March 7, 2017
By Stephen Gowans
The White House is considering “possible military action to force regime change” in North Korea, another in a long succession of threats Washington has issued against Pyongyang, piled atop unremitting aggression the United States has directed at the country from the very moment of its birth in 1948.
In addition to direct military action from 1950 to 1953 against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the country’s official name), US aggression has included multiple threats of nuclear annihilation, and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea until 1991. Re-deployment is now under consideration in Washington.
Most US nuclear threats against Pyongyang were made before North Korea embarked upon its own nuclear weapons program, and constitute one of the principal reasons it did so. The country’s being declared an original member of the Bush administration’s Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran, provided an additional impetus.
US aggression against Gaddafi’s Libya, after the Arab and African nationalist leader abandoned his country’s nuclear weapons program in a failed effort at an entente with the West, only affirmed Pyongyang’s view that its decision to acquire a nuclear deterrent was sound and imperative. To make Gaddafi’s blunder would be to commit suicide.
North Korea has additionally been menaced by annual US-directed war games involving hundreds of thousands of troops, carried out along North Korea’s borders. While US officials describe the twice yearly assembling of significant military forces within striking range of the DPRK as routine and defensive, it is never clear to the North Korean military whether the US–directed maneuvers are defensive exercises or preparations for an invasion. Accordingly, the exercises are objectively minatory.
US officials have described Russian war games along Russia’s western border as “provocations” and as a sign of Russian “aggression.” One US official said, “The Russians have been doing a lot of snap exercises right up against the borders, with a lot of troops. From our perspective, we could argue this is extraordinarily provocative behavior.” And yet when US and South Korean troops do the same, right up against North Korea’s borders, their actions are deemed routine and defensive. (Threats made routinely, it should be noted, do not become non-threats simply because they are routine.)
On top of military aggression, the United States has added economic aggression to its decades-long quest to bring about regime change in North Korea. For almost seven decades Washington has led a campaign of economic warfare against the DPRK, designed to do what economic sieges are always intended to do: make the lives of ordinary people sufficiently straitened and miserable that they rise in revolt against their own government.
While the United States struts around the globe as the self-proclaimed champion of democracy, while counting kings, emirs, sultans and military dictators among its closest allies, it has imposed sanctions on North Korea for the most profoundly undemocratic reason. A US Congressional Research Service 2016 report, “North Korea: Economic Sanctions,” enumerates a detailed list of economic penalties imposed on North Korea for having the temerity to operate a “Marxist-Leninist” economy contrary to Washington’s Wall Street-approved economic prescriptions. Hence, the United States wages economic warfare on people in other lands because it doesn’t like the decisions they make about how to organize their own economic lives (and more to the point, because those decisions fail to comport with the profit-making interests of corporate America, the only sector of the United States whose voice matters in US policy.) What could be more hostile to democracy—and more imperialist—than that?
The US decision to consider military action against North Korea to force regime change may be considered a response to Pyongyang’s “threats,” but the DPRK, regardless of its bluster, has never posed a threat to the physical safety of the United States. It is far too small (its population is only 25 million) and too weak militarily (its annual defense spending is less than $10 billion, swamped by the Himalayan military outlays of its adversaries, from South Korea’s $36 billion to Japan’s $41 billion to the United States’ $603 billion), to pose a significant threat, or even a derisory one. Moreover, it is totally devoid of the means to convey a military force to US soil, lacking long range bombers and a capable navy.
To be sure, Pyongyang may have developed ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, and it may have acquired the know-how to miniaturize nuclear warheads that can be carried atop them, but the notion that Pyongyang would undertake an offensive strike against the United States is risible. Doing so would be tantamount to a porcupine tangling with a mountain lion. Since porcupines have no hope of defeating mountain lions, and would be mangled in the attempt, they avoid confrontations with them. They do, however, have self-defensive quills—the equivalent of North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs—to deter mountain lions, and other predators, from tangling with them.
North Korea is often criticized for being a garrison state, closed off to the outside world, yet its insularity can be understood as an imperative of surviving as an independent, sovereign state, in a world in which the United States insists on exercising global “leadership” (i.e., denying other countries their sovereignty) and using its military supremacy to coerce the world to fall into step behind its leadership of the global economy.
Washington has been waging a cyber-war against North Korea, which it is speculated may be responsible for a string of missile test launch failures which recently plagued the DPRK’s missile program, and additionally explains why the country’s leadership is chary about openness. You don’t facilitate sabotage of your own country by opening up to a hostile government that is committed to your demise. And should there be any illusions about what Washington’s intentions are, consider the words of John R. Bolton. In 2003, Bolton was the US under secretary of state for arms control. Asked by New York Times’ reporter Christopher Marquis what Washington’s policy on North Korea was, Bolton “strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table. It was called ‘The End of North Korea.'” “‘That,’ he said, ‘is our policy.'” North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs have nothing whatever to do with Washington’s desire to bring about the end of North Korea, since this has been US policy since 1948, the year the DPRK was founded, long before Pyongyang embarked on developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Instead, the reasons for Washington’s hostility lie in economics and Pyongyang’s refusal to submit to US leadership.
Next month, South Korea will significantly increase the rewards it pays to defectors from the north who treasonously disclose state secrets or surrender military equipment. High-ranking North Korean officials will receive $860,000 for defecting and selling out their compatriots, while pilots will be offered the same to fly their warplanes to South Korea. Sailors who surrender their warships to Seoul will also receive $860,000. At the same time, payouts from $43,000 to $260,000 will be handed to North Korean military personnel who defect, if they bring with them lesser weapons, such as tanks or machine guns.
South Korea, in contrast to the much-threatened North, is a US neo-colonial appendage which hosts tens of thousands of US troops on its soil, ostensibly for protection against the DPRK, even though North Korea is weaker militarily than its peninsular counterpart, has less advanced equipment and weapons systems, and its military outlays are only one-quarter of Seoul’s. South Korea denies itself sovereign control of its own military, yielding to de jure US command in times of emergency, and de facto US control otherwise. This reflects the history of the country. It began as a regime of collaborators with the Japanese, who shifted their collaboration to their new American overlords at the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, to the north, it was guerrillas who fought Japanese colonization, and committed their lives to the manumission of Korea from foreign control, who founded the government in Pyongyang. Then as now, one half of the Korean peninsula exhibited a prickly independence, while the elite of the other half kow-towed to an imperialist behemoth (in contradistinction to a grassroots guerilla movement in the south that sought, unsuccessfully, to throw off the yoke of oppression by collaborationist governments and their US suzerain.)
South Korea’s hostility to its pro-independence northern neighbor, along with the United States’ nearly seven full decades of overt aggression against the DPRK, is directly responsible for the North Korean state’s closed, garrisoned, and authoritarian character. The country’s anti-liberal democratic orientation is not an expression of an ideological preference for police state rule, but an adaptation to a geopolitical reality. The nature of the North Korean state, its military strategy, and its nuclear weapons and missile programs, are consequences of its ideological commitment to independence intersecting with the difficulties of charting an independent course in the midst of hostile and much stronger neighbors whose US patron insists on North Korean submission.
When the infant Bolshevik state was surrounded by enemies who were stronger than the Bolsheviks by many orders of magnitude, Lenin argued that allowing the revolution’s enemies freedom of political organization would be self-defeating. “We do not wish to do away with ourselves by suicide and therefore will not do this,” the Bolshevik leader averred. North Korea’s voluntarily making over itself into an unrestricted liberal democracy—an open society—would likewise imperil the Korean nationalist project and amount to a self-engineered demise.
The DPRK is also criticized for being an economic basket-case, though its economic travails are almost invariably exaggerated. Nevertheless, nearly seven full decades of economic warfare and the imperatives of maintaining a military strong enough to deter the aggression of hostile neighbors and their imperialist patron must necessarily take a toll. Trying to bankrupt the DPRK by imposing on it trade sanctions, working to cut Pyongyang off from the world financial system, and maneuvering the country into a position where it has been forced to spend heavily on self-defense to survive (Pyongyang allocates an estimated 15%-24% of its GDP to defense compared to South Korea’s 2.6% and the United States’ 3.3%), and then attributing its economic difficulties to its “non-market” economy, as Washington has done, is dishonest in the extreme.
Perhaps it’s a measure of how bellicose the United States is that its threats of war are treated as sufficiently routine that they can be casually mentioned in the press without arousing much attention or protest. According to one calculation, the United States has been at war for 224 of its 241 years of existence. Against the background of its unceasing and devoted worship of Mars, Washington’s review of the merits of becoming embroiled in yet another war makes the latest eruption of belligerence an accustomed spectacle. This may explain the quietude with which the possibility of US military action against North Korea has been met. Contributing to the quiescence is the reality that war with the DPRK would require no direct participation from the vast majority of US citizens, short of their applauding from the sidelines. This, combined with North Korea’s total demonization, makes military action (should it be carried out) easy for the US public to accept, or at least to push it to the margins of its awareness.
The revelation that the White House is considering military action against its long-standing victim was casually tucked away in a Wall Street Journal article, and was thought so inconsequential as not to merit inclusion in the headline. Instead, the article’s headline mentioned that North Korea had fired “four ballistic missiles into waters off coast, South Korea says,” in keeping with the portrayal of the DPRK as a signal menace. Accordingly, the announcement of a considered US military strike on North Korea could be positioned as a legitimate response to an alleged North Korean provocation, rather than North Korea’s test firing of ballistic missiles being presented more reasonably as a legitimate reaction to nearly seven full decades of US belligerence.
Some liberals, worried by the increased tempo of US saber-rattling against Pyongyang, adjure Washington to negotiate a peace treaty with the DPRK, in exchange for North Korea undertaking Gaddafi’s folly and dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The idea that the United States reciprocate is never considered and is seen as Quixotic. The preferred arrangement is one of a nuclear weapons apartheid where the United States and its subalterns keep their nuclear arms as a “self-evident” necessity of self-defense and a bulwark against “nuclear blackmail,” while the rest of the world is expected to voluntarily submit to the nuclear weapons blackmail of the United States and the established members of the nuclear weapons club.
However, almost equally Quixotic is the idea that the DPRK will relinquish its nuclear arms and the means of delivering them. The United States has unintentionally created conditions which make a North Korean nuclear weapons program almost inevitable, and perfectly sound from Pyongyang’s point of view. For a nuclear deterrent not only forces Washington to exercise extreme circumspection in the deployment of its military assets against the DPRK, it also allows Pyongyang to reduce its expenditures on conventional deterrence, freeing up resources for its civilian economy. Nuclear weapons are cost-effective. This thinking is implicit in North Korea’s “Byungjin policy, “the “two-track program’ of building the economy and nuclear weapons, defined in the resolution adopted by the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in May as its ‘permanent strategic course.’”
James Clapper, the former head of US intelligence, told the Wall Street-directed foreign policy think tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, to forget about negotiating a nuclear deal with Pyongyang. “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” said Clapper last October. “They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival. And I got a good taste of that when I was there about how the world looks from their vantage. And they are under siege…So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them.
“So an Iranian kind of negotiation that would put a cap or suspend is not—your experience in diplomacy is that it’s not likely to happen,” he was asked.
Clapper replied; “I don’t think so.”