable of negotiation and unwilling to negotiate, and before that conclusion is used to justify war as the only path to limiting North Korea’s nuclear program, these five historical points need to be clearly stated and considered.

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