Janine Jackson: Many were stirred by the sight of North and South Korean athletes parading together at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. And that’s a big problem, says Vice President Mike Pence, who declared, to some media applause, that he would “seize every opportunity” to stop North Korea from using the games as an opportunity for propaganda.
There’s something funny about decrying nationalist propaganda at the Olympics, but corporate media coverage of Korea is funny in a lot of ways. When the Washington Post writes gibberish about Pence’s plan to “fight propaganda with some no-nonsense spin of his own,” that’s of a piece with coverage in which North Korea and Kim Jong-un are cartoon demons: the definition of an official enemy. It all makes sense for those who require such an enemy. But what about those of us who don’t sell weapons, or appreciate threats of nuclear war?
Joining us now to talk about all of this is Christine Hong, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute. She joins us now by phone from Santa Cruz. Welcome to CounterSpin, Christine Hong.
Christine Hong: Thank you for having me, Janine.
It’s bizarre to hear Mike Pence say that North Korea has to “end the day of provocation and menacing,” that they can’t be allowed to distract from their human rights record or weapons-building. I do wonder how you react to statements like that. And then it’s important to focus on what the US does on the Korean Peninsula, isn’t it, as much as what Pence or other officials might say?
Absolutely. I mean, you mentioned a number of things that I think are important to highlight in this particular moment. Which is the fact that when Pence refused his South Korean hosts the courtesy of standing when the two Koreas marched under a unified banner, he was as much of a historical revisionist as that NBC reporter, Josh Cooper Ramo, who was fired for making comments about the ways in which South Korea has taken its cues from Japan, which was a colonial occupier of Korea.
And what I mean by this is that that particular flag, which showed the entire Korean Peninsula with absolutely no division, it represented the Korean Peninsula without US interference. If we go back to the middle part of the 20th century, it was the United States under Truman, and it was Truman, three days after the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki, who deputized two junior military officials, who had absolutely no understanding of Korean history, who hadn’t bothered to consult with any Korean, and who then divided Korea into two occupation zones at the 38th parallel, which precipitated an absolutely catastrophic and brutal war of national reunification that followed. And so it was the United States, in the first instance, that actually set the structural conditions for the Korean War, which has never ended.
And so Pence, in stating at the Olympics, there is no separation between the United States and its historic client states, and strategic allies within the region, of Japan and South Korea, in terms of a unified posture against North Korea, what he was stating was absolutely backwards. It’s not North Korea that is playing a wedge, and dividing supposedly natural partners, United States and South Korea. It’s absolutely the United States which is driving a wedge between the two Koreas, and it’s historically done so.
The Korean War is kind of a lacuna in the US public and media imagination, and I learned from the piece that you wrote in The Progressive, “The Long, Dirty History of US Warmongering Against North Korea,” just how lasting and living the impact of that war is, and also that it was important as the beginning of the kind of big military money machinery, post–World War II, that we’re seeing now.
Absolutely. I think that you raised a really interesting point, and we can fast-forward it to the present day. The Korean War is ironically memorialized in the United States as the “Forgotten War,” but this was a war that was absolutely crucial in the post-1945 period. Let’s remember that the US economy during World War II was geared toward total war. And the Korean War basically resuscitated an economy that was geared toward the production of permanent warfare. It was essential to establishing the National Security State. It was absolutely essential to establishing what Chalmers Johnson has called an “empire of bases” around the world. And it put the United States on permanent war footing.
If we flash forward to the current moment, we have Donald Trump, who states that he has an “America First” policy. And what he’s doing right now, if you’ve looked at the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, it’s completely geared toward revamping the US nuclear weapons systems. And the United States possesses something like 7,000 nuclear warheads — North Korea has an estimated ten — and yet it claims that North Korea is some sort of existential threat to the United States. And the fact of the matter is that the revamping of the nuclear armaments industry, when the United States is, according to the NPT, supposed to actually start to dismantle its nuclear program, the fact of the matter is that’s going to cost an estimated $1.7 trillion — and that’s a low estimate.
And so Donald Trump’s “America First” policy is truly a “military first” policy, and that $1.7 trillion is $1.7 trillion that is taken away from any form of social program spending in this country. By contrast, even though Kim Jong-un’s father actually had a military-first policy, it was his songun policy, which was aimed at defending against the United States ,as the world’s greatest military power.
And as you mentioned, Pence stating that North Korea is a threat has it absolutely wrong. The United States has leveled, since the middle part of the 20th century to the current moment, the most extreme sanctions packages against North Korea, which are aimed at collective punishment of the North Korean people. They’re not aimed as a surgical strike against any kind of weapon industry within North Korea, and they’re not aimed at the leadership. These sanctions include things like hospital equipment, any form of fuel, and they’re aimed at harming the ordinary people.
And the other things that the United States does: It conducts the largest war exercises in the world with its South Korean ally. These have been suspended because of the current Olympics and Paralympics that will follow. But these actually simulate the invasion and occupation of North Korea. They simulate the decapitation of the North Korean leadership. And they also simulate and rehearse a nuclear first strike against North Korea. So North Korea has been in the crosshairs of the US war machine for decades.
So Kim Jong-un’s father had a military-first policy, which was aimed at defending — it’s self-defense — defending North Korean society against the United States. What’s interesting about Kim Jong-un is that his policy, the byungjin policy, is aimed at two simultaneous tracks, one is developing the nuclear weapons program of North Korea. But the other one is aimed at the economy, and it’s aimed at improving the livelihood of the North Korean people. Can we say the same thing about Donald Trump?
I often note how swallowing the double standard of US exceptionalism is kind of the price of admission to serious foreign policy debate in the US media, and we’ve also noted how blithely US politicians can refer to genocide on the Korean Peninsula without media raising an eyebrow. John McCain told CNN’s Jake Tapper last September, “If Kim Jong-un acts in an aggressive fashion” — he didn’t even say what that meant — “the price will be extinction.” And Tapper just kept it moving. In your Progressive piece, you say that this demonology script that we get from the media, that that essentially means, and I want to use your words, “We consent to North Korea’s extinction in advance.” I think that takes some sinking in, and media are playing a big role there.
Yeah, I would say, just to add to that, that Donald Trump, in making his first remarks before the United Nations, actually uttered that he was willing to “totally destroy North Korea.” Human rights scholars understood that as a statement of intention, which is absolutely essential for understanding the crime of genocide. North Korea is not new to “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and actually experienced that at the hands of the United States, in an asymmetrical war of intervention in the middle part of the 20th century, that persists to this day. But that war actually resulted in an estimated 4 million Koreans dead, 70 percent of whom were civilians, and this is a war in which the United States had absolute mastery of the skies, and contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Korea and China.
So what you’re actually raising right now is a really crucial point. A lot of times, especially the corporate media in the West focuses on North Korean human rights violations. And they do so in a very jingoistic way, paving the way for a war of humanitarian intervention, which, as we know, if we look at examples of Libya and Iraq, actually only result in massive humanitarian catastrophe. The human rights narrative is skewed against North Korea, when in point of fact, the crime of crimes at Nuremberg was aggressive war. It was a war against the peace. And that is precisely what the Trump administration is gearing up to do against North Korea, and the people of both Koreas are not fooled.
Trump states that this could be somehow a kind of contained strike, that this “bloody nose” strike will only impact North Korea. Well, if he’d just look at a map, if he just took a couple of minutes and stopped tweeting and looked at a map, he could actually see that Keimyung is only two hours away by car from Seoul. And so any kind of supposedly limited action which involves tactical nuclear weapons, that are about six times the magnitude of Hiroshima, in entertaining that as a possibility for the North, what the United States is actually doing is consenting also to the devastation of the South Korean people, and South Korea is ostensibly a US ally. And so South Koreans are under no illusions; they understand that Donald Trump’s anti-North Korean policy is actually an anti-Korean policy.
Finally, your piece cites Gen. James Van Fleet, the commanding officer of UN Forces in Korea, decades ago, who said, “There had to be a Korea, either here or someplace in the world.” The fact that what is today North Korea could tomorrow be Eastasia, it brings me to the idea that what some people — and you’ve been talking about this — are fighting for is for war itself, and to me, that says we can fight for peace itself; even apart from any individual conflict, but certainly in this particular conflict. I wonder if you would talk about the possibilities for peace?
With the United States, in theory, within North Korean crosshairs, for the first time we’ve seen, I think, a kind of mobilization and a sort of groundswell of peace activism, anti-war activism, in the United States, that’s geared toward stopping Trump from going to war with North Korea. We’ve seen a number of even congressional figures introduce legislation that would limit Trump’s capacity to, in a unilateral way, launch nuclear war.
It’s not that Trump is more jingoistic than Obama, for example, but his rhetoric is. And I think that what’s interesting about this moment is in the illiberalism of Trump — the sheer illiberalism, the overt illiberalism, of his actions — finally we see a movement galvanizing on the ground for the United States not to go to war. It’s not just that Koreans desire peace; I think that finally, people in the United States, who — there are very few people, with the exception of figures like Paul Robeson, who in the middle part of the 20th century, actually argued that the United States had absolutely no right to go to war in Korea. And I think that finally, now, belatedly, we’re seeing people on the ground actually galvanizing for the possibility of peace in Korea, and it’s all to the good.
We’ve been speaking with Christine Hong of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Korea Policy Institute. They’re online at kpolicy.org/. Christine Hong, thank you very much for joining us on CounterSpin.
Thank you, Janine.