They discuss the history of Korea, Japanese colonial occupation of Korea, WW2 and the Cold War, The Korean War, Kim Il-Sung and guerrilla warfare, South Korea as an American puppet state, the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, American propaganda against the DPRK, the prospects for a unified Korea, and much more!
How an American Korea and a Korean Korea came to blows over the same territory on this day 71 years ago
June 25, 2021
By Stephen Gowans
Korea, as a nation, has existed within the same space for over a thousand years, but it is only since 1948 that it has been divided into two states, and the division is the consequence of a US decision taken in pursuit of US geopolitical aims, without the slightest regard for the wishes or aspirations of Koreans, who didn’t want their country divided politically.
Had the United States not intervened in Korea at the end of the Second World War, historians agree that the nation would have emerged from the war, and from its years of colonization by the Japanese, with a politics that favored communism, or at the very least, favored a very robust leftist agenda, because that’s what Koreans, in the majority, wanted.
Koreans were, in the main, peasants, who were exploited by a tiny landlord class. And they lived in a country that was oppressed by the Japanese. They would naturally be inclined toward communist politics, since communist politics aimed at overcoming exploitation at all levels, including the levels of class and nation.
Today there are two states on the Korean peninsula, the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, the creation of the United States, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, the creation of Koreans, and the successor to the People’s Republic of Korea, the state Koreans proclaimed for themselves at the end of WWII, before the United States arrived on the peninsula, and refused to recognize it.
These two states—one an American Korea, the other a Korean Korea—each claim to be the sole legitimate state in the country.
Kim Il Sung, who was the first leader of North Korea, worried that the division of Korea into US and Soviet occupation zones, which was done at the end of the Second World War to accept the Japanese surrender, would inevitably lead to the division of Korea into two states—one of patriots, and one of traitors.
The patriots, in Kim’s view, would be the Koreans who fought the Japanese colonization of Korea, and aspired to an independent Korea. The traitors would be the Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese, who, Kim believed (correctly it turns out), would also collaborate with the Americans. Kim recognized that the United States was an imperialist power that would seek to dominate Korea, as Japan had done, and would recruit collaborators to assist it, also as Japan had done.
Coveted by Great Powers
Koreans have had the great misfortune of inhabiting territory that has been either coveted by powerful states or dominated by them. China (which Korea borders), Russia (which Korea borders), Japan (which lies nearby across the Sea of Japan), and the United States (which regards itself as an Asia-Pacific power) have all, at one time or another, sought to make Korea, if not their own, then at least subservient.
Korea was long a tributary of its neighbor China.
After Japan modernized, and fell under a compulsion of its capitalist economy to seek markets for its industrial products, sources of raw materials, investment opportunities, and territory to settle its surplus population, its rapacious gaze fell upon Korea. The Sino-Japanese war was fought over the question of who would control the country: China or Japan. The Japanese won the war and therefore won Korea.
Russia was also interested in Korea. Japan and Russia fought the Russo-Japanese War over control of Korea (and Manchuria), a war the Russians lost, to the great consternation of the West, for this was the first time a Western power had been defeated by an Eastern one.
Finally, the United States fought Japan over control of all of East Asia, and when it defeated Japan in 1945 with the help of Britain and the Soviet Union, its intention was to supersede Japan as the hegemonic power in the region. Its goal was to make all of East Asia an American neo-colony.
Japan formally colonized Korea in 1910 and remained the colonial power for the next thirty-five years.
These were very harsh years for Koreans.
Korean culture was outlawed. All Korean political organizations were disbanded. Korean newspapers and public gatherings were prohibited. The education system was Japanized. Koreans were forced to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, and worship at Shinto shrines, even though Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan, was foreign to Korea.
Koreans were coerced into service as conscripted laborers, sent to every corner of the empire to satisfy the requirements of Japan’s military and economic expansion. At the close of World War II, one third of industrial workers in Japan were Koreans.
At the same time, Korea was transformed into a Japanese granary. Agriculture was steered away from Korean needs to Japanese needs. The Japanese ate more Korean rice per capita than the Koreans did.
Korea, thus, became a means to Japanese ends, a country that existed to serve Japan, not itself.
Inspired by the Soviet Union and Communism
Koreans found themselves in a dual debased condition. Most were peasants, exploited by landlords. And they lived in a country oppressed by a foreign power. Such a people couldn’t help but be inspired by a Soviet Union that called for an end to the exploitation of man by man, and an end to the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations.
Moreover, the Soviet Union was not only calling for an end to these debased conditions, it was showing how they could be overcome. For example, the Bolsheviks had given land to the peasants and ended the rule of the landlords, something that would certainly appeal to Korean peasants who toiled under the oppression of Korean landlords. They also successfully repelled a dozen capitalist powers that tried to bring Russia under their control in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Later, the USSR emerged victorious from the greatest colonial war ever waged, that of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, impelled by the German imperialist aim of enslaving the peoples of Eastern Europe. Germany said its war for lebensraum would create its own American West or its own East Indies in Eastern Europe. The Soviet victory in repelling the attempted colonization of Eastern Europe was an inspiration to colonized people everywhere, Koreans included.
What’s more, communists were at the forefront of the struggle against Japanese colonialism. Kim Il Sung and Mao Tse Tung were major figures in the resistance.
Finally, the Soviet economy offered oppressed people a model of how to modernize and industrialize.
Washington’s Interest in Korea
The United States had the same interests in East Asia as Japan had—to exploit the region as a market, source of raw materials, and sphere for investment.
Koreans hated the United States because they saw the country quite correctly as another imperialist power, no different from Japan. Washington had blessed Japan’s colonization of Korea in return for Tokyo blessing the United States’ colonization of the Philippines.
Thus, in the view of Koreans, these two countries were robbers, seeking to divide up East Asia between themselves.
Kim Il Sung made fun of Syngman Rhee, the anti-communist Washington picked as the first president of South Korea, because Rhee had spent over four decades in the United States lobbying Washington to free Korea from Japanese rule. Kim said this was like asking a robber who waits outside your house to help you evict the robber already inside your house.
Koreans, with the exception of people like Rhee, had no illusions about what the United States was, namely, a predator, waiting outside their door to rob them once the Japanese were evicted.
The US-Orchestrated Political Division of Korea
The United States created the Republic of Korea in 1948, over the objection of most Koreans, who saw the American project of establishing a state in the US occupation zone as an attempt to create a permanent political division of their country. Few Koreans wanted this. What they wanted was a unified, independent, communist Korea.
But the only way Washington could prevent Korea from becoming a communist state, or at the very least, a country with a robust leftist agenda and preference for political independence, was to artificially implant an anti-communist Gestapo-like police state in the US occupation zone to crush the political aspirations of Koreans who favored a unified communist country.
As mentioned, to accept the Japanese surrender, the peninsula had been divided at the end of WWII into two occupation zones, an American one, and a Soviet one. By agreement, the occupations and division were to last no longer than five years. Before the end of this period, elections were to be held for a pan-Korean government and the occupying armies were to leave. (The Soviets departed at the end of 1948. The Americans stayed and have never left.)
It was clear to Washington, that the election would be won by anti-imperialist, pro-communist forces, who would oppose a continued US presence on the Korean peninsula. Washington, then, had a choice. Lose all of the peninsula or keep the half it controlled. It chose to keep the half it controlled. To retain its influence in Korea, the United States created a puppet state in its own occupation zone. And then it boldly claimed that the state it created was the sole legitimate state in Korea, representing all Koreans.
The only possible response to this attempt to preempt the creation of an independent, unified Korea, was for Koreans who held out the hope of a Korean Korea to create their own state, as the sole legitimate state in the country.
That was why the DPRK was founded. It was also how the division of Korea between an American Korea and a Korean Korea came about.
Bruce Cumings, the leading US historian of Korea, recounted in his book, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, that when “the leading scholar of Korean communism, Dae-sook Suh, was finally allowed to explain the real story to a large audience of young people in Seoul in 1989, upon hearing that Kim Il-sung was in fact a hero of the resistance, they all burst into applause.”
That, in short, is who Kim Il Sung was – a hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. Kim was so important as a guerilla leader that the Japanese established a special Kim unit to hunt him down, and they staffed it with Korean traitors who would later be recruited by the Americans to play leading roles in the South Korean military.
Kim spent 13 years in top positions in the armed struggle against the Japanese, and on the eve of his return to Korea after the Japanese surrender, the major Korean leaders of the resistance agreed that, owing to Kim’s reputation, his charisma, and his abilities, that he should become the principal political leader of a Korean Korea.
He wasn’t selected by the Soviets, but was chosen by his peers in the resistance. Indeed, the Soviets never fully trusted Kim, but within their occupation zone, they allowed Koreans to administer their own affairs independently, and to promote Kim as the leader of a Korean Korea.
The Korean War
There are many views of what the Korean War was, or is.
One view is that the Korean War began in the early 1930s when Kim Il Sung created his first guerilla unit, and began to fight Korean traitors who collaborated with the Japanese, traitors who would then form the core of the US-created Republic of Korea, while Kim and his colleagues formed the core of the DPRK. According to this view, the Korean War is a war between the traitors of the American Korea and their descendants and the patriots of the Korean Korea and their descendants, and that, so long as these two states independently exist, the war between patriots and traitors, between those who oppose imperialism and those who collaborate with it, between American Korea and Korean Korea, never ends.
Another view is that the Korean War began in 1945, when the United States arrived on the peninsula and went to war with the People’s Republic of Korea, and five years later, with its successor, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
A third view is that the war began in 1948, when the United States created a permanent political division in the nation by setting up an American Korea in the form of an anti-communist, Gestapo-like police state, staffed at the highest level of its military with pro-Japanese traitors, over the objections of the majority of Koreans. This presented Koreans with no choice, if they were to have a Korea that met their preferences, but to go to war to liberate their country.
This view, as the preceding one, sees the Korean War as a war of the United States on Koreans, whereas the first view sees the Korean War as a civil war, between those who fought against imperialism and those who collaborated with it.
The conventional view of the war is that it began on June 25, 1950 when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, and immediately drove the South Korean army deep into the south. The United States soon after intervened, driving the North Korean forces out of the south, and deep into the north, up to the Yalu River, which divides Korea and China. At that point, China intervened, and China and North Korea drove US forces back across the 38th parallel where the war bogged down for the next two years. The war ended in an armistice in 1953 and a peace treaty has never been signed.
What most Americans don’t know about the war is that there was no moral or legal basis for US intervention.
There was no moral basis because American Korea was unacceptable to most Koreans. Because the collaborator government had little popular support, its army immediately collapsed. North Korea would have quickly won the war, millions of lives would have been saved, Koreans would have achieved the communism they desired, and an independent, unified, Korea would have been born, had the United States not intervened.
Fundamentally, the war was a civil war between Korean Koreans and American Koreans, a quarrel over how to organize the social, political and economic life of the nation. At the heart of the quarrel was the question of equality. Are nations equal, or are some nations destined to lead others, and to have rights and privileges senior to others? Should exploitation be prohibited or welcomed? Should the country be integrated into the US Empire, or independent? And who should form the governing elite—collaborators with the Japanese Empire, or those who waged war against it? These questions were at the heart of the conflict.
Also, there was no legal basis for the US intervention, because there was no aggression across an international border. When North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950 they crossed an imaginary line drawn in 1945 by two US colonels to separate US and Soviet occupation armies. This was not an international border separating two countries. It was simply a dividing line that came to separate two Korean armies. Koreans cannot invade Korea. What’s more, North Korea’s military action against territory occupied by a foreign power and its Korean collaborators was not an invasion; it was an attempt at liberation.
The War’s Aftermath
Open hostilities came to an end because the United States threatened a nuclear strike unless the North Koreans and their Chinese allies came to terms with Washington. Because the United States wielded a nuclear sword, it was able to drive a hard bargain, and the North Koreans and Chinese had little choice but to accept many US demands.
The United States left behind tens of thousands of troops and brought tactical nuclear weapons onto the peninsula which weren’t withdrawn until 1991. North Korea believes those weapons remain. At about the same time, the United States retargeted some of its strategic nuclear missiles away from the Soviet Union, which had dissolved at this point, to North Korea. Thus, for decades, the United States has cast a nuclear shadow over the Korean peninsula.
That’s a key point in any talks about denuclearizing the peninsula. To North Korea, denuclearization means that the nuclear shadow Washington casts over Korea must be lifted. To Washington, denuclearization means North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons but that the US nuclear shadow can remain.
Thesis and Antithesis
From 1961 until 1979, South Korea was ruled by Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army, and who had hunted down Korean guerillas liked Kim Il Sung. During this period, Park served as the largely figurehead ruler of an American Korea and Kim Il-Sung ruled in Korean Korea—the traitor versus the patriot.
From 2013 to 2017 Park’s daughter was president of South Korea and Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s grandson, was leader of North Korea. As Bruce Cumings has pointed out, the conflict between traitors and patriots carried on in their descendants.
Park nurtured a capital-centered economy, in which South Koreans “had the right to work the longest hours in the industrial world at wages barely able to sustain one’s family,” as Cumings wrote. Kim preferred a people-centered economy, and had introduced an eight-hour work day and social security within months of coming to power.
Park was greatly hemmed in by the influence exercised behind the scenes by the US military commander, US ambassador, and CIA station chief—the decision-makers with ultimate authority in American Korea. Tens of thousands of US troops occupied the domain over which the southern leader’s state ruled. And his military reported, not to him, but to a US general. In the north, there were no foreign troops, and Kim preached a doctrine of self-reliance, which eschewed dependency on foreign powers.
In the south, the top political leader was a traitor to the Korean project of national liberation; in the north, the top political leader was a patriot who had devoted his life to Korea’s liberation.
In the south, the state was part of an empire. In the north, the state rejected empire.
The state of the south was founded by a foreign hegemon. The state of the north was founded by guerrilla leaders who had fought against foreign hegemony.
US propaganda paints a false picture, not only of the DPRK, but also of the Republic of Korea.
It doesn’t tell you that South Korea is not an organically created Korean state, but a state created by Washington to serve US aims: an American Korea.
It doesn’t tell you that for decades, until the 1990s, South Korea was ruled by a series of vicious anti-communist military dictators, who ran a Gestapo-like police state that locked up communists and leftists, for infractions as mild as having something good to say about the DPRK or reading Marx and Engels.
It doesn’t tell you that there was a massive guerilla war in the south from 1945 to 1950 against the United States and its South Korean puppet, and that American Korea built concentration camps to hold the tens of thousands of Koreans who opposed the US presence in their country.
It doesn’t tell you that the military of American Korea has always been under the command of US generals.
It doesn’t tell you that 300,000 troops of American Korea fought on the American side in Vietnam in return for injections of economic aid from the United States, making the American Korea a mercenary state, on top of a traitor state.
It doesn’t tell you that the South Korean military has been trained and equipped by the United States to kill communists. It killed communists in the south from 1945 to 1950, communists in the north from 1950 to 1953, and communists in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. It is being trained by Americans today to kill the communists of a country Washington deems its enemy: China.
And it certainly doesn’t tell you that while Washington has done all it can to ensure that American Korea succeeds economically, it has also done all it can to immiserate Korean Korea.
North Korea’s manufacture of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles capable of striking US targets effectively forecloses the possibility of a US invasion of North Korea and a US nuclear strike. By using nuclear weapons to substantially enhance its means of self-defense, the DPRK is able to re-allocate resources from its military to its civilian economy, to mitigate the effects of the world’s longest and most comprehensive sanctions regime. No country has been the target of as long and comprehensive a campaign of economic warfare as the DPRK.
Concerning the prospects for a unified Korea, the key question is: Will it be a Korean Korea or an American Korea?
Washington’s favored unification scenario is one in which North Korea follows the East German path of annexation by its neighbor and absorption into the US empire. Since the early 1990s, US officials have expected this scenario to play out. Three decades later, their expectation has proved to be wide of the mark.
A Korean Korea, on the other hand, cannot be born unless the American Koreans evict US troops from the peninsula. Since the collaborators of the South Korean government evince no strong predilection for parting company with their American master—and since the possibility of North Korea unifying the peninsula by force is beyond the DPRK’s capabilities—the possibility of a unified Korean Korea is remote. But it’s the nature of anti-colonial struggles that they’re often long-term projects.
Kim Il Sung recognized that Korea’s fight for freedom might last hundreds of years. He wrote, “India won its independence from England after 200 years of colonial enslavement. The Philippines and Indonesia won their independence after 300 years. Algeria after 130 years. Sri Lanka after 150 years and Vietnam after nearly 100 years.”
It may take 200 years, maybe longer, for Korea to win its struggle, but one day all of Korea will be Korean.
A Choe Sang-Hun report in the New York Times of July 28 indirectly revealed three points of significance, neither of which Choe mentioned, but which, in an ideological environment less subservient to US foreign policy goals, might be brought to the fore.
The report concerned the go-ahead the United States recently gave South Korea to loft five surveillance satellites into space in 2023. The satellites would be used to spy on North Korea and to add to the enormous military advantage South Korea already has vis-à-vis the DPRK. Since 1979, Washington has imposed limits on the range and payload of the ballistic missiles Seoul is permitted to deploy. In March, South Korea test-launched a ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers, with US approval.
What Choe’s report indirectly reveals is:
#1. That the United States severely limits South Korean sovereignty. While an authentically sovereign country would make its own decisions about its missile capabilities, decisions about South Korean missile deployments, range, and payloads are made in Washington.
This is only one aspect of South Korea’s truncated sovereignty. In times of war, command of South Korean forces falls to a US general. Richard Stilwell, a former commander of US forces in Korea, remarked that this is the “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world.”
#2. South Korea continues to flout the commitments it made at the April 2018 Panmunjom Summit to “completely cease all hostile acts … in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict.”
Plans to loft spy satellites into orbit are clearly provocative. Additionally, South Korea is buying advanced F-35A jet fighters from the United States, providing its military with fighting capabilities well beyond those of North Korea. These developments contradict South Korea’s professed desire for peace.
South Korea wants ballistic missiles to enhance its military intelligence capabilities in order to undermine North Korea’s security. North Korea wants ballistic missiles as delivery systems for nuclear warheads in order to deter US aggression. With the military balance titled decisively in South Korea’s favor, ballistic missiles are unnecessary to South Korea’s defense, but redound to its project of bringing about North Korea’s collapse.
#3. South Korea’s US-approved ballistic missile program has not been condemned by the UN Security Council, unlike North Korea’s independent ballistic missile program, which has been. In an effort to pressure Pyongyang to relinquish its ballistic missiles—a campaign which, if successful, would denude the country of a vital means of self-defense—the Security Council, at Washington’s instigation, has imposed a near-total blockade on the North Korean economy.
Choe’s report makes no comment on the obvious dissonance between international norms of national sovereignty, on the one hand, and Washington’s dictatorship over South Korean missile policy, on the other. At best, Pyongyang’s charge that South Korea is a puppet state controlled by Washington is dismissed as hyperbole in Western media and scholarship, but the charge cannot be dismissed so readily. To be sure, South Korea’s sovereignty is not so severely restricted that the country can be legitimately characterized as a US-puppet state, tout court, but it does submit to US direction in many important ways, to a degree most other allies of the United States do not.
Neither does Choe comment on the provocative nature of the South Korean plan to loft spy satellites above its northern neighbor. The obvious hypocrisy of the Security Council invoking ballistic missiles as a rationale for sanctioning North Korea, while South Korea is allowed to develop its own missile program unmolested (except by the United States), is also passed over without comment.
These omissions are predictable. They fit with the fundamental narrative that informs all Western discourse on Korea. That narrative rests on the assumptions that the state in the south seeks peace, contra the state in the north, which is bent on war. The south, according to this narrative, has entered voluntarily and gratefully into an alliance with the United States, which seeks no end but the defense of its ally.
The narrative is a fairy-tale. Militarily, North Korea is no match for its much larger and much richer neighbor. South Korea, moreover, is equipped with US-supplied weapons systems far superior to anything in North Korea’s conventional armamentarium. The DPRK poses no significant threat to South Korea; its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are purely defensive, and its conventional capabilities are meager compared to those of its peninsular neighbor.
The United States exploits its South Korean satellite as a military outpost and source of manpower for a vast East Asian reserve army, fully interoperable with the US military, and under the de facto, and in times of war, de jure, control of US flag officers. From the US point of view, South Korea is geopolitically significant owing to its proximity to the two countries Washington designates as its peer competitors, China and Russia.
The US military presence in Korea, and the informal US dictatorship over Seoul, is only weakly related to the United States protecting its militarily robust satellite from any effort by the militarily weak DPRK to unify and revolutionize the peninsula, a project North Korea was unable to bring to fruition 70 years ago when the balance of forces was much more favorable to its cause; the DPRK is completely incapable of mounting any such effort today.
The informal US dictatorship over South Korea serves the same purpose as US military occupations serve in other US allied states, including Germany, Italy, Japan, and Britain (formerly imperial rivals of the United States.) The purpose is to ensure these countries remain within the US economic sphere, and outside of the Chinese and Russian orbits; and in the case of Japan and Germany, to prevent them from nurturing latent drives to contest US hegemony. With regard to Germany, the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead described the U.S. troop presence in the country as reassuring “Germany’s neighbors east and west that Berlin will never again disturb the peace of Europe or threaten their security,” another way of saying that the US occupation ensures that the United States, not Germany, dominates Europe.
What South Korea’s ballistic missiles reveal, then, is that South Korea is a tool of US foreign policy; the United States has a dictatorial relationship with Seoul; and the UN Security Council acts, at times, as South Korea does, as an instrument of US policy.
Unless “the fundamental economic question, viz., the question of the economic essence of imperialism … is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics.”– Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), 1917
March 15, 2020
By Stephen Gowans
I wrote a book in 2018 book titled, Patriots, Traitors, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom.
The word “patriots” in the title, refers to the people who founded the state of North Korea, and I argue that North Korea is a patriot state because it was founded by anti-Japanese resistance fighters guided by the mission of freeing Korea from foreign domination.
“Traitors” refers to the people who collaborated with the United States in founding the Republic of Korea, or what we informally call South Korea, and who collaborated before that with the Japanese, to enforce Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945. When the United States occupied the southern part of Korea in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, it established an administration in the southern half of Korea made up largely of Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese.
“Empires” refers to two empires, the Japanese, which dominated Korea through much of the first half of the twentieth century, and the United States, which has dominated the southern part of Korea ever since.
The last part, “The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom,” refers to the struggle Koreans have waged for over a century to free themselves from the domination of these two empires. And when I say the struggle of Koreans, I mean all Koreans, of both north and south. It’s clear that North Koreans reject US domination and control, but what’s not so clear is that many South Koreans do, as well.
The Pentagon’s operational control of the South Korean military illustrates US hegemony over Seoul. The current South Korean government has asked the United States to transfer to it operational control of the South Korean armed forces. The reality that South Korea has to ask for operational control of its own military reveals that the United States is the de facto power in South Korea.
In response to South Korea’s request for operational control, the United States has temporized, saying that it’s prepared to talk about a possible transfer and has indeed held discussions with its South Korean subordinates. But the conditions under which the United States would transfer control would effectively make South Korean command of its own military a charade. Specifically, one of the conditions the United States proposes is that South Korean troops be placed under the command, not of South Korea’s head of its joint chiefs of staff, but of a lower-ranking South Korean general, who would be required to be headquartered at the main US military base in Korea, and would have a US general as deputy commander.
South Korea has a long tradition of US diplomats and military advisors operating in the background as the de facto governors of the state, with South Koreans as the state’s public face, creating the illusion of sovereignty. South Korea has been so decisively under US influence that throughout much of its history the South Korean government had been answerable to three people: the US ambassador, the head of the US military in Korea, and the CIA station chief.
There are a few facts which Washington is also hoping to use to block any meaningful transfer of operational control to its client state.
• The Korean War never ended in a peace treaty, and South Korea and the United States are still officially at war with North Korea.
• In this war, South Korean forces fight under the United Nations Command.
• The United Nations Command is officially led by a US general.
The corollary is that so long as a de jure war continues, South Korean forces remain under the UN (hence, US) Command. Therefore, in the absence of a formal peace on the Korean peninsula, South Korean troops remain assets of the Pentagon, even if the United States formally cedes operational control of South Korea’s military to Seoul, or to a South Korean general operating from a US military base with a US deputy nearby to ensure his actions remain within the framework of US power.
Washington has never evinced an interest in declaring a formal end to the war, despite North Korea urging Washington on multiple occasions to declare one. Colin Powell, when he was US Secretary of State, reacted to one North Korean request for a peace treaty by replying, “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature.” That it could no longer use the UN Command as a pretext to control South Korean forces is one reason why the United States is averse to a peace treaty with North Korea.
To be sure, the United States is not entirely averse to peace on the Korean peninsula; it is only averse to a peace that isn’t on its own terms. And those terms are North Korea acceding to becoming a satellite of the US economy and outpost of the US military. If North Korea agreed to these terms, the United States would lift its sanctions, cease its military pressure, and declare a formal end to the war. But North Korea shows no sign of submitting to US demands, and therefore, peace on the Korean peninsula will have to be achieved by arriving at mutually agreeable terms. It’s important to note, however, that the respective objectives and worldviews of the two sides—one for empire and the other against—are so completely antithetical that the possibility of their arriving at mutually agreeable terms is approximately zero.
In any event, the United States pursues a negotiating strategy congruent with its overwhelming strength: it makes demands, and defines negotiation as the other side’s submission. Concessions from the US side (at least ones Washington doesn’t intend to revoke at some point in the future) are viewed in Washington as unthinkable, a sign of weakness, at odds with the gross imbalance of power in Washington’s favor that characterizes the US-DPRK relationship.
The question we need to ask, then, is why the US negotiating position is one of awaiting Pyongyang’s surrender, while dissimulating interest in genuine negotiations? The US historian William Appleman Williams once observed that the United States often rejects the give-and-take of negotiations in favor of the imperial dynamic of, we need, you give.
The first, and most important, answer to the question of why Washington has no genuine interest in negotiating a formal peace with North Korea, is that there is no reason for Washington to make concessions to the country. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is too small and too enfeebled to pose a threat. From the US perspective, the best strategy is to continue the enfeeblement process—to be achieved through unrelenting military pressure, diplomatic isolation, and economic strangulation—until North Korea surrenders. Pyongyang’s capitulation would represent peace on US terms.
Second, the South Korean military is a formidable asset. It is big, powerful, and equipped with advanced US military hardware. And it’s integrated into the US military, to the degree that it is, in reality, not a sovereign military, but an inter-operable component of the US Defense Department—what one US historian called an US Asian army in reserve. The continuation of an official state of war on the Korean peninsula affords the United States a pretext to maintain control of this formidable military asset, and to use it for its own purpose. We’ll see that the purpose is not the protection of South Korea from North Korean aggression—for North Korea is in no position to wage a war on its neighbor—but to threaten China.
South Korea sent over 300,000 troops to fight for the United States in Vietnam, and did so in return for significant injections of US economic aid—aid which was instrumental in triggering the take-off of the South Korean economy. This makes South Korea both a mercenary state and an accomplice of US imperialism. In return for military favors, Seoul received significant lucre from Uncle Sam. This arrangement was good for South Koreans (minus those who died or were disabled fighting for a US cause in a foreign land) but was detrimental to the Vietnamese, fellow East Asians with a common history of being raped by colonial powers, including the Japanese. South Korea, thus, helped the US empire do to the Vietnamese, what the French and Japanese empires had done before it.
Significantly, US troops were stationed on the Korean peninsula at the time. They had been there since 1945, and from 1950, it was said, to deter North Korean aggression. And yet, one would think that if the North Koreans were truly a threat to South Korea, Seoul could hardly have spared 300,000 troops.
Today, the pretext for the United States’ continued presence on the Korean peninsula is to defend South Korea from North Korea, but the argument is transparently false. South Korea, by any measure, is fully capable of defending itself against a North Korean attack. Its population is twice as large as North Korea’s and its economy is many times larger (partly as a consequence of the significant injections of US aid it received in return for its mercenary services.) South Korea spends $40 billion a year on its military (and its military spending is increasing robustly every year) while North Korea spends an estimated $5 billion, one-eighth of the South Korean level, and equal to the size of the budget of the New York City Police Department.
What’s more, South Korea is equipped with the latest US weapons systems, while North Korea relies on obsolete military equipment procured from the Soviet Union many decades ago, for which it cannot get spare parts and for which a fuel shortage prevents it from operating except infrequently. Part of the US playbook against North Korea is to create ambiguous military situations in which a US or South Korean invasion appears imminent, requiring the North Koreans to scramble their obsolete jet fighters, thus depleting their scarce stores of aviation fuel.
Also, the United States has 26,000 military personnel in South Korea, a trifle against the 625,000 South Korean troops. If North Korea attacked South Korea, who would be defending who?
In 1950, North Korea tried by military means to unify the country, and failed, at a point conditions were far more favorable to North Korean success than they are today. Back then, the South Korean government was weak and had little popular support. In contrast, veteran Korean fighters had returned to Korea from China, where they had taken part in China’s civil war on the side of Mao’s forces. They were ready to unify their country and overcome the collaborators in the south. What’s more, North Korea had the partial backing of the Soviet Union, and full support of Mao. If Pyongyang was incapable of bringing about a military success in 1950 when conditions were infinitely more favorable to its project, it’s unlikely in the extreme that the state would embark on the same project today, when it has no international support and South Korea is larger and many times stronger. Hence, the notion that the presence of US forces in Korea is necessary to deter North Korean aggression has no validity.
The truth of the matter is that the South Korean military is an extension of the 26,000 US troops in Korea, whose purpose couldn’t possibly be to deter North Korean aggression, since North Korea is too feeble and its military too obsolete to undertake any aggression. With its decaying military hardware and puny military budget, it’s barely able to defend itself, to say nothing of mounting an attack. Indeed, it is North Korean weakness that has compelled the country to develop nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense.
The purpose of the South Korean military under US command is to form part of the ring around China, which the United States has been building ever since it “lost China” to the Chinese. China, under the Chinese, has become, in the words of the official US Defense Strategy, a ‘great power’, something it never would have been allowed to have become under US leadership. Washington says it is engaged in a struggle with China, a country the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called ‘the greatest threat of our time’.
That’s the reason US troops continue to be deployed to South Korea; they are the nucleus around which 625,000 South Korean troops are organized for the projection of US power in East Asia against China. South Korea’s raison d’etre from the point of view of the US state is to serve as a US power projection platform, or a stationary, unsinkable aircraft carrier under US command, on China’s periphery, critical to the US foreign policy project of eclipsing China’s independent economic development. US decision-makers have been keen to make China available to US investors and corporations as a sphere for the exploitation of low-wage manufacturing labor, and a vast market for US goods and services, but object to Chinese firms, whether private or state-owned, challenging US free enterprise. In other words, China is coveted by US planners as a satellite economy, but opposed as an independent economic actor.
Another reason Washington refuses to sign a peace treaty with North Korea is that remaining in a perpetual state of war with the North Korean state is part of the pressure campaign Washington has waged against the country from the moment North Korea was founded in 1948. The objective then, as now, is to bring about the collapse of the independence-minded government in Pyongyang in order to replace it with a government acceptable to the United States. This would bring all of the Korean peninsula under the informal control of Washington.
Yet another reason for the United States to oppose a formal peace on the peninsula is to establish a pretext to allow Washington to maintain pressure on North Korea in order to prevent it from developing a successful counter-example to the US-approved model of economic development. Washington says that a country must integrate into the US superintended global economic order, in order to thrive economically. This is a lie. Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico, all near neighbors of the United States, have long been integrated into the US economy—often at the point of a US gun—and still they wait, and wait, and wait for a promised prosperity that never arrives. Far from being a route to prosperity, an open door to US economic penetration has often been a route to unremitting poverty and permanent relegation to serving as a means to US prosperity and territory from which US businesses suck wealth, leaving the natives with subsistence-level existences.
The United States tells the same lies to North Korea. It must build a US business-friendly investment climate, it must cater to US investors, it must welcome US banks, and it must allow US investors unfettered access to every profit-making opportunity that is latent in the country’s labor, land, markets, and resources. It must put the interests of US investors ahead of the interests of its own citizens. That’s what empire means: that the interests of the mother country, in particular, the interests of the metropolitan rich, prevail over the interests of the metropolitan powers’ satellites. Even more than that, empire means that the metropolitan rich stand on the backs of the hinterland’s poor.
North Korea has always rejected the US lie. That’s a problem from the point of view of officials in Washington. If North Korea is allowed to pursue an alternative development strategy, one at odds with US prescriptions, which rejects Korea serving as a means to US ends and insists on Korea being an end in itself, and in pursuing its alternative development model it thrives, it becomes a model to be emulated by other countries—one that portends a diminishing set of profit-making opportunities for US investors and the growing courage of subordinate countries to reject their role as victims to be bled white.
Consequently, the United States has always, as a matter of policy, made it its task to ensure that any government that repudiates US lies, will be forced to live under a terrible burden of economic strangulation, isolation, and military threat. As the US campaign plays out, Washington attributes the poverty, chaos, and societal breakdown that ensue, not to the US campaign that caused them, but to the alleged failures of the target country’s alternative model of development.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an op-ed by an estadounidense who had visited Cuba with his church group, and reported that he had witnessed widespread poverty in the Caribbean country. He said that Cubans deserve better, and declared that Cuban poverty is a consequence of the socialist policies of the Cuban government. This was offered as an object lesson to US citizens of what happens when socialists (Bernie Sanders’ name was mentioned) come to power. What he didn’t mention was that almost from the very first moments of the Cuban Revolution, the US government resolved to cripple Cuba economically. So, writing about Cuban poverty without mentioning US economic sanctions, was like writing about the devastation of Hiroshima without mentioning the atomic bombing that produced it.
William Blum wrote a number of books on US foreign policy, with particular emphasis on US interventions in the affairs of other countries. He also wrote a monthly report called the Anti-Empire Report, an allusion to the United States as an empire. Blum once used an analogy to describe the US practice of sabotaging alternative development models, in an essay he titled, “Will humans ever fly? Smashing socialism in the 20th century.”
Imagine that the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each and every test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon this, took notice of the consequences, nodded their collective heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humans shall never fly.
Fact: Virtually every socialist experiment of any significance in the twentieth century has been either overthrown, invaded, or bombed … corrupted, perverted, or subverted … sanctioned, embargoed, or destabilized … or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States. Not one of these socialist governments or movements – from the Russian Revolution to Fidel Castro in Cuba, from Communist China to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua – not one was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.
The US Empire
There are three reasons I describe the United States as an empire:
1. It acquired most of its North American territory by force, stealing it from the First Americans and Mexicans.
2. Beginning in the nineteenth century, it acquired formal colonies in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean, including Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, the US Virgin Islands, Wake Island, Midway Island, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, some of which remain de facto colonies today.
3. Today, it uses its vast economic and military power, and its globe-girding network of military bases, to impose its will on all but the few countries large enough to resist it, or committed enough to a meaningful independence, to defy it.
The United States began as 13 British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America which came together to declare independence from Britain, mainly because Britain was blocking the colonists’ expansion westward. What began as a very small country, within a very restricted area, became a vast territory stretching from one ocean to another. The process of continental expansion, of moving ever westward, of expropriating the territory of the First Americans, of annexing parts of Mexico, of settling on other people’s land, of driving First Americans into graves and reservations, was one of empire building.
Once this vast continental empire was acquired, the United States embarked on the project of extending its territory beyond the continent. But those parts of the empire that exist beyond the continent are largely hidden today through what the US historian Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map of the United States.”
The logo map is the usual cartographic representation of the United States as territory that falls exclusively within North America. That representation is what we understand the country to be, and not an empire, even though the territory includes vast tracks of land that were never part of the United States as originally established in the US War of Independence, and even though US power is present on every continent, a reality reflected in the vast network of US military bases and outposts that straddles the globe.
Immerwahr points out that the logo map is a misrepresentation of US territory in total, because US territory extends far beyond North America. The United States formally includes territory in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic. US territories are properly called colonies, and were openly called colonies by US presidents as recently as the first half of the 20th century. Nowadays, they’re euphemized as territories, if they’re even recognized as US possessions. Often these places are misunderstood to be, not colonies of the United States, but foreign countries.
Puerto Rico, for example, is a colony of the United States. It was acquired by the United States in the Spanish-American War at the end of the nineteenth century. Puerto Ricans have no voting representation in the US Congress. They cannot vote in US presidential elections. The same is true of the US colonies of Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas—all US territories in which the residents have no voice in Congress and no say over who will be their head of state. Their status is the same as India’s was under British rule.
Stalin once observed that the United States’ record in world affairs is exactly the opposite of its view of itself. That the United States could exist as a formal colonial empire—indeed, can continue to exist as one today—while persuading the world that it has always been an anti-colonial power, untainted by the sin of colonialism, as its rivals Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Russia were, affirms the point. By one account, Puerto Rico is the world’s oldest colony. This means that the United States, which understands itself to be anti-colonial to its core—or at least wants the world to believe this—is in reality the most enduring colonial empire of all.
Hawaii is a state, not a colony, but it was a colony (as the other colony turned state, Alaska was) until 1959. How and why was it acquired? The United States was looking for an island on which to park a few battleships, as the author Sarah Vowell memorably put it—battleships that would be useful in projecting US power into East Asia, and Hawaii fit the bill. Before Korea, Hawaii was the principal US power projection platform aimed at East Asia.
The Philippines served a similar role. The territory was a formal colony of the United States from 1898 to 1946, half a century. And when Washington relinquished its formal control of the country, it insisted on receiving ninety-nine year leases on select military sites, so that the Philippines could continue to act as a US power projection platform important to the US project of dominating East Asia. At the same time, Washington could boast falsely (for it hung on to its colonies of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam and so on) that granting the Philippines independence proved that it was an anti-colonial power. By the same reasoning, Britain’s granting India independence must have proved that Britain too was an anti-colonial power.
US experts in casuistry, as William Appleman Williams called them, have frequently tried to turn US vices into virtues. For example, it has been argued that a US commitment to liberty is evinced in the manumission of the slaves, a sophistical maneuvering that requires us to forget the very existence of the institution that invalidates the point. In short, if the United States was committed to liberty, it never would have tolerated slavery; if it abhors the enslavement of colonial peoples, it would have never enslaved them. Nor would it tolerate holding residents of its euphemized territorial possessions in colonial subjection today.
Interestingly, there is an event called Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor, the event, was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the place. Pearl Harbor, the place, is a US naval base in Hawaii. The Japanese attacked the base in December 1941—an attack which brought the United States formally into the Second World War. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Hawaii was a US colony. The attack was part of what the Japanese called the Greater East Asian War, which, from their perspective, was a campaign to liberate the territories of East Asia that had been colonized by the West, and to fold them into what the Japanese called a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a high-sounding term for an expanded Japanese empire.
The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere had a parallel: the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was a US declaration that the Western Hemisphere, the Americas, would be an exclusive US sphere of influence, closed to European powers. Indeed, William Appleman Williams wrote that Japan saw itself as the United States of Asia whose goal was to impose its own Monroe Doctrine on the Far East.
I mention this because on the day the Japanese attacked the US colony of Hawaii, they also attacked the US colonies of the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island. Additionally, attacks were launched on the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In other words, what is now called ‘Pearl Harbor’ marks the beginning of a campaign to transfer the Asia-Pacific colonies of the British and US empires to the Japanese empire. But if the Japanese attacked eight Western colonies on that day, why is it that the event is commemorated by the attack on only one of them?
Immerwahr argues that omitting US colonies from historical memory serves the purpose of hiding the US empire, of concealing the reality that in 1941 the United States was a formal empire with colonial possessions in East Asia and the Pacific that were coveted by a competing empire, and that the war between these two empires was not a war of democracy against militarism, but a war over who East Asia belonged to. Would it belong to the Japanese, or would it belong to the United States? Of course, there was a third possibility: it could belong to the peoples of East Asia. Korea could belong to the Koreans (a possibility that would have obviated the Korean War), China could belong to the Chinese (rendering the US question “Who lost China?” meaningless), and Vietnam could belong to the Vietnamese (sparing us the Vietnam War.) This was the model—a fundamentally democratic one—that the guerillas who founded North Korea espoused.
Incidentally, the US colonization of the Philippines played an important role in shaping the thinking of Kim Il Sung, who would become the first leader of North Korea. In 1905, Japan declared Korea a protectorate, essentially announcing formally that Korea would fall under Japanese rule. Seeking international recognition for this move, Japan approached the United States and said: “Look, if you recognize our control of Korea, we’ll return the favor by recognizing US control of the Philippines.” Washington readily accepted and the two empires signed an agreement to formalize their division of East Asia.
Five years later Japan formally integrated Korea into its empire, and Koreans began to work in various ways to free themselves from Japanese tyranny. One such Korean was a man named Syngman Rhee, who would become the first president of South Korea. Rhee spent much of his life in the United States, collecting degrees from Ivy League universities, and lobbying the US government to help free Korea from Japanese rule.
Kim Il Sung chose another route. He went to Manchuria, a part of China which abuts Korea, to fight a guerilla war against the Japanese. Kim thought that Koreans, like Syngman Rhee, who were petitioning Washington to help free Korea from Japanese rule were naïve, since the United States was an empire, with colonies in East Asia and the Pacific, and had, as Kim put it, sold Korea into colonial slavery through its agreement with Japan to recognize Japan’s colonization of Korea in return for Japan recognizing US colonization of the Philippines. Kim regarded Rhee as a fool for begging and pleading for help from a colonial power, reasoning that a colonial power would be more interested in dominating Korea than liberating it.
In his autobiography, Kim described the US and Japanese empires as armed robbers: “An armed robber in your house will not spare your life, just because you plead for your life. Other armed robbers standing outside will not rush inside to help you no matter how loud you scream. If you want to live, you must fight off the armed robber yourself.”
So, in Kim’s view, appealing to one empire to help free oneself from another, was like asking an armed robber waiting outside your door to help you eject the armed robber inside your house.
The Korean War, 1932-Present
To understand Korea today, the division between north and south, and the hostility between the two states, one needs to understand the Korean War. The overt hostilities of the war ended, not in a peace treaty, but an armistice. The war is still nominally in progress.
In the conventional account, the Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953. On one side was the UN Command, which included US forces, South Korean forces, and token representations from US allies, all under the command of the United States. On the other side was North Korea initially, and very quickly thereafter, China, which took command of joint Chinese-North Korean forces. The Korean War is sometimes called the Sino-America War, or a war between the United States and China, which, in one respect, it was.
1950-1953 is the conventional dating of the war. But as mentioned earlier, the war didn’t officially end in 1953. US forces haven’t left the peninsula. The UN Command has not been dissolved. And a peace treaty has never been signed. So the war, while in a dormant phase, continues. We ought to date it, 1950 to present.
But even the conventionally understood 1950 start-date is wrong. June 1950 was the month North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, a dividing line drawn by the United States in 1945, and accepted by the Soviets, for separating the US and Soviet occupation forces, who, by agreement, committed to quit the peninsula within five years. The parallel was never an international border; never the border between two countries; and only ever a temporary informal border between two occupation forces. Soviet troops exited the peninsula at the end of 1948. The US occupation has never ended. The latter point underscores a simile. US troops deployed to foreign countries are like cockroaches. Once they move in, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them. Many US citizens find the simile offensive, but to people who endure occupation, the occupiers are, like cockroaches, unwelcome pests.
In the conventional US dating, June 1950, not June 1949, marks the start of the war, but from June 1949 to June 1950 North Korea and South Korea fought along this imaginary line. June 1950 is the point at which North Korean forces, in the conventional US account, committed an act of international aggression by moving across the 38th parallel. The problem with this view is that, for the reasons explained above, the 38th parallel wasn’t an international border. Indeed, no one recognized it as such—not the South Koreans, not the North Koreans, and not the US government.
In June 1950, the South Korean government regarded itself as the sole legitimate government in all of Korea and viewed North Korea as a criminal organization illegally occupying territory north of the 38th parallel. At the same time, the North Korean government regarded itself as the sole legitimate government of all of Korea and saw South Korea as a criminal organization illegally occupying territory south of the 38th parallel. Both states declared Seoul to be their capital, and both claimed exclusive jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula.
The model of the Korean War as a conflict between two countries does not fit. Two countries didn’t exist. One country, Korea, did, but it was claimed by two separate states. It’s more accurate to think of the conflict as a civil war between two groups of Koreans for control of a single country. One group comprised traitors who collaborated with the Japanese, while the other was made up of patriots who fought the Japanese. From the perspective of civil war, no invasion occurred in June of 1950, since it was impossible for Koreans to invade their own country. What happened was that the army of one group of Koreans (the patriots) moved into the territory occupied by the army of another group of Koreans (the traitors), with the aim of liberating their country from the traitors and the traitors’ patron, the United States.
A parallel can be glimpsed in imagining a conflict between Free France and Vichy France during the Second World War. Could Free French forces invade Vichy France? Would crossing into the territory under the control of the Vichy regime, be an act of international aggression, or simply French patriots trying to liberate their country from traitors collaborating with a foreign invader?
The UN Command operated under a UN Security Council Resolution which authorized the use force to compel the North Koreans to withdraw to the 38th parallel. This, the patriots were forced to do, but the empire-commanded forces quickly proceeded to violate the resolution by moving north beyond the 38th parallel toward the Chinese border. When it was pointed out that if North Korea had committed an act of international aggression by invading across the 38th parallel, then so too had US forces by crossing the parallel in the other direction, the US ambassador to the United Nations countered that the 38th parallel was not an international border but an imaginary line, thus invalidating the initial charge against North Korea. The United States was seeking to have matters both ways, defining the crossing on an imaginary line as an invasion when North Korea did it but not an invasion when by the United States did it.
The double standard reflected the ideology underlying US foreign policy. As explained by the US historian Marilyn B. Young, US foreign policy insists that the intentions of the United States are always good and the intentions of the enemies of the United States are always bad. Therefore, North Korea’s crossing the 38th parallel must have been bad, because it was an act of a US enemy, while the United States’ crossing of the same parallel must have been good, because it was an act of the United States.
Bruce Cumings, a leading US historian of twentieth century Korea, argues that the civil war between Koreans began, not in 1950, when Kim Il Sung set out to liberate, unify, and revolutionize his country, and not in 1949, when patriot and traitor forces began to fight along the 38th parallel, but in 1932, when Kim Il Sung formed his first patriot guerrilla unit to fight the Japanese, and collaborators, who would become central figures in the South Korean government, chose another route, joining the Japanese army to enforce Japan’s colonial tyranny over Korea.
One of those traitors was Park Chung-hee, who was for many years, the military dictator of South Korea. While Kim Il Sung was fighting the Japanese in the mountains of Manchuria, Park was serving voluntarily as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army, in a counter-insurgency unit in Manchuria, hunting down Korean guerillas, like Kim Il Sung, and the patriots who would later found the North Korean state.
In South Korea, Kim Il Sung is demonized, just as he is in the West. But Cumings reports than in 1989, South Korea’s leading scholar of Korean communism was allowed to tell the true story of Kim Il Sung. When it was explained to a group of South Korean students who Kim really was, namely, a patriot hero of the guerilla struggle for Korean independence, the students broke out in loud applause.
Cumings points out that the descendants of Koreans who fought each other beginning in the 1930s as anti-Japanese guerillas versus pro-Japanese collaborators, continue to struggle today against each other as the leaders of North and South Korea. The current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, is the grandson of the guerilla leader Kim Il Sung. The president of South Korea, prior to the current one, Park Geung-hye, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who, as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army, hunted down guerillas like Kim Il Sung. Thus, as Cumings has argued, the civil war that began in 1932 between patriots and traitors has never ended and is carried on today by their descendants.
Health Care and the Empire’s Economic War Against Korean Patriots
The most significant determinant of the quality and level of health care available to North Koreans today is their government’s rejection of empire. This rejection has led to the United States, and its allies, and finally the UN Security Council, imposing punitive sanctions on North Korea, intended to destroy its economy and as a corollary to coerce the government and people of North Korea to surrender their independence and become part of the informal US empire (as their compatriots in the south are.)
No country has been subjected to a campaign of economic warfare as long as North Korea has, and I use the term economic warfare as a synonym for sanctions, sanctions being an anodyne term for what in international law are called coercive economic measures. If the aim of warfare is for one state to impose its will on another—that is, to engage in international coercion to work its will—then we can think of coercive economic measures as warfare conducted through economic means.
The United States has waged economic warfare on North Korea from the very first moments of North Korea’s birth in 1948, and the burden on the country of the US-pursued war by economic means has increased since 2006, when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution enjoining all members of the United Nations to participate in this campaign. Today, North Korea is facing a near-comprehensive sanctions program—an almost complete blockade of trade and its total isolation from the global financial system.
The sanctions have banned the export of coal, of iron ore, and of other key North Korean products, as well as drastically cut oil imports. The amount of refined petroleum North Korea is allowed to import has been cut by almost 90 percent. How is it possible to operate a modern economy under these conditions? Of course, it isn’t possible, which is the point.
The sanctions have also undercut North Korea’s ability to import food, necessary to alleviate an already existing chronic food shortage, the consequence of previously-imposed sanctions. Food-insecurity has obvious implications for public health.
Sanctions programs often provide exemptions for the importation of drugs and other humanitarian goods, subject to approval. Those approvals are often denied on the grounds that the requested imports go beyond fulfilling a basic humanitarian function, which is regularly defined as the prevention of famine. That’s the idea, or at least, that’s the way the United States interprets humanitarian exemptions: exemptions should do no more than prevent mass starvation. In other words, under the US definition, sanctions which create enormous suffering and misery are humanitarian, so long as the people subjected to them, don’t starve to death. By this definition, locking up people in concentration camps and feeding them a diet only sufficient to prevent organ failure constitutes humane treatment.
But even if North Korea were allowed to import all the food and drugs it requires—that is, even if humanitarian exemptions were truly humanitarian—food and drugs alone would hardly be sufficient to address the public health care needs of North Koreans. Public health requires more than access to food and medicine. It requires access to clean water and ways of transporting drugs, food, and medical equipment to where they’re needed. It requires electricity to power medical equipment, to provide lighting in hospitals and clinics, and to provide refrigeration to prevent drugs and food from spoiling.
If you prevent a country from importing trucks, tires, spare parts, and fuel, how can it distribute drugs, food, and medical supplies? How can it run hospitals and ambulances? If you prevent a country from importing machinery and industrial equipment, how can it maintain its sewage and water treatment facilities? How can it maintain its power plants?
In Iraq in the 1990s, UN sanctions prevented the Iraqi government from rebuilding its water treatment and sewage facilities, which the United States had damaged in the Gulf War. This led to outbreaks of water-borne illness, including typhus and cholera. During the Gulf War the United States deliberately bombed water treatment and sewage facilities, with full knowledge of the probable public health consequences. The Pentagon acknowledged in advance of the bombing that there would be outbreaks of water-borne illness.
UN sanctions complemented the effects of the bombing campaign by preventing the Iraqi government from importing the goods it needed to repair the infrastructure the United States had destroyed or damaged. The intent, then, of the Gulf War and the sanctions program that accompanied it, was not only to damage the health of Iraqis but to return their country to the middle-ages—which is precisely what happened. Today, Iraqis suffer the consequences; basic civilian infrastructure remains in ruins; life is one preventable misery piled atop another. A country that had enjoyed during the 1970s what one former US State Department official had called a golden age is now a crucible of human misery, thanks to the war, both military and economic, waged by the United States, and participated in, if not on the military side, then on the economic side, by numerous countries throughout the world, which delude themselves that they are morally above the war-obsessed United States, because they dropped no bombs on Iraq. But they did contribute to the economic war which, as we’ll seen in a moment, was very likely more deadly than the bombing war.
Returning to North Korea, the US Treasury Department has effectively blocked the transfer of funds to and from the country, isolating it from the world banking system, so that on top of the prohibitions on goods that can be imported from or exported to North Korea, the US government makes it virtually impossible for North Korea to pay foreign suppliers. The United States does this by refusing to deal with any bank that deals with North Korea, and since no bank cares to be shut out of the US market, banks steer clear of the US-designated pariah state. For example, the World Health Organization has an office in North Korea. To pay its local staff, it needs to procure funds through a foreign bank. The bank is in India. But the bank refuses to transfer funds to North Korea, fearing that if it does so, it will be cut off from the US banking system.
This happens in all the countries the United States embargoes. Few companies or organizations want to transact business with a sanctioned country. The bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome to get approvals to export goods to a pariah state are so steep that they act as a deterrent It’s just not worth the effort to complete all the paper work necessary to trade with North Korea. Additionally, and more importantly, organizations don’t want to run the risk of running afoul of the US Treasury Department and becoming the target of secondary sanctions. Accordingly, sanctioned countries have difficulty finding partners to transact business with, even when the business to be transacted is not formally prohibited.
Why have sanctions been imposed on North Korea?
Ostensibly the sanctions were imposed to pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and that’s true of the multilateral UN Security Council sanctions that have been in effect since 2006, but the United States and its allies have maintained sanctions on North Korea from the moment of North Korea’s birth, long before North Korea ever had nuclear weapons.
Some of the reasons for imposing the sanctions are really quite deplorable. One set of US sanctions was imposed because, as the framers of the legislation imposing the sanctions wrote, North Korea maintains a Marxist-Leninist economy. The fact that the United States feels it is legitimate to use coercive economic measures to pressure a foreign country to change the way it organizes its economy is indefensible. It is not within the legitimate remit of the US government to decide how another people organizes its economy. Meddling in the internal affairs of other countries is an affront to both the concepts of geography and democracy. US politicians behave as if North Korea is part of the United States, and that Washington has the right to impose US economic preferences on North Korea’s citizens. It does not.
Even if North Korea dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, it would still be sanctioned, because nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles aren’t at the heart of why sanctions were imposed. Sanctions were imposed because North Korea has refused to allow its territory to become a satellite of the US economy and outpost of the US military.
Let’s consider the casual sequence. North Korea refuses to be absorbed into the US empire. Unwilling to take no for an answer, the United States uses various methods to coerce North Korea into surrendering its sovereignty. To deter the United States, and to defend its independence, North Korea develops nuclear weapons.
Let me draw your attention to the work of Kenneth M. Waltz. Waltz was a high-profile US political scientist, the president of the American Political Science Association, and founder of what is called the neo-realistic or structural realistic school of international relations. Waltz wrote:
Like any dominant power, [the United States] is a looming threat in the minds of many international leaders. When President George W. Bush identified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as forming an axis of evil in January of 2002, and when he then ordered the invasion of one of them, what were the other two to think? It would make sense for them to believe that they might be next, and in that case to take steps to deter the United States from invading. But how can any state hope to deter a world-dominant power? Conventional defense and deterrence strategies have historically proven ineffective against the United States, so, logically, nuclear weapons are the only weapons capable of dissuading the United States from working its will on other nations.
Waltz was saying, if you’re a small and weak country, and you’re threatened with invasion by the United States—which, elsewhere, Waltz had pointed out has a penchant for beating up on weak countries—what are your options? The only option is to acquire the one class of weapons capable of deterring the United States: nuclear weapons. Waltz went on to argue that North Korea’s interests in nuclear weapons stem from “serious security concerns.”
North Korea began thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, North Korea was no longer under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. It was exposed, terribly insecure, and at risk of invasion by the United States.
It’s easy to deplore North Korea’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons as we in Canada, or South Korea, or Japan, or Germany, sit under the US nuclear umbrella. Countries that live under the US nuclear umbrella feel secure. Since these countries rely on US nuclear weapons for protection, they have no need to develop their own.
Insecure countries, on the other hand, have very compelling reasons to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea found itself in the early 1990s directly targeted for nuclear strike by the United States. The US Strategic Command, the body that operated the US nuclear force, announced that it was retargeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles from the now defunct Soviet Union to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, North Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The message was: If you threaten us with nuclear annihilation, we have no option but to find a deterrent to your threat.
In 2002, a Pentagon list was leaked of seven countries deemed possible targets of a US nuclear strike. The list included North Korea. Russia, China, Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq were also on the list.
The central tenet of nuclear non-proliferation is: don’t threaten non-nuclear countries. If you’re genuinely concerned about nuclear non-proliferation, you painstakingly avoid creating the conditions that encourage countries to arm themselves with nuclear weapons in order to achieve security. And yet the United States has acted in ways, and continues to act in ways, that virtually guarantee the spread of nuclear weapons from one threatened insecure country to another. The United States is the world’s major cause of the spread of nuclear weapons.
Muammar Gaddafi, the former leader of oil-rich Libya, overthrown by Islamist rebels backed by NATO warplanes, had also found himself in a very insecure position after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The US government didn’t like Gaddafi’s policies. They were too nationalist for the tastes of US oil companies. Gaddafi tried to rectify his precarious security condition by developing a nuclear weapons program. Gaddafi’s program never really got off the ground, but if it had, and had succeeded, it may have provided Libya with the security the radical economic nationalist sought.
However, instead of pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, Gaddafi struck a deal with the West. He was offered concessions, and in return, he abandoned his nuclear weapons program. But before long, he found himself double-crossed. Effectively disarmed, he became an easy target, and was overthrown—indeed, gruesomely murdered—by radical Islamists backed by the United States and its allies.
The North Koreans pointed to the Libyan example as confirmation that they had made the right decision in building nuclear weapons, vowing that they would never let themselves be double crossed the way Gaddafi had.
The Arab nationalist leader of Iraq, Saddam—I call him Saddam because that’s how he was referred to in Iraq and how he wanted to be referred to, and also because Hussein wasn’t his family name but his father’s name—Saddam, also embarked on the development of nuclear weapons, as a means of making his country secure from the growing threats of the United States. To deny him nuclear weapons that would effectively make him invulnerable to US attack, and for other reasons related to the US goal of completely dominating West Asia and its oil resources, the United Nations Security Council, under US pressure, imposed a comprehensive sanctions program on Iraq from 1990 to 2003, much like the one we see today on North Korea.
The sanctions program generated a lot of controversy because there was plenty of evidence it was killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and disease. In the controversy surrounding the sanctions, a paper was written by two US academics, John Mueller and Karl Mueller, that appeared in Foreign Affairs (the informal journal of the US State Department.) In their article the two political scientists pointed out that in the twentieth century, sanctions had killed more people than all the weapons of mass destruction in history, including all the chemical weapons used in World War I and the atomic bombs used at the end of World War II.
This was notable, because the Iraq sanctions were ostensibly aimed at pressuring the Iraqi government into giving up its weapons of mass destruction. I say ostensibly because Washington had made clear that the sanctions wouldn’t be lifted until the government in Iraq was replaced by one acceptable to the United States. Hence, the goal of the sanctions program went well beyond denying Iraq its weapons programs. In announcing that the sanctions would not be lifted until the Iraqi government was ousted in favor of a US-approved replacement, the United States removed any incentive for Baghdad to relinquish its weapons.
If sanctions were killing more people than all the weapons of mass destruction in history, not only was this a cruel irony, but the sanctions deserved the label ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ — because that’s what they were doing: producing the mass destruction of human life. This was a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
In making this argument, Mueller and Mueller pointed out that the Allied blockade of Germany in World War I had killed over 750,000 people through disease and malnutrition, far more people than were killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Allied blockade of Germany, then, is one example of mass destruction of human life that exceeds the use of atom bombs. There is also the mass destruction brought about by fire-bombing, that is, through the use of incendiary weapons, including jellied gasoline and napalm, to incinerate cities and cremate the people inside them. The British and US air forces in World War II discovered that it was easier to burn cities to the ground than to blow them apart, and they burned a number of cities to the ground—Hamburg and Dresden in Germany, and over 100 Japanese cities, including Tokyo.
Let’s consider the fire-bombing of Hamburg. As Sven Lindqvist recounts in his book A History of Bombing, when the rescue teams made their way into Hamburg’s bomb shelters, they were faced with scenes reminiscent of those encountered at the same time by Jews forced to clear the bodies of other Jews out of the gas chambers. What they found was ‘intertwined piles of people, killed by fumes and pressed against the vents of the barricaded doors.’ Hence, as some have pointed out—the US historian Lewis Mumford, for example—the difference between incinerating civilians in a fire-bombing raid and incinerating civilians in deathcamp ovens are too trivial to mention. Mumford wrote: “In principle, the extermination camps where the Nazis incinerated … helpless Jews were no different from the urban crematoria our air force improvised in its attack by napalm bombs on Tokyo,” a reference to the March 9-10, 1945 US fire-bombing of Tokyo, which scorched, boiled and baked to death 100,000 Japanese civilians, as Curtis LeMay, the US general who planned the raid, put it.
After learning to incinerate Japanese cities, LeMay applied what he learned to the project of incinerating all of North Korea, destroying the country so thoroughly that there were only two modern buildings left standing in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, when the air raids were brought to a halt in 1953. LeMay recounted that “over a period three years or so…we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea too.”
Returning to Iraq, sanctions on the country during the 1990s killed perhaps well over one million people. We know that by 1995 they had killed over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five through disease and malnutrition, according to a UN agency, and the sanctions would last another eight years. This was an atrocity the US Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright, did not deny. Instead she said it was a tough decision to impose the sanctions that produced death on this scale, but “it was worth it.”
Over a half a million children dead as a result of sanctions is more than the combined fatalities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This has led some people to equate sanctions to economic atom bombs, recognizing that the effects of sanctions in the destruction of human life can be as great as, if not greater, than a nuclear attack.
Or we can look at this another way. Combined, the fire-bombing of over 100 Japanese cities in World War II and the atomic bombing of two more, produced 500,000 fatalities. Thus, the number of deaths produced by the sanctions of mass destruction inflicted on Iraq in the first five years was greater than the number of deaths produced by the fire- and atom-bombings of Japan during World War II.
Economic atom bombs have been denotated not only over Iraq and North Korea, but over Syria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
Ten years ago, Amnesty International released a report on what it called the crumbling state of health care in North Korea, which the organization blamed on what it said was North Korea’s mismanagement of its economy. Misattributing economic breakdown to a country’s alleged mismanagement, rather than to the economic warfare that produced it, is a standard practice of Western governments and their non-governmental allies.
Here’s what happens: Economic atom bombs are dropped on a country. Its economy collapses. People go hungry. Public health care suffers. And organizations like Amnesty International blame the collapse, not on the sanctions, but on the economic policies of the country under attack. The mainstream media are no different. Read Western newspaper accounts of the economic troubles experienced by sanctioned countries and you will invariably see that those troubles are attributed to mismanagement. Because the ravages of US sanctions are almost invariably inflicted on communist, socialist, and radical nationalist governments— and not on the pro-imperialist, pro-capitalist human rights horror shows of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the India of the Islamophobic BJP, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which Washington cherishes as allies—US politicians, Amnesty International, and the mainstream news media, are able to intone that socialism or any program intended to uplift the poor, the underdeveloped, or the historically oppressed, is unrealistic, impractical, and bound to produce failure. This is a way to strengthen profit-centered ideology and attack its people-centered challengers.
I wrote a criticism of the Amnesty International report which began with a quotation from a 1997 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article was titled, “The sleep of reason produces monsters—human costs of economic sanctions,” and the quote I chose was this: “Economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health.”
Consider that recently economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs found that sanctions on Venezuela “have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017–2018.” That’s more deaths than produced by the US-British fire-bombing of Hamburg during the Second World War.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Iranian government—whose citizens are being crushed by the burden of massive US sanctions—must do what the United States says “if they want their people to eat.” That’s called, “Do as we say, or starve.” And that’s why under international law, sanctions are not called sanctions but coercive economic measures. Sanctions have adversely affected health care in Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran’s “health care system has … been depleted after the U.S. imposed economic sanctions in 2018… hindering imports of certain medicines and medical equipment.”
Is Killing Hundreds of Thousands of Iraqis, North Koreans, and Others Worth It?
One might be of the view that no matter how much sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health, that waging a war against the public health of North Koreans is worth it, to protect us from the possibility of a North Korean nuclear strike.
There are a number of problems with this view. No serious commentator believes that North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose an offensive threat to the United States, or to South Korea, or to any other country. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is strictly defensive. The country is not in a position to launch a first strike attack on the United States or its allies and survive a retaliatory strike. North Korea would be completely vaporized and the leadership knows it. What’s more, no one of consequence in the US state seriously believes that the North Korean leadership is suicidal.
Additionally, as I’ve already pointed out, Western sanctions on North Korea began decades before the North Koreans ever had nuclear weapons. From this we can conclude that sanctions weren’t imposed to punish North Korea for developing nuclear weapons. They were imposed for other reasons. It is meaningless, then, to talk of waging a war against the public health of North Koreans to protect us from the possibility of a North Korean nuclear strike, when an offensive North Korea nuclear strike is not in the cards, and deterring a North Korean nuclear strike has never been the reason for the sanctions.
What, then, is the reason?
It’s not difficult to find out. The Congressional Research Service, a think-tank and information service of the US Congress, published a paper on US sanctions on North Korea. Look through the list of sanctions, which is extensive, and you’ll find that one of the stated reasons for inflicting economic hardship on North Korea is to punish the state for running, as I mentioned earlier, what the US government calls “a Marxist-Leninist” economy, and for failing to operate what it calls a “market economy.”
In other words, the goal of many of the sanctions inflicted by Washington on North Korea (not all of them, but many of them) has been to coerce the North Koreans into opening their economy to US exports and investments. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, the United States adopted what it called the Open Door Policy as the basis for its foreign policy; that is, US foreign policy would promote an open door throughout the world for US businesses. Woodrow Wilson, the US president in the years immediately before and during the First World War argued that those countries that refused to open their doors—either because they rejected free enterprise in favor of public ownership or were radical nationalist and wanted to develop their own industry internally and therefore needed to shut out foreign competition—these countries would have to be coerced to open their doors, to accept free trade, and US free enterprise, even if it meant “outraging their sovereignty.” This might mean invasion, or sanctions, or the overthrow of governments—whatever it took to bring about a change that would allow US business people to do business in a previously closed economy.
What this means is that the United States is waging a war on the public health of North Koreans because North Koreans have decided—as they have every right to do—to organize their economy in a manner they believe is most suited to their own needs and interests rather than the needs and interests of US corporations and investors.
So, here’s the message: Unless you organize your affairs in the manner we say—in a manner conducive to the interests of the US billionaire class—we will undertake an economic war on you, which, at its core, will be a war against public health.
It’s not widely known, but the United States has imposed sanctions on Syria since 1979, and escalated its sanctions in 2003, and then later in 2011. But why 2003?
That was the year the United States and Britain invaded Iraq. And the plan, revealed by the US Congressional Research Service, was for US forces to follow up their invasion of Iraq with an invasion of neighboring Syria to replace the government of Bashar al-Assad with one acceptable to the United States. The year before, Washington had added Syria to its so-called Axis of Evil list, which included initially Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and then was expanded to include Syria, Cuba, and Libya.
That Washington was planning to invade Syria in 2003 was confirmed recently by Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been chief of staff to Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State at the time. Wilkerson told Aaron Maté of the investigative news organization, The Grayzone, that
“The next plans were for Syria. Syria just fell right in line with Iraq, because we thought it was going to be swift, quick, roses in the street, candy in the bars, and so forth, everything was going to be over very quickly. Rumsfeld [the Secretary of Defense] thought we were going to be out of Iraq by August  and we’d bounce right over into Syria. And we thought that Syria would be sufficiently cowed by how fast we did Iraq, and it wouldn’t be very hard in Syria. And then we’d move on from there. I actually saw the contingency planning for that, the classified contingency planning.”
Assad has the same commitment to political and economic independence that Saddam had, one based on economic and foreign policies that stress Arab independence. Washington disapproves. If you read US government documents on Syria, you’ll see that they’re teeming with complaints about Syria being insufficiently accommodating of foreign investment and US free enterprise. Damascus is also denounced for supporting independence movements.
When the Pentagon discovered that Iraqis were resisting their occupation, the generals decided that a follow-up invasion of Syria was a bridge too far, whereupon the US political leadership concluded that the goal of replacing the Assad government with one acceptable to the United States—one which would implement the open door policy in Syria and renounce Syria’s support for liberation movements—would have to be brought about by other means.
One of those means would be sanctions. Hence, coercive economic measures were stepped up in 2003, and by the spring of 2012, The Washington Post would report that sanctions had “forced Syrian officials to stop providing education, health care and other essential services in some parts of the country.”
Thus, long before the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the United States was waging an economic war on Syria’s education, on its health care, and on its other essential services.
In 2011, the EU, Turkey, the Arab League, Canada and Australia joined the US assault on the essential services of Syrians, including their health care.
In May of last year, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Syria described the sanctions as effectively a total blockade.
And while exceptions are theoretically constructed to allow the flow of humanitarian relief into Syria, a report prepared for a UN commission pointed out that there is “perilous reluctance among western suppliers and banks to offer humanitarian goods and related finance, in part, for fear of sanctions issues, such as fines for inadvertent technical violations.”
The Special Rapporteur also observed that
“The uncertainty around what transactions do, or do not violate the unilateral coercive measures, have created a ‘chilling effect’ on international banks and companies, which as a result are unwilling or unable to do business with Syria.”
Thus, the entry points through which humanitarian aid is supposed to flow exist in theory alone and not in reality.
Sanctions have severely limited the Syrian government’s ability to purchase the drugs and medical equipment it needs. As a consequence, Syria’s public health care system—once one of the best in Arab Asia—is in a state of virtual collapse, as is North Korea’s. Significantly, both countries refuse to become economic and military satellites of the United States.
Commenting on the sanctions, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent Patrick Cockburn observed that the US, EU, and Canadian sanctions resemble the sanctions the UN imposed on Iraq—the ones that killed over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five in the first five years of the 13-year-long economic strangulation campaign. The de facto total blockade of Syria also calls to mind the Allied blockade of Germany, which killed over 750,000 German civilians during World War I.
Madeline Albright said that killing 500,000 Iraqi children through sanctions-related disease and malnutrition was worth it. Worth what? What did the United States gain in exchange for the lives of over half a million Iraqi children under the age of five?
It gained opportunities for major US investors. Washington expanded its control over a West Asia pullulating with profit-making opportunities and rife with strategic significance. The profit-making opportunities of West Asia’s petroleum resources are obvious. But there’s also a strategic significance that’s less obvious. Western Europe and East Asia are dependent on West Asian oil. If you control West Asian oil and its transportation routes, you control Western Europe and East Asia, and control of these regions translates into profit-making opportunities for US businesses.
Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Belarus, trying to persuade Belarus to move out of the orbit of Russia and into the orbit of the United States. Russia is Belarus’s major source of oil and natural gas, so severing ties with Russia can’t be accomplished without complications. But Pompeo assured the Belarussian president that if his country joined the US empire that “Our energy producers stand ready to deliver 100 percent of the oil you need at competitive prices.” And that’s what US control of West Asia means. It means leverage over countries that have no internal sources of petroleum—countries such as Japan, Germany, France, South Korea, China, and Belarus.
There are a few countries that were standing or continue to stand in the way of total US domination of the stupendous material and strategic prize of West Asian oil and natural gas, as a US State Department official once called it: Gaddafi’s Libya, Syria, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran.
Soon after the demise of the Soviet Union, Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the US under-secretary of defense for policy, informed US General Wesley Clark that:
With the end of the Cold War, we can now use our military with impunity. The Soviets won’t come in to block us. And we’ve got five, maybe 10, years to clean up these old Soviet surrogate regimes like Iraq and Syria.
He could have added North Korea.
How has the United States been cleaning up those old Soviet surrogate regimes? Partly by sanctions. In other words, the public health of a number of countries abroad is adversely affected by the foreign policy of the United States and its allies.
US foreign policy is shaped by the profiting-making imperatives of the most politically consequential sector of Western society, namely, corporations and major investors operating within the context of a capitalist system, who insist on open doors abroad, and access to every profit-making opportunity the world has to offer.
The implication is that the public health care systems of North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, are profoundly affected in a very adverse way by the profit-making imperatives that condition and guide the foreign policy choices of Western states.
Sanctions are intended to cripple economies and undermine public health for three reasons:
First, to create enough misery that the population of the crippled country attempts to relieve its misery by overthrowing its government. This ends the sanctions and relieves the people’s misery but also clears the way for the installation of a government acceptable to the United States which will open the country’s doors to US business and allow the US military access to the country’s territory.
Second, to make an example of what will happen to any government that defies the US open door policy and chooses to implement communist, socialist, or radical nationalist policies.
Third, to turn public opinion against economic programs that reject free trade, free markets, and US free enterprise, by sabotaging them and then misattributing their sanctions-induced failures to the rejection of US free enterprise, rather than to the sanctions which were imposed with the deliberate aim of undermining them.
Sanctions are a weapon of US foreign policy for destroying any way of living that does not comport with the profit-making imperatives of the US business community. They destroy economies by design, gut public health care, create hunger, spread disease, and kill silently in numbers that regularly exceed the fatality rate produced by military means. Sanctions are not an alternative to war; they are war.
The Empire That Worships Mars
All empires worship Mars, the god of war, but the United States stands apart, not in the usual ways its experts in casuistry profess, but in warranting the status of being perhaps the most bellicose empire in modern history. Harry Stout estimates that over a period of 233 years, from 1776 to 2009, the United States engaged in 309 military interventions or nuclear standoffs, an average of 1.3 per year. This does not include covert activities, blockades, proxy wars, assassinations, or threats of war. A country with a record of aggressiveness this egregious cannot be expected to be interested in peace anywhere, let alone on the Korean peninsula.
US bellicosity is a means to the end of US expansionism. From its birth, the United States has unremittingly expanded, first territorially, and then informally. In only four cases of the 309 military interventions Stout identified were US actions taken in response to an attack on US soil. These were the War of 1812, the December 1941 Japanese attack on US colonial possessions in the Pacific, and the Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre attack in 1993 and 2001. Significantly, all of these attacks were related to US expansion. The War of 1812 was a struggle between an established empire, the British, and a nascent one, the United States. The 1941 Japanese attack occurred as part of the struggle between the US and Japanese empires for control of East Asia, while the Al-Qaeda attacks were part of a struggle between the United States and the Islamist organization for control of Arab West Asia. In over 98 percent of the interventions, US forces attacked foreign soil.
The engine of US expansionism is the need of US businesses for new markets and fields for investment, and the fear of US planners that if US businesses cannot expand unchecked, that the US economy will settle into a secular stagnation, and demands will arise for major economic reforms, if not revolutionary change. There are few territories remaining in the world that have not been folded into the US economy (often at the point of a US gun), and Washington acts vigorously to absorb the hold outs. Among them is North Korea. Also, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. And more significantly, Russia and China.
The US war on Korea began not in 1945 but in 1871, when US forces invaded Korea, to punish the natives for refusing to trade with US businesses. Today, Washington continues to punish North Korea for the same reason. Washington deplores Pyongyang’s refusal to accommodate US free enterprise. It also punishes North Koreans for insisting that their country not to be used as territory for US military bases.
In light of US bellicosity and US expansionism, it’s difficult to accept that peace between the United States and North Korea, on terms agreeable to both sides, is even remotely possible. The one condition that might make the United States consider such an agreement—the need to deter a genuine North Korean threat to US security—is not even remotely present. North Korea, a small, enfeebled country, poses not the slightest threat to the United States. The DPRK is, unfortunately, the only interlocuter genuinely committed to arrive at a mutually agreeable peace. That’s because peace serves North Korea’s interests. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t serve Washington’s, unless it’s achieved on Washington’s terms.
A US-DPRK peace depends on the United States turning its back on its worship of Mars. Reversing centuries of US bellicosity depends on the United States radically re-engineering its economy so that it’s no longer dependent on global expansion. Removing the US economy’s dependence on global expansion means removing profit-making as the economy’s engine and replacing it with a consciously guided plan to satisfy the material, social, and psychological needs of US citizens at home, and practicing what the leading US historian of the first half of the twentieth century, Charles Austin Beard, called self-containment. Whereas today labor is but a means to create profits, the work people do needs to become the means to widen, to enrich, and to promote the existence of all who work. Not only would a radical re-engineering of this type improve the lives of the many (though not of all—billionaires would no longer live in the lap of luxury on the backs of others), it would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the reasons for conflict among states. At that point, peace between the United States and North Korea would become an achievable reality rather than what it is today: a pleasant fantasy for dreamers.
As to South Korea, its liberation depends, ultimately, on economics. Slavery ended when its economic logic was no longer supportable. Colonialism ended (where it ended) when the revolt of the natives made the economic logic of colonialism indefensible. US neocolonialism in Korea will end when one or both of the following conditions are met: (1) The revolt of the natives undermines the economic logic of neo-colonialism. (2) US citizens revolt and change the expansionary logic of their economy.
Stephen Gowans is the author of Israel, A Beachhead in the Middle East: From European Colony to US Power Projection Platform (2019); Patriots, Traitors, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom (2018); and Washington’s Long War on Syria (2017). All are published by Baraka Books, Montreal.
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Stephen Gowans . Gowans is an independent political analyst whose principal interest is in who influences formulation of foreign policy in the United States. His book is Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Stephen Gowans: The conflict between the United States and North Korea didn’t start at the moment North Korea embarked upon a program of nuclear weapons development, although the discourse surrounding US-North Korea relations—focussed largely on the ostensible threat Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose to the United States and the consequent demand for denuclearization—would lead you to believe it did. On the contrary, the conflict began in 1945, when the United States, taking its first steps to establish a global empire of unprecedented scale, arrived on the Korean peninsula to accept the Japanese surrender and refused to recognize the newly established Korean People’s Republic, the state Koreans proclaimed for themselves after 40 years of foreign rule by the Japanese.
Korea had been bisected by the United States into separate US and Soviet occupation zones to accept the Japanese surrender. US forces quickly eradicated the Korean People’s Republic within their occupation zone. They did so by fighting an anti-insurgency war against Korean guerrillas who took up arms to defend the nascent republic. In place of the republic, Washington installed a US military dictatorship, and subsequently a puppet regime, South Korea, which possessed, and continues to posses, the trappings of a viciously anti-communist police state.
“US policy since 1945 has been to crush any independent Korean government.”
The Korean People’s Republic survived north of the 38thparallel, in the Soviet occupation zone, and became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known informally as North Korea. US policy since 1945 has been to crush any independent Korean government, whether the short-lived Korean People’s Republic, or its DPRK successor.
My book traces the history of US efforts to quash independent political movements in Korea, not only in the north, but in the south as well, and the struggle waged by Korean patriots to unify their country and emancipate it from the foreign rule and military occupation inflicted on it, first by the Empire of the Rising Sun, beginning in 1905, and subsequently by the US empire, since 1945.
Patriots, Traitors & Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Stephen Gowans’ latest book on the Korean conflict, could not be more timely given the recent tensions on the Korean peninsula as well as the recent overtures being made for peace and reconciliation. The book is also a very good antidote to the anti-DPRK propaganda we have been fed for so many decades.
The Korean conflict, usually thought of as beginning in 1950 and ending in 1953, is one of the least known and understood conflicts in which the US has been involved. Given the lack of knowledge about this conflict, it has been easy to paint the DPRK, usually referred to as North Korea, as a rogue state led by a succession of madmen. As Gowans’ book explains, the real story is much more complex than this and indeed greatly favors the DPRK over the United States which has truly been the villain in this saga.
First of all, Gowans explains that the beginning of the Korean conflict can fairly be said to begin in 1945 when, as WWII was coming to an end, two US generals drew the arbitrary dividing line of Korea at the 38th parallel and when the US began to intervene quite deeply in what quickly became South Korea. The conflict could indeed be said to have begun even sooner as Gowans explains – that is, in 1932 when Kim Il-sung began the Korean armed resistance against the brutal Japanese occupation of Manchuria and Korea.
Kim and his fellow Koreans had much to rebel against. As Gowans reminds us, the Japanese occupation involved impressing Koreans, and Chinese as well, into forced labor as well as into sexual slavery. By 1938, Gowans explains, “30,000 to 40,000 women, mainly Koreans, [were] subjected to regular sexual violence by Japanese soldiers.”
Of course, after WWII was over and fascist Japan defeated, the Koreans reasonably believed that all of this would end and that Korea would proceed as an independent and unified country as it had been for centuries before. However, the US had other plans, as it had for Vietnam which had aspirations quite similar to that of Korea. Thus, as Gowans explains, the US, in the interest of blocking Soviet expansion and preventing countries like Japan and Korea from voluntarily turning to communism or socialism, decided that it was critical to help Japan maintain its economic dominance over parts of Asia, including Korea, or at least the Southern half.
Koreans have been fighting a civil war since 1932, when Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, along with other Korean patriots, launched a guerrilla war against Japanese colonial domination. Other Koreans, traitors to the cause of Korea’s freedom, including a future South Korean president, joined the side of Japan’s empire, becoming officers in the Japanese army or enlisting in the hated colonial police force.
But even before there was a civil war, Koreans fought for their freedom. From the early years of the twentieth century, when Japan incorporated Korea into its burgeoning empire, Koreans struggled against foreign domination, both that of Japan and the United States. At times they protested peacefully. At other times they rioted, launched insurrections, and fought sustained guerrilla wars. And after the United States engineered the political division of their country, they fought a conventional war, from 1950-1953, which cost three million Koreans their lives.
When the Japanese Empire collapsed in 1945, Koreans erupted in joy, quickly organizing an independent state, the Korean People’s Republic, to usher in the freedom they had long struggled for. But their joy quickly turned to bitterness as the United States refused to recognize the new republic, and soon declared war on it.
Koreans hungered for self-determination, land reform, and an economy directed to local needs, and they turned to communists as leaders, who had established great moral authority in the anti-colonial struggle for freedom, and looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration.
But a communist Korea failed to comport with the aspirations of US policy planners, mainly Wall Street lawyers and bankers, who sought a world in which US corporations and investors would be free to scour the globe in search of lucrative trade and investment opportunities. A Korea which handed control of the country’s land, resources, and factories to farmers, cooperatives and state-owned enterprises clashed sharply with the planners’ agenda.
In Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom, Stephen Gowans explores the fight of Korean patriots for freedom against the empires and traitors who opposed them, starting in 1905 and following the struggle through the Korean War to North Korea’s efforts to become a nuclear weapons-state, invulnerable to attack by the United States.
I have no idea how it transpired that mines linked to the DPRK (north Korea) that severed the legs of two south Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone earlier this month came to be where they were, anymore than Washington, Seoul or The New York Times does. But I do know that the set of possible explanations contains more than the single explanation favored by the south Korean and US governments and the Western media, that the mines were deliberately planted by north Korean soldiers as part of an “ongoing pattern of provocation.” I also know that neither Seoul nor Washington are likely to let any opportunity pass to resolve ambiguity into the certainty that the north Koreans, repeatedly denounced in Western propaganda as “belligerent”, have deliberately provoked tensions. The Western propaganda system has a confirmatory bias. All acts of north Koreans must be construed as belligerent, with every act so construed reinforcing the theory.
But there are alternative, and more likely, explanations.
One offered immediately after the event was that flooding or shifting soil had led mines to drift from another location. The New York Times’ Korea correspondent Choe Sang-hun reported on August 10  that “Old mines loosed by floodwaters … pose a risk for soldiers serving in the zone. In 2010, dozens of North Korean land mines moved into the South through floodwaters, killing one villager and scaring vacationers away from rivers and beaches near the border.” Indeed, so heavily mined is the area “that wild deer sometimes step on them, causing blasts.” What’s more, “116 villagers have been killed by mines in Gangwon, one of the two South Korean provinces on the border with the North.”
In light of the large number of mines in the zone, and the scores of accidental deaths the mines have caused, it hardly seems that an accident is completely out of the question as an explanation for the tragedy of August 4. On the contrary, it seems to be a probable explanation.
Nevertheless, the probable explanation has been “ruled out” without explanation by Seoul and the “U.N. Command”, the latter presented in press reports as a neutral body, when, indeed, it is none other than the US military. The attempted deception of portraying US occupying forces as impartial observers is necessary to invest the accusation against north Korea with weight, since no one of an unbiased mind reasonably expects Washington to have a neutral attitude toward a country whose government it has been trying to bring down for the past 65 years.
By blaming north Korean for the tragedy, the US-led duo, patron and client, is deflecting attention from its own actual provocations of north Korea by inventing provocations on the north Korean side.
August 17 marked the beginning of joint US-south Korean war games targeted at north Korea, known as Ulji Freedom Guardian. These follow north Korea-targeted war games carried out earlier this year by the United States, south Korea, Britain, Australia and Canada. North Korea poses a vanishingly small offensive military threat to the US client state on the south of the peninsula. At $39 billion annually, Seoul’s military budget towers over Pyongyang’s comparatively meagre $10 billion annual expenditure. Adding decisively to the imbalance is the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops—and advanced US military hardware—on Korean soil, to say nothing of 45,000 US troops in nearby Japan, or the strategic nuclear missiles the United States targets on north Korea.
Contrary to a favored Western deception, the US war games on the Korean peninsula are not defensive; they’re part of a decades-long effort of low intensity warfare carried out by the United States and its client regime whose aim is to sabotage the small north Korean economy by forcing Pyongyang onto a perpetual war footing in which scarce resources are diverted from the civilian economy to defense. North Korea’s small economy can hardly support the expenditures on a conventional military necessary to deter aggression by south Korea and its behemoth patron. But this it must do, and is part of the reason why it has developed a nuclear shield.
The north Koreans face an unenviable choice: to keep up their guard at the expense of their economy, or let it down and face invasion and coerced absorption into the United States’ informal empire. As north Korea’s Workers’ Party puts it, “In actuality, the U.S. is plugging the DPRK into an arms race through ceaseless war drills and arms build-up in a sinister bid to throw hurdles in its efforts to develop its economy and improve the standard of its people’s living.” 
Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, much are they’re portrayed to be provocative, are not a threat to Washington or Seoul. There’s much talk of “denuclearizing” the Korean peninsula, which is nothing more than a call for north Korea to remove a formidable obstacle to the United States fulfilling its agenda of chasing the anti-imperialists out of Pyongyang. Korea will never be denuclearized in any meaningful way so long as US strategic nuclear weapons are, or are able to be, targeted on north Korea—which is to say, so long as the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal. And since there’s no chance that Washington will voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons anytime soon, if ever, all talk of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is simply a conversation about north Korea’s capitulation.
Fortunately, the disasters visited upon Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq in voluntarily disarming under US pressure have not gone unnoticed by Pyongyang, which recognizes the advantages of having, in a very small quantity, the WMD the United States possesses in vast numbers. The lesson the DPRK drew from Libya was that the only guarantee of peace on the Korean peninsula is a powerful military, backed by nuclear weapons.  Others have acknowledged this, as well. “Who would have dared deal with Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein if they had a nuclear capability?” asks Major General Amir Eshel, chief of the Israeli army’s planning division. “No way.” 
Calling for north Korea to denuclearize, without first calling for the United States to do the same, is logically indefensible. Since the cause of Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons is to deter an aggressive nuclear armed predatory state, it follows that the only way in which the Korean peninsula can be disarmed meaningfully is to remove the root cause of its nuclearization, which means bilateral disarmament, and not north Korea surrendering its nuclear weapons unilaterally while the United States retains the capability to turn north Korea into a “charcoal briquette,” as a former head of the Pentagon once threatened. And just to be clear about who the aggressor is, consider that, according to declassified and other US government documents, from “the 1950s’ Pentagon to today’s Obama administration, the United States has repeatedly pondered, planned and threatened the use of nuclear weapons against north Korea,”  and importantly, during most of those years north Korea was a non-nuclear weapons state. These documents, along with the public statements of senior US officials, point to an ongoing pattern of US nuclear intimidation of the DPRK.
• The United States introduced nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula as early as 1950. 
• During the Korean War, US president Harry Truman announced that the use of nuclear weapons was under active consideration; US Air Force bombers flew nuclear rehearsal runs over Pyongyang; and US commander General Douglas MacArthur planned to drop 30 to 50 atomic bombs across the northern neck of the Korean peninsula to block Chinese intervention. 
• In the late 1960s, nuclear-armed US warplanes were maintained on 15-minute alert to strike north Korea. 
• In 1975, US defense secretary James Schlesinger acknowledged for the first time that US nuclear weapons were deployed in south Korea. Addressing the north Koreans, he warned, “I do not think it would be wise to test (US) reactions.” 
• In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced the United States was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on north Korea (and other targets.) One month later, north Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. 
• On July 22, 1993, US president Bill Clinton said if north Korea developed and used nuclear weapons “we would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate. It would mean the end of their country as we know it.” 
• In 1995, Colin Powell, who had served as chairman of the US joints chiefs of staff and would later serve as US secretary of state, warned the north Koreans that the United States had the means to turn their country into “a charcoal briquette.” 
• Following north Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice reminded north Korea that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range—and I underscore full range of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.” 
• In April 2010, US defense secretary Leon Panetta refused to rule out a US nuclear attack on north Korea, saying, “all options are on the table.” 
• On February 13, 2013, Panetta described north Korea as “a threat to the United States, to regional stability, and to global security.” He added: “Make no mistake. The US military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies.” 
As the north Koreans put it, “no nation in the world has been exposed to the nuclear threat so directly and for so long as the Koreans.”
In pursuing its foreign policy goals, Washington threatened other countries with nuclear attack on 25 separate occasions between 1970 and 2010, and 14 occasions between 1990 and 2010. On six of these occasions, the United States threatened the DPRK.  There have been more US threats against north Korea since. (The United States’ record of issuing threats of nuclear attack against other countries over this period is: Iraq, 7; China, 4; the USSR, 4; Libya, 2; Iran, 1; Syria, 1. Significantly, all these countries, like the DPRK, were under communist or economically nationalist governance when the threats were made.)
Since the United States is one of the most aggressive countries in history, not out of place in a category that contains Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, we should hardly passively accept its status as the world’s #1 possessor of WMD. As for north Korea, whose only military aggression (if it can be called that) has occurred as part of a just and legitimate civil war to achieve real independence by liberating the south from the rule of the United States and the Japanese collaborators it recruited to staff its puppet state, it seems to me that lamenting Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal while accepting Washington’s is completely backward. It’s like deploring the symptoms while accepting the virus.
Inasmuch as Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal helps the DPRK stop the juggernaut of US imperialism, those who deplore imperialist predation ought to welcome north Korea’s own observation that the “army and people of the DPRK are no longer what they used to be in the past when they had to counter the U.S. nukes with rifles.” 
On top of war games, south Korea has elevated its provocations by resuming, after an 11 year hiatus, propaganda broadcasts, broadcast into north Korea by giant speakers placed at the border, ostensibly in retaliation for the mine incident. The south Korean military has pressed into service “newly developed digital mobile speakers” that “have a range of over 20 kilometers, or double that of the old model.”  The DPRK threatened to attack the loudspeakers, eliciting an Orwellian demand from south Korean president Park Geun-hye for Pyongyang to stop “military provocations on the border.” 
Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the White House approved a detailed plan, called ‘the playbook,’ to ratchet up tension with north Korea. The playbook was developed by the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, and was discussed at several high-level White House meetings. The plan called for low-altitude B-52 bomber flights over the Korean peninsula. Two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers dropped dummy payloads on a south Korean missile range. The flights were deliberately carried out one spring day in 2013 in broad daylight at low altitude. “We could fly it at night, but the point was for them to see it,” said a US military official. A few days later, the Pentagon deployed two advanced F-22 warplanes to south Korea, also part of the ‘play-book’ plan to intimidate Pyongyang. 
According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House knew that the north Koreans would react by threatening to retaliate against the United States and south Korea. US “Defense officials acknowledged that north Korean military officers (were) particularly agitated by bomber flights because of memories of the destruction wrought from the air during the Korean War.”  US warplanes had demolished every target over one story. They also dropped more napalm in Korea than they did later in Vietnam.  The death toll reached into the millions.
The reality, then as now, is exactly opposite of the narrative formulated in Washington and reliably propagated by the Western mass media. Washington and Seoul haven’t responded to north Korean belligerence and provocations; they’ve deliberately planned a show of force in order to elicit an angry north Korean reaction, which is then labelled “belligerent” and “provocative.” The provocations, coldly and calculatingly planned, have come from Washington and south Korea. North Korea’s reactions have been defensive and necessary.
As for the DMZ mine incident, it seems likely that it was accident and Washington and Seoul have decided to turn it into an opportunity to further demonize north Korea, to use it as a pretext to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang by resuming propaganda broadcasts across the border, and to divert attention from the true provocations on the peninsula—their regular and robust anti-DPRK war games.
1. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea accuses the north after land mines maim two soldiers in DMZ”, The New York times, August 10, 2015.
2. US-S. Korean Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military drills under fire,” Rodong Sinmun, August 14, 2015.
3. Mark McDonald, “North Korea suggests Libya should have kept nuclear program”, The New York Times, March 24, 2011.
4. Ethan Bronner, “Israel sense bluffing in Iran’s threats of retaliation”, The New York Times, January 26, 2012.
5. Charles J. Hanley and Randy Hershaft, “U.S. often weighed N. Korea nuke option”, The Associated Press, October 11, 2010.
6. Hanley and Hershaft.
7. Hanley and Hershaft.
8. Hanley and Hershaft.
9. Hanley and Hershaft.
10. Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. p. 488-489.
11. William E. Berry Jr., “North Korea’s nuclear program: The Clinton administration’s response,” INSS Occasional Paper 3, March 1995.
12. Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarization,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.
13. Lou Dobbs Tonight, October 18, 2006.
14. Hanley and Hershaft.
15. Choe Sang-hun, “New leader in South criticizes North Korea,” The New York Times, February 13, 2013.
16. “Foreign ministry issues memorandum on N-issue,” Korean Central News Agency, April 21, 2010.
The South Korean police state has cracked down, with varying degrees of intensity over the years, on virtually any public expression of leftism, including anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism. Some degree of intolerance of leftist dissent is emblematic of all states in capitalist societies. Even in liberal democratic societies, which are believed to tolerate dissent to a higher degree than other societies, the security services have had a long history of surveillance “on the side of the political/economic status quo” and against those “who challenge the powerful and the wealthy.” The history of the political police in such societies is one of “conservatism” where “the targets of state surveillance form a kind of roster of (working class) radicalism” and where those who pursue the class war from the bottom up have been seen as subverting “the proper political and economic order” and therefore are deemed legitimate subjects for surveillance and disruption. This is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” 
South Korea’s police state differs from that of other liberal democracies in degree only, the difference due to its daily confrontation with a state, parked on its northern borders, which embodies leftism, and which, in its official ideology of self-reliance and rejection of foreign domination—to say nothing of its existing as one of the few top-to-bottom alternatives to capitalism—acts as an inspiration to many South Koreans. It’s virtually impossible to be committed to anti-imperialism and convinced there’s a better alternative to capitalism without espousing values which significantly overlap those of the North Korean state. Consequently, it’s virtually impossible for anyone in South Korea who embraces any kind of serious leftism not to be accused of being a North Korean fellow-traveller—someone who sympathizes with many of North Korea’s aims and values, without having a formal connection to it.
Consider the platform of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a leftwing party founded in 2011, which has recently been disbanded by South Korea’s Constitutional Court on grounds that it was intent on pursuing “North Korea-style socialism.” The party sought an end to the US military presence in South Korea (as does Pyongyang), advocated an end to South Korea’s subordinate relationship to the United States (paralleling North Korea’s rejection of foreign domination) and wanted to end the artificial division of the peninsula authored by two US colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bondsteel, in 1945, with Soviet compliance (this is also a North Korean goal.) The party talked of “rectifying” Korea’s “shameful history tainted by imperialist invasions, the national divide, military dictatorship, the tyranny and plunder of transnational monopoly capital” and large South Korean conglomerates. 
The UPP leader Lee Jung-hee averred that the party rejected North Korea’s political model. Had it not, she told the Constitutional Court, the UPP could never fulfill its ambition to be a mass party since, in her view, South Koreans would never accept North Korean-style socialism. All the same, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the UPP, or at least many of its members, could not be categorized as fellow-travelers of North Korea. And to be guileless about it, it seems very likely that in the event of an outbreak of war with North Korea that some proportion of the UPP membership would have acted as a fifth column—at least, that’s how the South Korean state is likely to have perceived matters, as would any other state—and have states in the past—which share a border with an ideological and military enemy. We can expect that as tensions between the two states heightened, that Seoul’s concern about the dangers of fifth columnists heightened in train. Potential fifth columnists (though not so named) were widely denounced as “jongbuk,” a derogatory term denoting blind followers of North Korea, who conservatives believe are infiltrating South Korean society and spreading subversive ideas challenging the merits of capitalism and South Korea’s subordinate relationship with the United States. 
To be understood, the South Korean police state must be situated in the context of South Korea’s relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, North Korea’s official name. The DPRK has long been vilified and condemned by the Western news media as bellicose, provocative and unpredictable. But blow away the fog of enduring Cold War propaganda and it’s clear that the DPRK represents something praiseworthy: a tradition of struggle against oppression and foreign domination, rooted in the experience of a majority of Koreans dating back to the end of WWII and the period of Japanese colonial rule. This tradition found expression in the Korean People’s Republic, a national government, created by, for, and of Koreans, that was already in place when US troops landed at Inchon in September, 1945. The new government was comprised of leftists who had won the backing of the majority of Koreans, partly because they had led the struggle against Japan’s colonial occupation, and partly because they promised relief from exploitation by landlords and the Japanese. The USSR, which occupied the north of the country until 1948, worked with the KPR in its occupation zone, but the United States suppressed the KPR in the south, worked to exterminate leftist forces in its zone—which included a significant guerrilla movement under the banner of the People’s Army—and backed conservatives reviled by Koreans for their collaboration with the Japanese. By 1948, the peninsula was divided between a northern government led by guerrillas and activists who fought to liberate Korea from Japanese rule, and a southern government led by a US-installed anti-communist backed by conservatives and landowners tainted by collaboration with the Japanese.
For the next nearly seven decades, the essential character of the competing regimes has remained the same. Park Geun-hye, the current South Korean president is the daughter of a former military dictator, Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a 1961 coup. As a young man Park Chung-hee joined the Japanese military, training at an officers’ school in Japan. He later joined the Kwantung Army, a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, which enforced Japanese hegemony over Manchuria. Historian Bruce Cumings notes that a biography of Park “subsidized by his supporters (showed) how proud (Park) was to get a gold watch from Emperor Hirohito as a reward for his services, which may have included tracking down Korean guerrillas who resisted the Japanese.”  Significantly, it was the very same Korean guerrillas, among them, Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea, who Park may have been involved in trying to hunt down. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the DPRK’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, carried out significant guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in Manchuria. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has a familial connection to Manchuria. Abe is the grandson of Nobusuki Kishi, a former prime minister who was a member of Tojo’s wartime cabinet and chief industrial planner in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. An historical continuity is thus evidenced in the current leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, being direct descendants of men involved in the struggle over Manchuria—Park’s father and Abe’s grandfather on the side of colonial oppression—Kim’s grandfather on the side of liberation.
Indeed, the DPRK represents the traditions of struggle against foreign domination, both political and economic, while South Korea represents the tradition of submission to and collaboration with a foreign hegemon. Significantly, there are no foreign troops stationed in the DPRK, but are in South Korea. DPR Korean troops have never fought abroad, but South Korea’s have, odiously in Vietnam, in return for infusions of mercenary lucre from the United States, and later in Iraq. That South Korea’s conservatives are steeped in a tradition of subservience to foreign domination is evidenced by the views of Moon Chang-keuk, a widely known South Korean newspaper columnist who was nominated by President Park Geun-hye to be her prime minister, but whose nomination was later withdrawn. Moon gave a lecture in 2011 at a Seoul church, in which he described Japan’s colonization of Korea as “God’s will” and a “necessary hardship.” He went on to blame Koreans for “laziness, lack of independence and a tendency to depend on others”—these being qualities he viewed as inhered in Koreans’ “national DNA.” It was necessary, too, that the Americans bisect the peninsula, Moon added, otherwise Korea would have been “communized…given the way we were then.”  Historians tend to agree that if Koreans had not been interfered with and left to their own devices they would have freely chosen communism. Moon obviously regards this as an outcome that was fortunately avoided, and would seem to view US intervention in 1945, the US-led war to exterminate the left in the immediate post-war period, and the war with North Korea from 1950 to 1953, as necessary to rescue Koreans from themselves.
As regards repression, South Korea’s authoritarianism on behalf of rightist causes is long and enduring. Its centerpiece is the notorious National Security Law (NSL), a piece of vile anti-leftist legislation created in 1948 officially to criminalize communism and recognition of North Korea and to unofficially suppress leftists. Criticized by Amnesty International , Human Rights Watch , and the UN , the NSL has been variously used to lock up South Koreans “for acts ranging from praising North Korea in casual conversation to running as an opposition candidate in presidential elections.” 
South Koreans have run afoul of the NSL for making comments that were construed as supportive of the DPRK, setting up web sites with pro-North Korean content, calling for the establishment of a socialist state, discussing alternatives to capitalism in public forums, re-tweeting messages from North Korea’s Twitter account, possessing books published in the DPRK, listening to radio broadcasts from North Korea, and visiting the DPRK without Seoul’s permission. Other sins against the NSL have included criticizing the official government inquiry into the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan (blamed on North Korea by South Korean authorities),  and promoting reconciliation between the South and North.
In the 1970s, the poet Kim Chi-ha was jailed under the NSL because his poems advocated “class division.” In 1976, South Koreans who signed a declaration commemorating an uprising against Japanese rule were imprisoned, courtesy of the NSL. In 1987, a publisher was arrested for distributing travel essays written by Korean-Americans who were reputed to be sympathetic to North Korea. The NSL has been used to jail university students for forming study groups to examine North Korean ideology. In 1989, the South Korean police state arrested an average of 3.3 citizens per day for infractions of the NSL. In the first half of 1998, more than 400 were arrested under NSL provisions for demonstrating against unemployment. In 2001, sociology professor Kang Jeong-koo was jailed on his return to South Korea for visiting the birthplace of Kim Il-sung while on a visit to the DPRK. 
A 53 year old was acquitted 30 years after being arrested for violating the NSL. He was convicted of having in his possession “printed matter aiding the enemy.” The offending printed material included E.H. Carr’s The Russian Revolution, Maurice Dobb’s Capitalism Yesterday and Today, Eric Fromm’s Socialist Humanism, and Paul Sweezy’s Theory of Capitalist Development.  In 2007, Kim Myung-soo was locked up in a jail cell so small “he could spread his arms and touch the facing walls.” His crime: aiding the enemy by operating a Web site that sold Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, a biography of Karl Marx, and other titles deemed to be pro-North Korean. 
In 2008, members off the South Korean military were banned from reading Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Secret History of Capitalism (Chang is no Marxist, just critical of capitalism), Noam Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues, and Hyeon Gi-yeong’s novel A Spoon of the Earth, all of which have been labelled as subversive books under an order banning pro-North Korea, anti-capitalist, and anti-US publications. 
And if the South Korean police state suppresses books, it no less vigorously wipes out online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. “When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against ‘illegal content’ content pops up.”  In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea.  In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. 
So militantly anti-leftist is South Korea that “a brand of crayon called Picasso was once banned because of the artist’s Communists associations.”  Equally absurd, at one time the South Korean police state would splotch black ink over any photographs of Kim Il-sung that appeared in international magazines, to prevent South Koreans from seeing the face of the reviled leftist. 
If that wasn’t enough, South Korea’s police state bona fides go way beyond the NSL. The National Intelligence Service—established to spy on North Korea–has illegally “run an extensive operation of bugging the telephones of politicians, businessmen, journalists, and others.”  In 2012, NIS agents “posted more than 1.2 million messages on Twitter and other forums in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of the conservative governing party and its leader” Park Geun-hee, in the lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012.  The messages NIS agents posted anonymously included praise for government policies, as well as denunciations of Park’s rivals as “servants” of North Korea. The NIS defended its actions, saying the posts were part of a campaign of psychological warfare against North Korea. South Korea’s Cyberwarfare Command, a unit of the military created to guard against hacking threats from North Korea, joined in the campaign of online slander of Park’s opponents. 
The vigor with which the South Korean police state acts to snuff out expressions of leftism has increased under the last two administrations, led by Lee Myung-bak, who had been chairman and chief executive officer of Hyundai, one of South Korea’s largest corporations, and Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a dictator and Japanese Imperial Army officer. In August 2011, Prosecutor General Han Sang-dae “declared ‘a war against fellow-travelling pro-north Korean left-wing elements,’ and said, ‘We must punish and remove them.’” 
South Korea’s police state has lived up to Han’s promise, recently disbanding the left-wing UPP, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. Lee was convicted of violating the NSL. His offenses include singing the Song of the Red Flag at a gathering of party members and calling Korea “Chosun,” the country’s last official name before colonization by Japan. North Korea resurrected the name, while South Korea has adopted a new name. Ever since, the use of Chosun in South Korea has become associated with sympathy for North Korea.  Conservatives, even liberals, have vociferously criticized “jongbuk,” or followers of North Korea, accusing them of spreading “subversive” ideas and worming their way into positions of influence in South Korean society. In Lee’s view, “a problem far bigger than ‘jongbuk’ is ‘jongmi’—blindly following the United States.”  Lee was also accused of calling, at a closed meeting, for the sabotage of South Korean infrastructure in the event of war with North Korea. He was convicted of inciting an insurrection. He’s now serving a nine-year jail term.
While Lee’s case was before the courts, the Park government referred the UPP to the South Korean Constitutional Court, asking for the party’s disbandment on grounds that its program mirrored the aims and values of North Korea. The government called the UPP’s commitment to “overcoming foreign domination and dissolving South Korea’s dependence on the alliance with the US,” as well as its defining South Korea as a “not a society where the workers are master, but the reverse, where a privileged few act as masters,” as “identical to the argument coming from Pyongyang.”  The court accepted the government’s brief, ruling that the UPP sought to undermine South Korea’s liberal democracy and pursue North Korea-style socialism. This has provided a basis for a further crackdown on leftism, by defining by implication each and every one of the 100,000 members of the disbanded UPP as an anti-state activist. If they belonged to an officially designated anti-state organization, they must carry the taint of anti-state activity, the reasoning goes.
The banning of the UPP and jailing of Lee Seok-ki can be called the death of democracy in South Korea, but South Korea has never been a democracy, not in any substantive sense, not even when it abandoned open dictatorship and adopted a procedural democracy. Democracy can be construed as a set of procedures (voting, political parties, secret ballots, universal suffrage and so on) or as a type of society. “Democracy” in the second sense is more meaningful. We think of democratic societies as operating in the interests of, and on behalf of, the bulk of the people who make them up. And indeed, this has always been how the word democracy has been understood. Democratic societies reflect and promote mass interests. In contrast, societies that exist to serve the interests of a tiny elite at the apex of society, or of foreign masters, or both, can hardly be said to be democratic, even if they have elections, secret ballots, and so on. South Korea fails the test. It is dominated by a few large conglomerates. “The sales of Korea’s ten largest companies are equal to about 80% of Korea’s GDP.”  And few deny that South Korea is locked in a subordinate relationship with the United States, which maintains a significant military presence in the country, and has wartime command of South Korean forces. How can a society dominated by a business elite at home and the United States from abroad be a democracy?
As for the designation of South Korea as a “liberal” democracy, it should be recalled that liberalism represents the conditions necessary for the functioning of a capitalist society, not for the flowering of left-wing dissent and efflorescence of workers’ movements and parties. Historically, “liberal” democracies have not been particularly liberal for anyone but the dominant class. The United States, supposedly a model of liberal democracy, maintained slavery for the first 89 years of its existence. “The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without their consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over the slaves.”  So too today, champions of liberal democracy may worry about the liberty to exploit labor, but care not one whit about freedom from exploitation. Even after slavery’s abolition in the United States, it took decades—and the Soviet Union pointing to the United States’ deplorable treatment of its black citizens—to goad the United States to fully recognize the civil and political liberties of the descendants of the slaves. As for leftist movements, the United States accommodated them only insofar as was necessary to co-opt them, and otherwise undertook various campaigns of anti-leftist suppression, which waxed and waned, depending on the need to mobilize for war and confront an external enemy.
Indeed, the history of police state suppression of the left is really not much different between the United States and South Korea. The only difference lies in the degree of threat posed by the left to the established order—mostly unremitting in South Korea and only occasional in the United States; accordingly, the United States appears to be the more liberal society, but is only freer when it’s not facing a perceived threat of significance from the left, or, these days, from the efforts of jihadists to end US domination of their homelands. The latter, it will be acknowledged, has spurred multiple efforts to scale back civil liberties.
Under the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, both liberals—and Kim, himself a victim of the NSL—the South Korean police state’s war on the left was throttled back. All the same, the NSL remained on the books, and leftists continued to be arrested for NSL-violations, though in more modest numbers. Liberals may have reduced the vigor of the war on leftism, but never called it off.
Rather than being the death of democracy, the suppression of the UPP, the jailing of a handful of its members, and efforts to intimidate its former members by threatening to designate them as anti-state activists, represent attempts to abort efforts to bring a real democracy to life in South Korea. Perhaps, it is the North Koreans themselves, watching from across the 38th parallel, who have summed up the eruption of anti-leftism centered on the UPP most aptly. “It is a political coup d’état aimed at stamping out the progressive forces desirous of independence, democracy and peaceful reunification” .
1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012.
2. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leaders accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.
3. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.
4. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 355.
5. Choe Sang-hun, “Nominee for South Korean premier exits over colonization remark,” The New York Times, June 24, 2014.
6. Amnesty International recommends that “South Korea abolish or substantially amend the NSL in line with the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments.” “The National Security Law: Curtailing freedom of expression, and association in the name of security in the Republic of Korea,” 2012.
7. Human Rights Watch says that “The law clearly violates South Korea’s international human-rights obligations” KaySeok, “South Korea: Abolish or Fix National Security Law,” Joongang Daily, September 17, 2010.
8. “National Security Law again being used in communist witch hunts,” The Hankyoreh, January 13, 2015.
9. Diane Kraft, “South Korea’s National Security Law: A tool of oppression in an insecure world,” Wisconsin International Law Journal, 2006, Vol. 4, No 2.
10. “Police crack down on Cheonan rumors,” The Korea Herald, May 24, 2010.
12. “Man acquitted, 30 years later for ‘subversive books’ on capitalism and revolution,” The Hankyoreh, November 26, 2014.
13. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.
14. “Military expands book blacklist,” The Hankyoreh, July 31, 2008.
15. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korean takes to Twitter and YouTube,” The New York Times, August 17, 2010.
16. Choe Sang-hun, “Korea policing the Net. Twist? It’s south Korea,” The New York Times, August 12, 2012.
17. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean indicated over Twitter posts from North,” The New York times, February 2, 2012.
18. Choe Sang-hun, “An artist is rebuked for casting South Korea’s leader in an unflattering light,” The New York Times, August 30, 2014.
19. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun.: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. p. 365.
20. Choe Sang-hun, “Prosecutors raid South Korean spy agency in presidential election inquiry,” The New York Times, April 30, 2013.
21. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
22. Choe Sang-hun, “Former South Korean spy chief convicted in online campaign against liberals,” The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
23. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean law casts wide net, snarling satirists in hunt for spies,” The New York Times, January 7, 2012.)
24. “South Korea Police State: National Intelligence Service (NIS) Arrests Rep. Lee Seok-ki: Did ROK Lawmaker Really Try to Overthrow the Government?” Global Research News, October 1, 2013.
25. Choe Sang-hun, “Leftist leader accused of trying to overthrow South Korean government,” The New York Times, August 28, 2013.
26. Jamie Doucette and Se-Woong Koo, “Distorting Democracy: Politics by Public Security in Contemporary South Korea [UPDATE]”, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, February 20, 2014.
27. Kwon Eun-jung, “Top 10 chaebol now almost 80% of Korean economy,” The Hankyoreh, August 28, 2012.
28. Domineco Losurdo. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Verso. 2011. p. 10.
29. “Park Geun Hye Branded as ‘Yusin’ Dictator, KCNA, December 26, 2014.
Flipping idly through my morning newspaper, my eyes fell upon a headline, which, given its significance, should have appeared on the front page, but instead was tucked away at the back, on page A9.
“Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran”. (1)
Now, it’s true that Israel’s threatening to attack Iran is hardly news. Here was Ehud Barak, Israeli defense minister, over two years ago, talking about measures to dissuade Iran from continuing to process uranium: “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table. This is our policy. We mean it.” (2) And here was Barak just the other day: “We strongly believe that…no option should be removed from the table.” (3) Same defense minister. Same words. Same threat.
Yet while the threat may be old, its significance remains undiminished. One country is threatening to commit the supreme international crime: to attack another even though it, itself, has not been attacked by the country it rattles its saber at. Were Iran to threaten Israel, the headline “Iran won’t rule out attack on the Jewish state” wouldn’t be tucked away inconspicuously in the back pages of my newspaper. Instead, it would be shouted in bold letters across the front page. “My God!”, NATO state officials and editorialists would cry. “Iran is threatening to attack the Jewish state. Something must be done!”
But in this case it is Israel that is issuing the threat against a country which has, since its escape from US domination in 1979, been limned as dark and menacing, and so while no one wants war, surely it’s all perfectly understandable that the plucky Israelis should be declaring their determination to stand against the Judeophobic menace of the Islamic Republic. After all, isn’t Iran building nuclear weapons to wipe Israel off the map? Well, if you listen to the Israelis and their US protector, the answer is yes.
The Strangelovian Israeli historian Benny Morris declares that Israel is “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders.” To eclipse this threat, Iran must be wiped off the map before Iran does any wiping of its own. “Israel has no option,” Morris chillingly says, “but to use its nuclear arsenal to destroy Iran, unless the US uses its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities first.” (4)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns: “Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to realize that goal (the obliteration of the Jewish state), and until now the world has not stopped it. The threat to our existence, is not theoretical. It cannot be swept under the carpet; it cannot be reduced. It faces us and all humanity, and it must be thwarted.” (5)
Ominous. But the idea that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons to obliterate Israel is pure flummery; a work of fiction, intended to create a frisson of fear.
So, why do I say this? First, we don’t know whether Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, or only the capability of producing them, or even that. An International Atomic Energy Agency report, released yesterday, tables evidence that Iran is secretly working on a nuclear bomb. So let’s assume for the moment that Iran’s leaders do indeed intend to build nuclear weapons.
It’s widely agreed that it’s highly unlikely that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons while its nuclear energy program is still under the scrutiny of UN inspectors. A more likely scenario is that Tehran would develop the capability to produce a bomb from within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and once it had reached the point of being able to do so, would turn its capability into reality by withdrawing from the treaty, ejecting inspectors, and making a mad dash to develop a rudimentary arsenal. That’s what North Korea did, when, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States decided to re-target some its nuclear missiles from the USSR to the DPRK.
But would Iran ever get as far as being able to make a mad dash to status as the world’s newest nuclear-weapons state? The United States and Israel have made plenty of noise about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before Iran’s nuclear scientists ever reach the point of having the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been trotted out anew because the steps the United States and Israel have taken to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program–from the Stuxnet computer virus to the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists to punitive sanctions–haven’t stopped the program’s development, although they have certainly slowed it.
But let’s make another assumption. Let’s assume that despite US and Israeli efforts to cripple Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran, despite these impediments, brings this capability to fruition, and furthermore, manages against the concerted opposition of the United States and Israel to develop a few nuclear warheads. Does the possession of warheads mean that Iran will use them–either to wipe Israel off the map or attack the United States?
No, it does not.
The idea that Iran is an “existential” threat to Israel comes from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged promise to wipe Israel off the map. US and Israeli political leaders have been invoking this chestnut for years to justify the assassinations, economic warfare, covert destabilization, and threats of military intervention used to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy program. The problem is, the allegation is groundless.
The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.
Specialists such as Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and Arash Norouzi of the Mossadegh Project pointed out that the original statement in Persian did not say that Israel should be wiped from the map, but instead that it would collapse.
Khamenei stated, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini] and stated several times by those responsible, is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” He went on to say in the same speech that “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”
Khamenei has been consistent, stating repeatedly that the goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but “the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a ‘popular referendum.’” (6)
To be sure, anyone who regards Israel as a “cancerous tumor” that “must be uprooted from the region” and replaced by a government freely chosen by the people who lived in Palestine prior to its conquest by Zionist settlers, is an existential threat to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. But while the designation of Iran as an existential threat to the idea of Israel is literally true (in the sense that Iran doesn’t accept Zionism and therefore works against it by supporting such anti-Zionist groups as Hamas), the phrase “existential threat” is twisted to mean something more than intended: military destruction rather than collapse through a referendum.
Political leaders are in the habit of presenting non-threats into dire ones. A not particularly egregious example is provided by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, needing to defend the Pentagon’s Brobdignagian budget against possible cuts, recently “cited North Korea and Iran as persistent threats, and said that the military had to maintain ‘the ability to deter and defeat them.’” (7) Yet North Korea and Iran are not threats to the physical safety and welfare of a single US civilian.
First, Iran’s military is built for self-defense. It doesn’t have aircraft carriers, a large fleet of warships, strategic bombers, foreign military bases or a naval presence near US waters. The United States, by contrast, bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, within shouting distance of Iran, directly across the Persian Gulf. Iranian warships won’t be found lingering menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico or patrolling the edges of US territorial waters.
Second, a graph nearby shows that Iran’s military spending, at $20B per annum, pales in comparison to the budgets of the United States ($700B) and even that of the United States’ regional allies ($102B). The US military budget is 35 times larger than Iran’s, and the sum of that of the United States, its invariable co-belligerent the United Kingdom, and Washington’s regional allies, is 43 times larger. The gulf in fighting ability supported by these expenditures is as yawning as the one between the New York City Police Department and a troop of Boy Scouts armed with BB guns.
As regards North Korea, the idea that it is a threat to the security of a single US civilian is even more absurd. Like Iran, North Korea’s military is built for defense, and it too has no foreign military bases, no aircraft carriers, no nuclear armed submarines and no strategic bombers, and it has never—unlike its compatriot neighbor to the south—sent troops abroad to fight in other country’s wars (as South Korean troops have fought in US wars.)
North Korean military expenditures are even more modest than Iran’s. Pyongyang spends an estimated $10B on its military (and that’s probably stretching it), many of whose members are engaged in agriculture and other civilian activities. (8) By comparison, South Korea (on whose soil are resident close to 30,000 US troops), spends $39B, while nearby Japan (home to 40,000 US troops) spends $34B. Together, these two US allies outspend Pyongyang on their militaries by a factor of 7 to 1. Add to this US defense expenditures and those of Britain—a country that can be counted on to docilely follow the United States into any war–and North Korea, surrounded by US troops and warships and whose air borders are incessantly menaced by the US Air Force, is outspent over 80 to 1. A threat? The claim is laughable.
And that understates the imbalance. What military budgets don’t reveal is the vastly superior destructive power of US military hardware (and that of many of its allies) compared to Iran’s and North Korea’s. The kill capacity of US strike aircraft, cruise missiles, and battleships is far in excess of the heavy artillery that figures so prominently in the North Korean armamentarium, for example.
And then there’s nuclear weapons. North Korea may (or may not) have an arsenal of a few warheads, and Iran may (or may not) be seeking one, but these rudimentary collections pale in comparison with the US, British, and Israeli arsenals arrayed against them. Would Iran attack Israel, or North Korea attack South Korea, with one or two nuclear missiles, knowing that to do so would invite a retaliatory tsunami of missiles from the target (in the case of an attack on Israel) or its hyper-armed patron, the United States, or both? The outcome of so foolhardy an attack would be game-over for either country.
“During the Democratic primaries, then candidate Hilary Clinton (now US Secretary of State) warned that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran.” (9) Three years ago, Israeli “Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer went on record saying, ‘We must tell them: ‘If you so much as dream of attacking Israel, before you even finish dreaming there won’t be an Iran anymore.’” (10) It’s doubtful that the Iranians failed to get the message.
And then there’s the matter of Washington’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If read superficially, the NPR would lead one to believe that US policy makers have finally figured out that the cardinal rule of nonproliferation is to abjure military aggression against non-nuclear states. Countries that aren’t threatened by nuclear powers have no need to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense. However, a closer reading of the review shows that nothing has changed. US president Barack Obama has stayed true to form, obscuring his pursuit of his predecessors’ policies beneath honeyed phrases that create the impression of change, where no change of substance exists.
The NPR declares “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states”, even if they attack the United States, its vital interests or allies and partners with chemical or biological weapons. This differs, but only on the surface, from the policy of preceding administrations which refused to renounce the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. There are a number of reasons why the difference is apparent only.
While nuclear weapons are widely regarded as unparalleled in their destructive power, the United States is able to deliver overwhelming destructive force through its conventional military capabilities. A promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states is not the same as an assurance not to use or threaten to use devastating military force. Six decades ago it was possible to obliterate a city through conventional means, as the Western Allies demonstrated in the firebombing of Dresden. If a city could be destroyed by conventional means more than half a century ago, imagine what the Pentagon could do today through conventional forces alone. Indeed, the NPR makes clear that the United States is prepared to shrink its nuclear arsenal partly because “the growth of unrivalled U.S. conventional military capabilities” allows Washington to fulfill its geostrategic goals “with significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”
The NPR also provides a number of escape hatches that allow Washington to continue to dangle a nuclear sword of Damocles over the heads of Iran and North Korea. One is that nuclear weapons can be used, or their use threatened, against a country that is not “party to the NPT” even if the country doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, or it is unclear whether it does. This is the North Korea escape clause. It allows Washington to continue to threaten North Korea with nuclear obliteration, just as it has done since the early 1990s when the US Strategic Command announced it was re-targeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles on the DPRK (the reason why North Korea withdrew from the NPT.)
Another escape clause allows Washington to reach for the nuclear trigger whenever it deems a country to have fallen short of “compliance with [its] nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” even if the country doesn’t have nuclear weapons and is a party to the NPT. This is the Iran escape hatch, intended to allow Washington to maintain the threat of nuclear annihilation vis-à-vis Iran or any other country Washington unilaterally declares to be noncompliant with the treaty’s obligations.
As for the United States’ commitment to refrain from reaching for its nuclear arsenal in response to a chemical or biological attack on itself, its vital interests (a term that defies geography and democracy, for how is it that the United States’ vital interests extend to other people’s countries?) its allies and its partners, this too is verbal legerdemain. As a careful reading of the NPR makes clear, the truth of the matter is that the United States will attack any country with nuclear weapons if such an attack is deemed necessary by Washington to protect its interests. According to the NPR, “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in [its commitment] that may be warranted…” Translation: We won’t attack non-nuclear weapons states with nuclear weapons unless we decide it’s in our interests to do so.
Finally, we need to ask whether either Iran or North Korea have a motive to attack the United States, and whether Iran has a motive to attack Israel. Iran’s leaders may abhor the Zionist conquest of what they see as territory important to Islam, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to take on a suicide mission to deal a one- or two-nuclear missile blow to Israel—one which, by the way, probably wouldn’t destroy Israel, but would in all likelihood elicit a hail of retaliatory blows that would produce devastating damage to Iran. As for tangling with the United States, neither Iran nor North Korea want that. What they want is peaceful coexistence—to be left alone to develop in their own way.
The trouble is, the United States hasn’t the barest interest in peaceful coexistence, and the reason why is the key, not only to understanding US foreign policy, but to understanding why a US-led NATO spent months bombing Libya to drive Muamar Gaddafi from power.
But first, a digression. Critiques of US foreign policy often involve exposes of US hypocrisy. For example, critics might point out that the United States defends Israel, which has nuclear weapons and doesn’t belong to the NPT, while threatening to attack Iran, which belongs to the NPT, and doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Or that NATO bombed Libya to prevent the government there from using its military to put down an uprising but condoned Bahrain and Saudi Arabia using their militaries to put down an uprising in Bahrain. Some critics stop there, reasoning that if they’re going to muster opposition to US foreign policy, it’s enough to show that it’s built on hypocrisy. Or they show US behavior to be immoral, undemocratic or against international law and figure that showing this will rouse the indignation of people of good conscience. Other US foreign policy critics cogently show why US foreign policy couldn’t possibly be guided by the objectives US leaders say it is. But they stop there, leaving their audiences to scratch their heads, wondering, if not for the reasons stated, then why?
Liberals insist that US foreign policy makes no sense and that US leaders are confused, myopic, poorly motivated, or just plain dumb. An example of this point of view is offered by former US president Jimmy Carter, who contends that the conflict with North Korea can be resolved in half a day (11). Apparently US leaders have neither the political will nor smarts to do so.
The truth of the matter is that there is nothing to be gained for the corporations, investors and banks that dominate US foreign policy—the one percent who really matter in the United States–from peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Peaceful coexistence implies that each side poses a threat to the other, but North Korea, despite the rhetorical nonsense of political leaders seeking to justify Pentagon budgets, poses no threat to the United States. A $10B defense budget against a $700B one; aging aircraft whose pilots are grounded most of the time due to shortages of fuel; a puny arsenal of nuclear weapons; an army whose training time is partly displaced by engagement in farming; the most sanctioned country on earth, whose economy has been crippled by six decades of US economic warfare; a country of 24 million hemmed in to the south and east by US allies and US troops; no, North Korea is not a threat.
So how is it that peaceful coexistence would deliver anything in the way of improved security for Americans, which they already have in abundance anyway? It wouldn’t. The demand for peaceful coexistence is little more than a Quixotic plea from Pyongyang to be left alone to develop in a self-directed manner in exchange for giving up a few nuclear weapons that at best, are, to use an Edward Herman term, a “threat of self-defense.” The benefits of peaceful coexistence are all on the North Korean side.
What does the United States get for promising to leave North Korea to develop in its own way? An open door for exports and investments? North Korea’s integration into a US-dominated system of global capitalism? US troops on North Korean soil? North Korea’s incorporation into a US-led military alliance against China? No. What it gets is North Korea giving up a deterrent to attack in exchange for the United States promising not to attack. This is a one-sided deal. No wonder North Korea wants it, and Washington keeps turning it down. David Straub, director of the US State Department’s Korea desk from 2002 to 2004 sums up nicely why peaceful coexistence isn’t on Washington’s Korea agenda. “North Korea’s closed economic and social system means the country has virtually nothing of value to offer the United States.” (12) What the United States wants from North Korea (an open door to investment, exports, ownership and political influence) is the opposite of what North Korea offers (a closed door and a prickly sense of independence—both political and economic). Washington abandoned the policy of peaceful coexistence with the USSR, which was militarily strong enough to make the US a miserable place if the Pentagon ever decided to start a US-Soviet war. So why would it accept peaceful coexistence with a hated closed system that poses a minor threat at best?
Other critics of US foreign policy explain their subject in terms of power. US leaders want to preserve or expand US power (or primacy or hegemony) against such “peer competitors” as China or Russia or such regional powers as Iran. Of course, it’s never said what US leaders (or Chinese or Russian leaders) want power for. To believe these critics, power is what everyone wants, and the quest for it, as an end in itself, is what makes the world go around. But the trick here is to inquire into why power is sought. Washington doesn’t seek to enlarge its power to strong-arm governments around the world into furnishing their citizens with public healthcare, guaranteed employment and free education. On the contrary, it seeks power to do the very opposite. Power serves some end, and in the case of US state power, it serves the end of protecting and enlarging the big business interests of the big business people who run the state of a big business country; it protects profits and establishes the conditions that allow them to grow—both at home and overseas.
It’s curious that the power-is-the-alpha-and-omega-of-world-politics view should hold such a strong sway among critics of US foreign policy, when in the internal affairs of capitalist countries the organizing principle is private business, and the alpha and omega of private business, is profits. Sure, it’s understood that business leaders want power, but not so they can lord it over others, and take pleasure in its trappings, but so they can enlarge their capital. Power is a means to an end.
So why should foreign policy be any different? The moment Gaddafi was toppled by NATO bombs, a stream of NATO foreign ministers traipsed to Benghazi, their countries’ corporate CEOs in tow, to line up new business deals. It was clear the National Transitional Council (NTC), whose key members—one, an exile who had been teaching economics in the United States for years; another, who earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran; and a third, who had been living within hailing distance of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before being spirited back to Libya– would be a good deal more accommodating of US business interests than Gaddafi had ever been. For all his turning over a new leaf to befriend the West, Gaddafi had irked the US State Department by practicing “resource nationalism” and trying to “Libyanize” the economy, (13) which is to say, turn foreign investment to the advantage of Libyans. His threat in 2009 to re-nationalize Libya’s oil fields, stirred up old fears. (14) Now, the NTC—with its US-friendly principals–promises juicy plums to the countries whose bombs ousted Gaddafi.
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, channeling the ghost of uber-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, acknowledged that Libyan oil was “the jewel in the crown” but that there would be broader profit-making opportunities to lay hold of, now that Gaddafi had been bombed from power. Even “in Qaddafi’s time,” he observed, the Libyans “were starting from A to Z in terms of building infrastructure and other things. If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” (15) US Senator John McCain, for his part, noted that “American investors were watching Libya with keen interest and wanted to do business” in Libya as soon as the country was pacified. (16)
The New York Times’ Scott Shane summed up the excitement.
Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.
A week before Colonel Qaddafi’s death on Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the Transitional National Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli. (17)
Shane’s summing up provides a pretty good account of what the NATO bombing campaign had been all about, with one exception. Western security, construction and infrastructure companies aren’t turning their sights on Libya because it is now free of four decades of dictatorship, but because it is now free of four decades of economic nationalism—an economic nationalism that once privileged Libyans over Western banks, investors and corporations. The country is now open for business…on the West’s terms.
The view that US foreign policy is shaped by considerations related to preserving and enlarging profit-making opportunities for investors, banks and corporations headquartered in the United States is based on two realities.
• The formulation of US foreign policy is dominated by the CEO’s, corporate lawyers and major investors who circulate between Wall Street and Washington.
• The countries that the United States has singled out for regime change, without exception, pursue self-directed economic policies aimed at fostering self-development and therefore deny or limit US investment and export opportunities.
Every rich country, with the exception of Britain, became rich through active state intervention in their economies to create industries, subsidize them and protect them from competition while they grew. The United States, as much as Germany, Japan, and other now rich industrialized countries, followed this path. (18) At one point, the United States had the world’s highest tariff barriers, which it used to shelter its nascent manufacturing industries against competition from established British firms. As protected industries matured under the guiding hand of a dirigiste state, they naturally sought to expand beyond their borders, as the possibilities offered by national markets were exhausted. Now, the policies that served their development so ably in the past, became fetters. Rather than protected markets at home, they needed open markets abroad. Poor countries couldn’t be allowed to emulate the policies that made the rich countries rich, because state-ownership, subsidies and trade barriers would eclipse the further development of the once protected industries of the rich countries. Poor countries would have to open themselves up as fields for exploitation by the banks, investors and corporations of the rich countries that had grown fat on the dirigiste policies some poor countries were now seeking to emulate.
A glance through the US Library of Congress’s country study on Iran reveals a truth that US officials never mention and that US foreign policy critics seem unaware of. Iran is not the kind of place an enterprising US business can hope to make money in. “The public sector dominates the economic scene, and the subordination of the private sector is observed in all industries and commerce.” (19) Worse, “Public-sector investments in transportation…utilities, telecommunications, and other infrastructure have grown over time.” (20) “The government plays a significant role in Iran’s economy, either directly through participation in the production and distribution of goods and services, or indirectly through policy intervention.” (21) Indeed, Iran’s constitution defines the public sector as primary, and “the private sector as the means of furnishing the government’s needs rather than responding to market requirements.” (22) Democratic socialists will be shocked to discover that this is the very same economic model that such New Left socialists as Ralph Miliband defined as emblematic of what a democratic socialism ought to be (which isn’t to say that Iran is a democratic socialist state, only that economically it is very close to what many socialist thinkers have envisaged for Western socialism.) In any event, it will be conceded that any economy that bears even a passing resemblance to that favored by radical democratic socialists is not likely to get a ringing endorsement from the kinds of people who formulate US foreign policy.
Other reasons why Iran’s economic policies are likely to have provoked the animosity of the US State Department: Despite its leaders making noises about going on a privatizing binge, Iran’s public sector has soberly grown rather than shrunk. (23) What’s more, large sectors of Iran’s economy remain off-limits to private ownership. ”Since the Revolution, the government has retained monopoly rights to the extraction, processing, and sales of minerals from large and strategic mines.” (24) Iran’s “agricultural policy is intended to support farmers and encourage production of strategically important crops” (25), not to open doors to US agribusiness. ”After the Revolution, many transportation companies, banks, and insurance companies were nationalized” (26) while price controls and subsidies have been used to make important consumer goods affordable (though many subsidies have been lifted recently.)
Wall Street and the US State Department dislike state-owned enterprises that serve the self-directed development goals of independent foreign countries, because they displace private investment by US capital. They abhor the practice of foreign governments subsidizing and protecting local business enterprises because it makes the task of US firms competing in overseas markets more difficult, and thereby limits the overseas profits of US firms. They revile regulations that protect local populations from pollution, desperation wages and deplorable working conditions, because they cut into profits. Some or all of these practices form significant parts of the economic policies of every country in the cross-hairs of US foreign policy, including Libya under Gaddafi and Iran today.
Washington doesn’t want to bring about a change of regime in Tehran to install a pliant government that will help expand US power. It wants to bring about a change of regime in Tehran that will cancel economic policies aimed at Iran’s self-development and replace them with policies that will open up the country’s resources, markets, labor and land to US banks, corporations and investors. It wants the holy trinity of free-trade, free-enterprise and free-markets at the center of poor countries’ economic policies, not protected trade, not state-owned and subsidized enterprises, and not trade barriers. (But while preaching the holy trinity abroad, the United States reserves the right to deploy subsidies, impede imports, and rely on state-intervention to support key industries at home. Consistency doesn’t matter. Profits do.)
To reach the goal of turning Iran into a country that can disgorge a bonanza of profits to US corporations and investors, Iran must first be denied the capability of mounting an effective defense against military intervention by the United States and its allies. It is for this reason that the United States and its Middle Eastern Doberman, Israel, have embarked upon a program of sabotage, assassinations and threats of aerial bombing aimed at crippling even the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The idea that Tehran is bent on lobbing a few nuclear-tipped missiles toward Israel, to complete what the Fuhrer had left undone, is demagogic nonsense, intended to provide a compelling justification for aggression against Iran. Evoking Hitler’s campaign of genocide against the Jews to invest contrived existential threats with gravitas has been a standard operating procedure of Zionist leaders dating to 1948. (27) Iran has no intention of attacking Israel, and would commit suicide if it did, a reality we can be certain has not escaped its leaders’ ken.
All of this to say that in order to understand US foreign policy it’s necessary to examine who rules in the United States, who formulates its foreign policy, and how the policy the rulers formulate intersects with their economic interests. (28) This is an inquiry into class. For if an economic elite dominates foreign policy, we should expect to find that the outcomes of foreign policy favor elite economic interests, and that foreign countries that pursue economic policies that are not agreeable to those interests will be harassed, sabotaged, sanctioned, destabilized, and possibly bombed or invaded, until the policies are changed.
It may be objected that the cost to the United States of military intervention in Iran would surely exceed any economic gain that would accrue to the country as a whole. For liberals, this would count as evidence that US foreign policy makers had once again made an error. For others, it would stand as a challenge to the idea that a war on Iran would be a war for profits.
But the costs of military intervention are what economists call externalities—costs created by a firm, an industry or a class, but borne by others. Hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure injection of fluids into rock to release fossil fuels—creates costs in water pollution and wear and tear on roads used by trucks and heavy machinery. If these costs are internalized—borne by the oil companies whose activities have created them—then hydraulic fracturing makes no sense economically–its costs exceed its returns. But if the costs are externalized—left to society as a whole to absorb—hydraulic fracturing becomes an attractive way for oil companies to turn a profit. (29)
Here’s the parallel with military intervention. The giant engineering firm Bechtel would absorb virtually none of the costs of a successful war on Iran, but if one happens, Bechtel is likely to reap enormous profits in contracts to rebuild the infrastructure that the US Air Force would raze to the ground. For Bechtel, then, US military intervention in Iran would be highly profitable, even though it might not make sense economically when viewed from the perspective of the United States as a whole. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon—the top five defense contractors–don’t foot the Pentagon’s massive $700B per annum bill, but large portions of that budget are transferred to them in the form of contracts for military hardware. While bloated military expenditures make no sense from the point of view of the country as a collectivity, major defense contractors reap enormous profits from them.
The problem, then, of arguing that military intervention in Iran would make no sense because the costs would exceed the economic gains that would accrue to the United States as a whole, is failure to recognize that the country is class-divided, and that the gains of war are internalized within the dominant class while the costs are externalized to the bottom 99 percent. Hence, war doesn’t make sense for the bulk of us, but the problem is that decisions about military expenditures, foreign policy and war are in the hands of the top one percent and their loyal servants, who privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. When liberals say US foreign policy makes no sense, they’re being misguided by a set of erroneous assumptions: that the United States has only one class, the middle-class, that it is not class-divided, that everyone within it has the same middle-class interests, and that the state rules in the interests of all.
Like all US wars, the war on Iran of sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and saber-rattling is a class war. It is a war of class in two respects. First, it is waged on behalf of a class of bankers, major investors, and corporate titans, to knock down walls in Iran that deny this elite access to markets and investment opportunities. Second, it is a war carried out on the back of a class of employees, pensioners, unemployed, and armed forces members—the bottom 99 percent–who bear the cost, through their taxes (and in the future their lives.)
The aim is to install local politicians, most of whom have been educated at US universities where they have been instilled with imperialist values, who can, assisted by US advisors, make over Iran into an agricultural, natural resources, low-wage appendage of the US economy in the service of Wall Street and the class of owners and high-level managers who occupy its commanding heights. In short, a war for profits.
1. Adam Blomfield, “Israel won’t rule out attack on Iran,” The Ottawa Citizen, November 7, 2011.
2. Associated Press, July 27, 2009.
4. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.
5. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid,’ ex-spy chief says”, The New York Times, May 8, 2011.
6. Glenn Kessler, “Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?” The Washington Post, October 6, 2011.
7. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
8. Bruce Cumings. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
9. Mark Landler, “Iran policy now more in sync with Clinton’s views,” The New York Times, February 17, 2010.
10. Mazda Majidi, “What lies behind US policy toward Iran?” Liberation, June 12, 2008.
11. Tim Beal. Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press.2011. p. 71.
12. Kim Hyun, “US ‘Has No Intention to Build Close Ties with N Korea’: Ex-official,” Yonhap News, September 2, 2009.
13. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
14. Thomas Walkom, “What Harper and co. got from the Libyan war”, The Toronto Star, October 21, 2011.
15. David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. reopens its embassy in Libya”, The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
16. Kareem Fahim and Rick Gladstone, “U.S. Senate delegation offers praise and caution to Libya’s new leaders”, The New York Times, September 29, 2011.
17. Scott Shane, “West sees opportunity in postwar Libya for businesses”, The New York Times, October 28, 2011.
18. Erik S. Reinert. How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor. Public Affairs. New York. 2007; Ha-Joon Chang. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
19. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. p. 143. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
20. Iran: A Country Study, p. 145.
21. Iran: A Country Study, p. 150.
22. Iran: A Country Study, p. 151.
23. Iran: A Country Study, p. 152.
24. Iran: A Country Study, p. 167.
25. Iran: A Country Study, p. 170.
26. Iran: A Country Study, p. 181.
27. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications. 2006.
28. Albert Szymanski. The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class. Winthrop Publishers. 1978.
29. Paul Krugman, “Here comes the sun,” The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
I recognize that in my views and even use of certain phrases that I have been influenced by Michael Parenti, and that needs to be acknowledged here. Of particular influence is Parenti’s latest book, The Face of Imperialism, Paradigm Publishers, 2011 and his earlier Against Empire, City Light Books, 1995.