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Today, the White House is convening a rare briefing for 100 senators on North Korea with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to chair a special meeting at the UN Security Council on North Korea this Friday.
Given the Trump administration’s wide-ranging Korea policy spanning from “maximum pressure” to “engagement,” the administration could announce anything from “new” intelligence justifying military action to calling for more sanctions, including placing North Korea back on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
What has most people on edge and in a state of alarm is that these briefings take place amid dangerous tensions and brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is conducting live fire drills off its east coast, and some speculate that it may test its sixth nuclear weapon timed with the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. Meanwhile, Washington has deployed the USS Michigan, a Trident submarine and the most destructive nuclear weapon in the arsenal. In short, tensions on the Korean peninsula have reached a boiling point, with many fearing Trump will use military force on North Korea.
The two forces reining in the Trump administration are China and South Korea. In an editorial, the Global Times warned, “The game of chicken between Washington and Pyongyang has come to a breaking point. If North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return.” It called on Pyongyang to “take a small step back” to make the conflict easier to solve, which doesn’t “mean being a coward, but being courageous to face the challenge in a different way.”
Given that their country would be in the direct line of North Korean fire, South Koreans, too, are calling for restraint. “There is no South Korean leader who thinks the first strike by the US is okay,” said Suh Choo-suk, a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The Security of South Korea is as important as that of the US,” said Moon Jae-in, the leading South Korean presidential candidate.
On April 18, as millions of Americans filed their taxes, MSNBC news host Rachel Maddow covered a Defense News story that the USS Carl Vinson, the nuclear aircraft carrier that the Trump administration allegedly rerouted from Australia to the Korean Peninsula, was in fact “3,000 miles away, steaming south, in the opposite direction.” By that time, however, the alleged rerouting of the flotilla had already stoked fears across East Asia that the US was considering a preemptive military strike if North Korea conducted a nuclear test on the 105th birth anniversary of its founder Kim Il Sung.
Whether intended to mislead North Korea into believing the US was preparing for a first strike or the result of a serious internal communications blunder, the incident highlighted how the Trump administration is aggressively pursuing a showdown with North Korea. Such a conflict would threaten not only 22 million North Koreans and the 44 million South Koreans, but could also engulf the United States, Japan, China and Russia in a nuclear war.
In its first 100 days, the Trump administration has deployed Secretary of Defense General Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and now Vice President Pence to South Korea and Japan. Speaking at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Pence stated that “the era of strategic patience is over” and threatened that “if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.”
Yet, by all indications, Trump is continuing strategic patience, which includes the heavy use of sanctions to further isolate the North Korean regime and aggressive military posturing, including US-Republic of Korea military exercises rehearsing the invasion and “decapitation” of North Korea’s political leadership. In its spring war games, the Trump administration turned it up a few notches by deploying the team of US Navy SEALS that killed Osama bin Laden.
Contrary to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that he “would be very, very cautious” and not be a “happy trigger” compared to Hillary Clinton, the Trump administration has mercilessly and without coherence dropped massive US bombs throughout the Middle East. With regards to Korea, the Trump administration has said that all options are on the table, including military action. Trump announced that the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syria over dinner with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in a clear message to China that it must either rein in North Korea, or the United States will take unilateral action. It was soon after that Donald Trump told the world that the US was “sending an armada, very powerful” toward North Korea, even though it wasn’t.
A Long History of US Military Brutality Against Korea
But North Koreans don’t need to look at Syria or Afghanistan, or at Libya or Iraq, to understand the sheer brutality of US military power. They have their own history of surviving indiscriminate US bombing during the Korean War that destroyed 80 percent of North Korean cities and claimed one in four relatives.
More bombs were dropped on Korea than on all of Asia and the Pacific islands during World War II. According to the memoir Soldier by Anthony Herbert, the most decorated veteran of the Korean War, in May 1951, one year into the war, General MacArthur offered this testimony before Congress:
The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach…. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited…. If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind.
Curtis LeMay, who took over for MacArthur, later wrote, “We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both … we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes.”
While all parties to the Korean War, including the North Korean People’s Army, committed heinous acts, Americans must remember this tragic history because it very much underlies the North Korean mindset and their enormous will to survive, underscoring how counterproductive “strategic patience” is.
According to Korea expert John DeLury,
Thinking that it’s a matter of making North Korea hurt enough, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of a key attribute of the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] state and society which has an extraordinary capacity to absorb pain. They have maybe suffered more than anyone since 1945. They’re like a boxer, they’ll never beat you but you can never knock them down. No matter how hard you hit them, they get back up.
And the sober lesson that the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations ultimately arrived at was that there was no military option. In 1994, President Bill Clinton considered a preemptive strike on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, but the Pentagon concluded that even limited action would claim a million lives in the first 24 hours — and this was well before Pyongyang possessed nuclear weapons. President Obama, too, considered surgical strikes, but as David Sanger reported in the New York Times, obtaining such timely intelligence was nearly impossible and “the risks of missing were tremendous, including renewed war on the Korean peninsula.” Any military action by Washington will undoubtedly trigger a counter-reaction from Pyongyang that could instantly kill a third of the South Korean population.
To most Americans, Korea is a problem “over there.” It’s not. The situation on the Korean Peninsula has for 70 years been dictated by US foreign policy. In 1945, at the end of WWII, the United States, along with the Soviets — as victors over Japan in the Pacific Theater — divided the Korean peninsula. Two young officers in the State Department literally tore a page out of the National Geographic and drew a line across the 38th parallel, taking Seoul and giving Pyongyang to the Soviets.
The Korean people, who were preparing for their liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, had organized one of the most vibrant grassroots democratic people’s committees in history. Instead of liberation, they got two military occupations and became the front line of the Cold War. The division of Korea led in 1948 to the creation to two separate states: the Republic of Korea in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic in the north, which ultimately led to the 1950-53 Korean War.
The atrocious war was temporarily halted on July 27, 1953, when US Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, representing the UN Command, and North Korean General Nam Il, representing the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, signed the Armistice Agreement. Article IV, paragraph 60, called for the official end of the Korean War by replacing the Armistice with a peace treaty.
Hopes for Diplomacy and Peacebuilding
Today, the US still has wartime operational control over South Korea and jurisdiction over half the DMZ. There are 28,500 US troops across South Korea, and it’s the US missile defense system, THAAD, which has prompted massive protests across South Korea and is straining Seoul’s relations with Beijing. The rapid deployment of THAAD — ahead of schedule and pushed during the political vacuum in South Korea — is just the latest example of US intrusion into Korean affairs to further its own geopolitical interests.
But just as the security of Korean peoples is tied to US policy, Korea has very much influenced human security in the United States. Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presciently noted, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” In fact, Korea has been the justification for US military expansion in the Asia Pacific, and inaugurated the military-industrial complex and massive spending that has built the greatest war-making force in world history. According to University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, “It was the Korean War, not Greece or Turkey, or the Marshall Plan or Vietnam that inaugurated big defense budgets and the national security state that transformed a limited containment doctrine into a global crusade that ignited McCarthyism just as it seemed to fizzle, and thereby gave the Cold War its long run.”
Sadly, the conflict with North Korea is being used as further justification to increase the US military budget. In February, President Trump requested an additional $54 billion for the military — a 10 percent increase — while making drastic cuts to social welfare programs. This is on top of the already bloated $598 billion US military budget, which is the world’s largest and more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined. “The Pentagon spends an estimated $10 billion a year on overseas bases,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “More than 70% of the total is spent in Japan, Germany and South Korea, where most US troops abroad are permanently stationed.”
The good news is that on May 9, South Korea will be holding a snap presidential election after the impeachment and imprisonment of its corrupt politician Park Geun-hye, whose hardline policy against North Korea strained inter-Korean relations. The leading candidate, Moon Jae-in, has pledged to improve relations with Pyongyang, noting that diplomatic relations are the best bet to ensure South Koreans’ security. As South Koreans work to improve peace on the Korean Peninsula, our job here in the United States is to strengthen the connection between the struggles for democracy, justice and liberation throughout the Asia Pacific, including South Korea, Okinawa and the Philippines, which are very much tied to our struggle for a just world built on food, land, water, health care and education.