On September 17, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, delivered a continuation of dangerous and imperialist threats against North Korea that have not only characterized this administration, but also a longer history between the two nations. In an interview with CNN, she reinforced the legitimacy of President Trump’s promises of “fire and fury” and stated that she was willing to have military leaders at the helm of deciding the actions of the US going forward. This sentiment was echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as well, signaling that the White House is nothing short of prepared to launch an attack that could kill millions. Current relations between the United States and North Korea are being painted as sudden, unprompted aggression against the peace-keeping beacon of justice that is the West, but this dynamic couldn’t be further from the true historical lineage. Ambassador Haley’s recent remarks, the rhetoric of the Trump administration, as well as an overwhelming animosity towards North Korea from the American public prompts an urgent need for context.
The totality of devastation and trail of death that was left behind after the Korean war was staggering. Millions killed, hundreds of thousands of tons in bombs dropped from overhead, and tens of thousands of tons in napalm burning and suffocating civilians. The overwhelming capacity for destruction the US military had was actualized as entire villages were obliterated. This political inheritance helped spur on a mission to develop technology that would be able to counter a recreation of horrors that US military interventions wrought. A decreased labor force caused by high casualties, as well as the destruction of agricultural resources, schools and hospitals left behind an economically shattered and architecturally leveled country. Even US military leaders described the assault on North Korea as “long, leisurely and merciless.” In 1984, Curtis LeMay, Air Force general and head of Strategic Air Command through the Korean War, recounted to the Office of Air Force History that “over a period of three years or so, [the United States] killed off — what — 20 percent of the population.”
Yet, how quickly the public forgot the details of what was, without a doubt, a ruthless, hegemonic pursuit for control over countries attempting to break out of the influence of global capitalism. While the three years in which the United States annihilated millions of Koreans are omitted from American national consciousness, for North Korea, it is nothing short of formative for present day articulations of ideological tenets and governmental priorities. This generational trauma shouldn’t be too hard to imagine for those in a country like the US that completely shifted its foreign policy commitments and launched a full-scale military invasion that has now lasted 16 years after one terrorist attack that killed just under 3,000 people. Recurring instances of missiles firing over Japan are also important calls for history intentionally erased. For 35 years, Koreans lived under the colonial rule of the Japanese and during war mobilization from 1937 to 1945, countess women were drafted into sexual slavery while men were sent to factories or to die on the front lines. Like in most cases of former colonies, decades of occupation and brutal subjugation never left public memory. This illuminates the rhetoric on North Korea by the US and Japan as not only infantilizing, but also genuine attempts at rewriting histories of colonialism.
It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that Trump’s flippant remarks about engaging in attacks against North Korea are simply the ravings of a “madman” against another “madman.” His threats of decimation are a clear extension of the US’s disastrous foreign policy. The bitter irony of the United States justifying this new round of intimidation by citing crimes against humanity and state violence can’t be overlooked either. Trusting a nation where there are routine targeted extrajudicial killings of civilians and the highest rate of incarceration in the world within its borders to be the moral guide in geopolitical affairs is incalculably dangerous. Even though defector stories have been criticized by some as riddled with inconsistencies and defectors themselves are incentivized with money to share state secrets, these testimonies are used as kindling material for building up a humanitarian angle to supplement the hawkish policy already in place, as if the US has always been a pursuer of justice rather than a harbinger of ruin.
There’s no telling what the coming months will bring for the US-North Korean relationship, but it is crucial to bear in mind that history seems to have a tendency to repeat itself without the intervention of those letting it play out.